Food on the Move
The idea of gourmet dining street style
has made the term “food truck”synonymous
with fast, cheap, but really good mobile fare.
Here’s a close look at what has become
a culinary force to be reckoned with.
On a Roll: The Business of Food Trucks
Eden Egziabher had years of restaurant experience as a bartender, hostess and server. After getting her MBA, she knew she wanted to launch a food business—but renting commercial space in New York City made opening a restaurant expensive. “I didn’t want a partner, so I was doing it on my own,” she says.
Instead of a restaurant, Egziabher, 35, decided to test her fast-casual concept with a food truck; Makina Café launched in August 2017. Born in Ethiopia to parents of Eritrean heritage, Egziabher grew up with influences from Ethiopian, Eritrean (Eritrea is a country just north of Ethiopia) and Italian cultures. Makina means truck in all three of those countries’ languages, and the truck serves habesha food from Eritrea and Ethiopia, in which a sourdough flatbread called injera is used as combination utensil/plate to hold stews and other foods. Egziabher loves sharing the cuisine with others.
Even with Egziabher’s experience in restaurants, opening the food truck was a bumpy ride at times. “When I was working in a restaurant, we didn’t have to deal with where to park and what streets are we allowed to park on? How do you get a permit?” she says. “All these things were completely different from a restaurant.”
She’s also dealt with parking tickets from the city and occasional disputes with other vendors over parking spots—and Egziabher isn’t alone in these frustrations. Since food trucks are still relatively new, regulations on this type of business haven’t caught up yet in some cities.
When Kurt Anderson, 38, launched Pretty Great Cheesecake, a mobile bakery, in July 2018, the process for licensing a food truck wasn’t clear. He initially applied for a license from the Minnesota Health Department. “They didn’t want anything to do with my business,” he says. “They categorized me as a bakery, and they pawned me off on the Department of Agriculture, so I had to start all over.” Fortunately, a license from the agriculture department turned out to be cheaper than one from the health department.
Another speed bump for Anderson and Pretty Great Cheesecake: Each city or county where he attends a festival or sells cheesecakes can have different ordinances. “I had to get a permit so I could sell cheesecakes out of my truck in my own driveway even though I’m licensed in my state,” Anderson says. Understanding each city or county’s requirements and securing a permit can be cumbersome.
Despite the bureaucracy, Anderson loves owning a food truck. “The best part of my day is watching somebody else eat [my cheesecakes],” he says. “People have never had a cheesecake the way I make it. Those aren’t typical cheesecake flavors. They’re more airy and light, not as rich.”
Anderson has a degree in food science, so he creates all the recipes himself and uses fresh ingredients like real vanilla or overripened bananas instead of vanilla or banana extract. The s’mores cheesecake is a customer favorite, but Anderson likes the pumpkin cheesecake himself.
Dallas Shaw, the 37-year-old owner of Hoss’ Loaded Burgers in the Nashville area, also enjoys interacting with customers. “On a food truck, you get the instant gratification of seeing how much people enjoy your food,” he says.
After working in corporate jobs, Shaw launched his first food truck, one of the first in the area, in 2011, and now has two trucks. He also launched a brick-and-mortar location earlier this year. “We had a lot of people who enjoyed us whenever the truck parks outside their business, but they’d say ‘I wish I could find you on any Saturday,’” he says. “That restaurant space is designed for that.”
For Shaw, the hardest part was securing a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. “With food trucks being so new, I had to go to multiple banks before I found one that understood the profitability of a food truck,” he says. Shaw had already sent a $4,000 deposit on the truck before finding out if his loan application was approved. After a sleepless night, he got the loan, which he’s since paid off.
While food trucks aren’t always understood by banks or city officials, customers love them for their novelty and the variety of food. “If I’d gone brick and mortar, I don’t think my business would have gotten that much recognition,” says Egziabher. “It adds a unique value to your brand… having a food truck is also its own free marketing.”
From Truck to Empire:
Cousins Maine Lobster
Cousins Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac launched Cousins Maine Lobster as a single food truck in 2012. Since then, they’ve appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and the company has grown to 34 trucks and over a dozen brick-and-mortar locations in the United States and Taiwan.
St. Martin’s Press published their book, Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business, last year. Tselikis shares the following tips for aspiring food truck owners.
>> Ask questions. Tselikis says humility worked in their favor. “We would ask millions of questions of financial people or insurance people or people who are going to help us market,” he says. “Learn from the best. It’ll help you build the business the right way.”
>> Book your truck. Hustling to keep the truck booked six to seven days a week in areas with plenty of foot traffic is essential to turning a profit, especially early on. “It’s gotta be out scheduled at the best events that you find,” Tselikis says.
>> Share your story. The cousins initially underestimated the power of their origin narrative. “Our love for our family is what the business is built on,” he says. “We put ‘family first’ on the back of our T-shirts. Customers see that and they feel good about what they’re buying.” He encourages other business owners to determine what’s unique about their business and spread that message. —Susan Johnston Taylor
Fresh Food on Wheels
It’s easy to take quality fresh food for granted if you live in a town with grocery stores on every street corner and you earn enough to pay top dollar.
But for many people, fresh vegetables are not easy to access or within reach economically. As a result, healthy eating and good nutrition can fall by the wayside in exchange for convenience and cheaper, but less healthy, alternatives.
Curation Foods is taking steps to solve both these problems with its new Good-to-Grow program.
“This is our pilot year for this program,” says Molly Hemmeter, president and CEO of the natural foods company (curationfoods.com), which is focused on innovating plant-based foods with 100% clean ingredients. She calls Good-to-Grow an “employee-led food truck initiative to reach neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food,” scheduled to launch in Detroit as this issue went to press. The company selected Detroit because an estimated 48% of households there are considered food insecure, meaning they lack the physical or financial access to safe and nutritious food every day.
Curation will begin by donating a variety of foods for their pilot program and will start with a single truck from their Bowling Green, Ohio, facility. “Our future program efforts will focus on bringing the mobile market into communities that don’t have access to fresh grocery options, and offering the food at a greatly discounted price,” says Hemmeter.
The foods will vary from event to event, says Hemmeter, depending on what is available at the facility. “But all are made with 100% clean ingredients.” The company’s primary focus will be on vegetables, such as cauliflower, broccoli, beans and bagged salads. Through the food truck—which enables the company to reach communities in need—Curation Foods can bring this mission to life, says Hemmeter, who notes, “Adding fresh ingredients like these can not only transform a meal but also help influence healthy habits for improved wellness.”
Taste Buds Take Flight at LAX
Gourmet food and airports don’t usually go hand-in-hand—travelers consider themselves lucky to score a fresh salad on a layover to their destination. People going through Los Angeles International Airport, however, may beg to differ.
Since its first indoor food truck launched in 2014, LAX’s Terminal 4 has boasted an array of upscale culinary delights created by popular chefs. The site, overseen by airport food-service company HMSHost, is an annually rotating installation of Los Angeles’s favorite chefs and most trendy trucks. When it’s time to swap out one operator for another, the truck’s exterior branded graphics can be easily and simply changed.
The concept combines the burgeoning popularity of food trucks with some of the most innovative cuisines the city has to offer, creating a unique dining experience on the go. The first three offerings were popular Kogi Korean BBQ by chef Roy Choi; the modern Mexican cuisine of Border Grill by co-owners and co-chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger; and Grilled Cheeze Please, which featured breakfast and lunch items.
Food & Bounty is the latest concept to take the wheel: Chef Helen Cavallo brings recipes from her catering company and restaurant at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood into the food truck.
Tired travelers need not worry about finding a spot to eat after getting their food. Guests can opt to sit in the nearby food court or grab a beverage from the front grill area of the truck and sit in the gatehold area of the backside of the truck for the full LA foodtruck experience.
Like its streetwise counterparts, the indoor food truck at LAX brings the same benefits: fast, delicious food suitable for eating out of hand.
Food Truck Primer
There are almost as many ways to lay out a food truck (what we show above is completely hypothetical) as there are food trucks, which are ideally “designed to whatever the owner wants” in terms of implementing the desired menu, says Sharone Klinger of Master Chef Mobile Kitchens in Brooklyn (masterchefnyc.com). It’s better to design first and then buy a truck, although Klinger does work with people who do it the other way around. However, he notes, that can lead to such compromises as having to go with smaller-than-ideal equipment, which may mean a sacrifice in peak production capacity.
Klinger says a buildout, which generally takes between eight and 12 weeks, can cost “75 grand and up.” That’s “cheaper than a restaurant,” says Ben Goldberg of the New York Food Truck Association (nyfta.org). “We’re talking exponentially cheaper—you could be talking several hundred thousand dollars for a restaurant.”
Lower initial costs aside, operating a food truck presents its own challenges, such as the need to comply with local laws and regulations. In New York, “you have to deal with tickets (as we’ll see on page 71), you have to deal with very strenuous regulations in hiring staff,” says Goldberg. “People used to rely on street sales, but they can’t really do that anymore.” The answer, he says, is catering, adding that NYFTA helps facilitate about 250 to 300 bookings for its members annually.
Food Trucks as TV Stars
With the success of everything food as a subject for television—Bravo’s “Top Chef” turned Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons into household names—it isn’t surprising that food trucks have gotten their turn in the spotlight. One of this year’s entries is “Food Truck Nation,” hosted by LA chef Brad Miller. In each episode, Miller visits three trucks and highlights the dishes that make each unique, from the Shrimp Surf Burger served up by the Billionaire Burger Boyz in Compton, California, to the unreal tacos cooked up by Minneapolis’s Flagsmash. As Miller puts it, “This is a chef’s dream to do this for a living.” Follow the show on Twitter @CookingChannel
A day in the life of a food truck vendor.
5:25 AM: Big D’s Grub Truck (one of two the company owns) pulls out of its Brooklyn storage yard after loading up on supplies, which were prepared at the on-premises kitchen. Each truck owner gets private storage and kitchen space, as well as use of communal facilities.
6:05 AM: The truck is parked on West 49th Street near Sixth Avenue. Final prep won’t start for hours, but spots are at a premium in Midtown Manhattan. Owner Dennis Kum spends this time setting up future catering jobs, saying, “If I didn’t have the catering, I’d probably be out of business by now.”
8:55 AM: Arturo Vidal (left) and Oscar Gonzalez (right) begin final prep for opening at 11 AM. Both men have been with Big D’s for years; each has to have his own health license. They chat in Spanish while the truck fills with the aroma of meat cooking on the two flattops.
9:15 AM: Prep continues as Vidal fills sauce containers. In addition to street sales and catering, Big D’s has also worked conventions such as Comic Con, where the truck will see 800 to 1,000 people a day. Kum “gets excited when people email me saying, ‘You did a good job.’”
9:30 AM: The daily ticket; some days there will be more. “The tickets alone will eat you alive,” Kum says. Some are written for not feeding the meter, others for selling food from a metered spot. Those aren’t the only expenses: Besides the Brooklyn rent, Kum just spent $10,000 on repairs for one truck.
11:40 AM: One of the first customers of the day. Big D’s has regulars, who follow the truck’s whereabouts on Twitter; one says she likes the truck because “the food’s good and it’s affordable for this neighborhood.” Kum notes, “Weather is huge. When it rains, it’s dead.”
12:20 PM: A line forms. Inside, the men move in a kind of ballet born of working together for years: Vidal dresses a grinder; Gonzalez lifts fries from the deep fryer and pours them into a container; Kum calls out customers’ names—Brian! Alex! Logan! Anything to drink, Drew?
1:30 PM: This Big D’s truck offers Asian fusion (the other truck does American
barbecue). One regular likes “the Korean meat. It’s good fusion.” He’s right: The spices in the spicy pork tacos pack a pleasant wallop, while the kimchi puree supplies a satisfying crunch.
2:30 PM: After the last customer leaves, it’s time to clean up. “By the time we’re done,” Kum says, “it looks like a tornado went through.” By 2:50 the truck heads back; by 3:30 it is in the courtyard wash bay, where it is hosed down, the water tank refilled and the waste tank emptied.