Montclair, NJ: From Four Wheels to Four Walls

STARTER VEHICLE Lynna Martinez, owner of the QBA food truck, spun it off into a restaurant in Montclair, N.J. QBA, pronounced Cuba, stands for “quick but authentic.” Emily Berl for The New York Times


STARTER VEHICLE Lynna Martinez, owner of the QBA food truck, spun it off into a restaurant in Montclair, N.J. QBA, pronounced Cuba, stands for “quick but authentic.” Emily Berl for The New York Times

THERE was a certain incongruity in the exchange that took place outside the Taco Truck restaurant here on St. Patrick’s Day.

After a vendor had pulled up, one of the partners went out and said, “ ‘I can’t have you parked right in front of my restaurant,’ ” Jason Scott, another co-owner, recalled. “ ‘Can you at least pull up so you’re not blocking my restaurant?’ ”

The vendor was a food truck. Until the restaurant opened in July, the Taco Truck was, as its name implies, strictly an on-wheels operation — one that found itself on the other end of local merchants’ requests to hit the road.

The Taco Truck is one of at least two New Jersey-based food trucks whose owners have recently opened brick-and-mortar restaurants. Another mobile operation, QBA, opened QBA: A Cuban Kitchen in Montclair in February.

“The truck was a way to develop our concept, gain a loyal following, refine our recipes and train the right staff while we looked for the perfect location,” said Mr. Scott, 31, of Hoboken, during a recent interview at the restaurant, a 900-square-foot space with 20 seats.

There, a few employees shuttled cases of food out the front door and into the rear of an orange truck, parked outside for the anticipated lunch-truck rush.

The mobile version of the Taco Truck began selling its $7-and-under menu of tacos, tortas and the like in October 2009, splitting its time between Hoboken and Jersey City. (It still operates in both locations.) Mr. Scott, one of five co-owners — his partners include Roberto Santibañez, a Mexico City native and former culinary director for the Rosa Mexicano restaurants in Manhattan — came to love Mexican fare during frequent trips to California and Mexico after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2002.

“What they have out there is nothing like what you can get on the East Coast,” said Mr. Scott, who grew up in Chatham. The owners of the Taco Truck plan to open a second outlet in Montclair by fall and three more New Jersey shops in 2012.

“We had a big vision from the beginning,” Mr. Scott said.

Before the truck burned through its first tank of gas, Mr. Santibañez was recruited to guarantee the authentic Mexican flavors and the quality of the food — the $5 pescado taco, made of catfish, Mexican slaw and pico de gallo, is especially popular, Mr. Scott said. The Montclair shop, like the Hoboken restaurant, will offer a few items not available on the truck, like chorizo con papas (a Mexican sausage taco with potato, crema and cilantro, $4.50) and the dessert camote con piña (a mash of yams with roasted pineapple and honey, $2.50).

“It’s a reason for people to come to the restaurant and not just the truck,” Mr. Scott said.

The truck may not be selling street food forever, in any case. “There’s so many rules and restrictions — I don’t know if I see the food truck trend lasting,” Mr. Scott said.

Lynna Martinez, 46, is well aware of the challenges of serving food on wheels. Before she opened the restaurant version of QBA — the letters stand for “quick but authentic” — she parked her QBA truck alongside other food trucks in the Exchange Place section of Jersey City. She also made several forays into Manhattan, where she did not have a license to operate but where she attracted favorable reviews online, after being chased from her Jersey City spot.

“Don’t let anybody kid you — the truck business is tough,” Ms. Martinez said recently from one of QBA’s front tables. Getting behind the wheel of one, though, which she did starting in February last year, ultimately allowed her to open QBA, pronounced “Cuba.”

“It proved to be a great prototype for a restaurant,” said Ms. Martinez, who scouted in Montclair for commercial space before buying her truck, but couldn’t afford a location.

The truck “let me establish the confidence that my product had credibility — people blogged about the food; they did Internet reviews,” she said.

“I got great publicity,” she added.

“That was all I needed to jump on this spot — it was really difficult to make a living on a truck,” she said.

Though the QBA truck was on hiatus as the restaurant got off the ground, Ms. Martinez said, it started making the rounds again in Jersey City last week.

Ms. Martinez, who has lived in Montclair for 17 years, is the sole proprietor of the 45-seat, 800-square-foot QBA. She aspires to build a Cuban version of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, a long-deferred dream. For financial reasons, she worked as an investment banker in Manhattan after graduating from business school at the University of Virginia in 1994. In 1999, she left banking to stay home with her daughter, who is now 20.

By 2009, when Ms. Martinez bought the truck, she was ready to revisit her restaurant fantasy.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could do for Cuban food what Ray Kroc did with McDonald’s?’ People love Cuban food,” said Ms. Martinez, who grew up in Miami in a Cuban family.

At QBA, customers especially like the ropa vieja (braised flank steak with peppers and onions in smoky paprika sauce, $8.25) and the mint mojito limeade ($1.75), which mixes nicely with rum or tequila, she said. (Both the Taco Truck and QBA are B.Y.O.)

Unlike the owners of the Taco Truck, who pooled their resources to open the restaurant, Ms. Martinez has relied heavily on friends to make QBA a brick-and-mortar reality. “My carpenter, my plumber and my electrician all deferred payment to help me get started,” she said. Her business model, however, is all her own: a limited, $10-and-under menu (“Complexity is a killer of franchises,” she said), as well as an operation that enables workers with little restaurant experience to assemble meals.

Ms. Martinez plans to look for additional QBA outlet spaces in airports and shopping centers in New Jersey and New York once she can show potential investors a profitable trend. First, she said, she has to deal with some growing pains.

A week before she was interviewed in late March, Ms. Martinez closed the restaurant for two days to deal with an inventory problem. “We basically need to have a better system in place for storage,” she said.

The layout has also posed a challenge in terms of the flow of operations.

“Store No. 2, I’ll look for an ideal layout,” she said.

Leveraging her truck into a restaurant has been a dream come true, Ms. Martinez said. But she recognizes that expanding the business may require the same fortitude she brought to steering the truck.

“I don’t seem to take the easy route,” she said.