By Jess Fleming | TwinCities.com
I recently was walking through Loring Park when I spotted Smack Shack, the local food truck popular for its lobster rolls.
Since the truck doesn’t circulate in St. Paul, I got excited and dragged my husband over, mouth watering.
To my chagrin, the truck was serving, but not to me.
Mini rolls stuffed with succulent little pieces of dressed lobster were being handed to a mob of hungry wedding guests. It was a private event, catered by truck.
Have you ever wondered how the dozens of food trucks that clutter the streets of the downtowns make a go of it, especially when there’s so much competition?
The answer is simple: Catering.
“When you get a truck, you do catering,” Smack Shack’s catering and events coordinator Keith Endres said. “Otherwise, you have the truck just sitting in a parking lot not making money.”
Food trucks cater to everything from intimate backyard shindigs to moderate weddings to large corporate parties. Just like a traditional caterer, they are paid upfront and plan for a set number of guests.
Smack Shack charges anywhere from $19 (boxed lunch) to $60 (lobster boil) a guest. Endres said they will serve any number of guests, but he does set a minimum dollar amount.
Each truck has different requirements and prices for catering.
Though food trucks are seeing more catering business, traditional caterers I talked to said they haven’t seen a downturn in their business due to food trucks.
“It doesn’t seem to directly affect us,” said Lancer Catering marketing director Jackie Northard.
So how does food truck catering work? Owners I talked to said they’ll serve from the truck, bring in platters of food or even offer traditional dinner service.
The party host reaps several advantages from serving out of the truck.
First, there’s the cool factor.
“It’s fun, and it fits with the artsy, hipster crowd,” said Ben Van Sistine of Worell, a local industrial design firm that recently hired Hola Arepa to cater a corporate party. “It’s not pretentious food, but it’s really good food.”
Hola Arepa pulled up to a set of open garage doors at the party, which was held in the company’s sleek, open warehouse space in Northeast Minneapolis.
Guests ordered and were served just like on the street, but they didn’t have to pay.
Sandwiches were still made to order.
“They’re excellent,” said party guest Nancy Giacchetti of Chanhassen while munching on a chicken arepa, which is Venezuelan street food. “I saw two women eating one and I had to have one. … We don’t work downtown, so I don’t see (the trucks), but I like the concept because they offer lots of variety.”
Van Sistine said he got lots of similar feedback from guests, and there was an unexpected social benefit.
“You’re standing around for a few minutes, waiting for your food, and you strike up a conversation with other people waiting that you probably wouldn’t have talked to otherwise,” he said.
Another advantage? Trucks bring their own kitchen.
“We already have the truck and the kitchen,” Endres said. “So logistically, all I have to do is roll up and serve. … I don’t have to bring propane tanks or hot plates.”
Business is booming as customers discover how convenient food truck catering is, said Chef Shack co-owner Carrie Summer.
“Everybody’s happy, then we pull away,” Summer said. “It’s no muss, no fuss. It’s the upper echelon of catering. It’s super popular.”
Both Summer and Potters Pasties owner Alec Duncan said private catering makes up at least 50 percent of their businesses.
“The word is definitely spreading,” Duncan said. “This year, we’ve had four times the number of catering gigs as we did last year.”
Duncan offered another reason to hire food trucks.
“You get to have the actual owner and chef work with you every step of the way and then actually serve you,” he said.
Jess Fleming can be reached at 651-228-5435. Follow her at twitter.com/jessflem.
TIPS FOR HAVING A FOOD TRUCK CATER YOUR EVENT
- Get out and try some trucks. There are food-truck courts on Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Follow @tcstreetfood on Twitter to keep track of trucks all over the Twin Cities.
- Once you’ve narrowed the field, call a few trucks and ask what they can do. Tell the professional, who has experience catering, about your event and let him or her make suggestions. Be specific about the number of attendees and your budget.
- Want something off the menu? Ask. Chefs run the trucks and they usually can accommodate special requests.
- Be prepared to pay catering prices. Food trucks might be a little less expensive, but you get what you pay for, and local trucks turn out seriously good food.