Abilene, TX: Mobile Food Vendors Revving Up

By Laura Gutschke | ReporterNews.com

A burgeoning trend in the food industry is rolling into Abilene.

As of October, the city had permitted 19 mobile food vendors this year, said Glenn Bailey, manager of the Environmental Health Division in the city’s Planning and Development Services. In 2010, 14 such permits were issued.

The division, which handles the inspecting and permitting of all food vendors, also has receive more inquiries about mobile permits than usual.

Some of the currently permitted vendors also have a permanent presence, such as Texas Steak Express and the Salvation Army. The latter’s mobile kitchen has been permitted for years, Bailey said.

But, others are like Rob DeKarske, who launched ShortBus Hotdogs in May 2009 out of a 1992 small school bus converted into a mobile restaurant that prepares food to order on site.

DeKarske worked several years in restaurants and aspired to have his own. After seeing the popularity of food trucks in other parts of the country, DeKarske opted to pursue his dream on a smaller scale.

Bailey added that the tighter economy and the Easter Sunday hailstorm also contributed to increased interest locally in mobile food establishments.

A truck avoided the capital-intensive option of buying a building or signing a long-term lease, DeKarske said.

DeKarske’s initial investment was $9,000, which included equipment, permitting fees and $3,000 for the bus. He had considered buying a ready-to-go food truck, but the cost was $25,000.

“I’d sooner lose $9,000 than $100 grand” on an established restaurant, DeKarke said.

A lower overhead also appealed to Jay Young, who began working in June to roll out a cook-to-order pizza truck.

He worked in a restaurant years ago and previously owned a gaming company in town.

Young said another advantage to operating a food truck is the ability to control and monitor expenses on a daily or weekly basis. For example, he expects that he will need three gallons of fuel to run daily the pizza truck’s generator. The monthly electrical bill on a fixed location sometimes can be shocking, he said.

City Regulations

In 1999 the city adopted a policy to automatically follow the Texas Food Establishment laws of the state as they are enacted, Bailey said.

This enables the city to stay on top of changing standards and vendors to operate in at least 75 percent of the state’s other cities that adhere only to the TFE standards, Bailey said.

Food trucks fall into one of five classifications. The specific permitting rules that apply depend in part on how and where the food is prepared, such as only in the truck, in a fixed kitchen and prepackaged for sale later, or a combination of the two.

Because of the intricacies of food permitting regulations, Bailey encourages aspiring vendors to talk with him early in the process about city requirements.

The city inspects the truck at start up and requires a $100 permitting fee due each calendar year. The mobile food vendors also are inspected at least one other time during the year.

Mobile trucks also have to abide by regulations of other city departments, such as zoning, streets and parks and recreation.

Some of the more challenging equipment requirements for start-up operators preparing food on a truck are a three-compartment sink, a separate hand-washing sink, hot and cold water tanks that dispense under pressure and a liquid waste retention tank that is 15 percent bigger than the potable water tank, Bailey said.

In January, the city will be updating its internal policies to be in compliance with TFE standards regarding the supplying of the trucks and preparation of any foods outside the vehicle, Bailey said. Depending on their operations, some trucks may have to store their supplies or prepare their foods in an inspected commercial kitchen, he said.

Start-Up Challenges

Launching a food truck business from scratch is labor and time intensive.

Both DeKarske and Young had to gut their vehicles to convert them to miniature kitchens.

“Once you empty it all out, you have a ton of room,” DeKarske said of his bus. He tows behind it a small trailer with a generator for electricity.

Young bought a 1989 Grumman delivery truck in Laredo, and its large size inspired him to name his business Beastro Pizza.

He is converting the truck into a kitchen that will bake pizzas to order using a rotating stone hearth inside a heavy-duty steel case with outside heat venting. The oven can reach up to 700 degrees, cooking a 15-inch pizza in about 75 seconds, Young said.

Like a home remodeling project that takes longer than planned, the conversion process presented unexpected hurdles that has delayed Young’s launch date.

The task has involved stripping two layers of paint (lime green on top of tan), polishing the aluminum finish to its original luster, replacing the clutch and flooring, installing an electrical system and new flooring, finding and setting up kitchen equipment and other upgrades.

Young plans to be operational by November.

Skills for Success

Operating a food truck requires many skills.

DeKarske said his previous restaurant experience has been invaluable in managing food costs and pricing products.

“That’s the biggest thing on a food truck – knowing your food costs,” DeKarske said.

Operators also have to be adaptable, personable with the general public and proficient at sales and promotion, DeKarske said. For example, he added nachos and Frito pie to his menu in response to customers.

Helping with the bookkeeping is his wife, Tasha McClain-DeKarske, who also works as a nurse.

After initially starting out part-time, DeKarske has been operating the truck full-time since March.

He sets up in private business parking lots (with the owner’s permission), street locations and at special events. Some businesses now contact him about catering private events.

“If I wanted to, I could run two food trucks now we stay so busy,” DeKarske said.

Despite the business challenges of daily operations, ultimately success is determined by the food, he said.

“I take a lot of pride in what I do. When they see the hot dog and say, ‘Wow! Wow!’, that is the best feeling,” DeKarske said.

Tips for Starting a Food Truck Business

* Visit with the city sooner rather than later. Understanding regulations in advance helps in configuring the truck and setting up operations correctly to safely serve food to the public.

* Manage your set-up costs. “Keep your start-up costs low. You don’t want to be in the hole for very long,” DeKarske said.

Young has traded meals for help in converting the truck from friends who are electricians and welders.

* Do your homework. Know your expected food costs. Practice preparing food from the truck for friends and family before going public.

Food trucks enjoyed around the U.S.

QSR Magazine, which tracks trends and breaking news in the restaurant industry, recently listed what it determined to be the top food trucks around the nation. Among theme were:

• Skillet, a Modern American cuisine truck in Seattle.

• Chef Shack, a Minneapolis truck that features seasonal fare from local family farms.

• Food Shark, from down the road a piece in Marfa, cooking up Mediterranean cuisine.

• Coolhaus, great ice cream sandwiches from this Austin food truck.

• Spencer on the Go!, alternative French cuisine is cooked up in this San Francisco truck.

• Mmmpanadas, another Austin truck, but this one specializes in empanadas.

• Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, a Washington, D.C.-based food truck with Indian tastes.

• Streetz, Milwaukee’s favorite pizza truck.

• Dim and Den Sum, Drew Carey’s Cleveland enjoys this truck’s American comfort food with an Asian flair.

• Maximum/Minimus, American favorites come out of the galley of this Seattle truck.

SOURCE: QSR Magazine at www.qsrmagazine.com/competition/america-s-top-20-food-trucks?page=show