By Emily Weiss | CityPages.com
Owners share tricks of the mobile-kitchen trade
While the phrase “So you want to start a food truck?” may sound like the title of the latest half-cocked Food Network reality show, it’s also a legitimate question being mulled over by every kind of food enthusiast, from the professional chef looking to expand his business to the skilled home cook with some start-up money and the ability to make a mean sausage/meatball/hot pocket. As a business plan, the concept seems simple: Have a great product, put it on wheels, and deliver it to droves of hungry customers. But owning and operating a mobile kitchen is a complicated undertaking that presents a unique set of challenges. There are permits to obtain and space issues to consider (both inside the truck and in the increasingly crowded marketplace), and you’re always one hailstorm or engine malfunction away from losing an entire day’s business.
Despite the obvious drawbacks, more than a dozen new trucks will join the Twin Cities’ mobile food fleet this spring and summer. Popular Kingfield Farmers Market vendor Foxy Falafel recently added a truck, as did the fantastic Northeast hangout the Anchor Fish and Chips. Brand-new trucks like Tot Boss (finally, an entirely tater-tot-centric eatery); Bloomy’s Classic, serving tender roast beef sandwiches; and Asian dumpling vendor Golden Tummy are among those throwing their hairnets into the ring this season, and new trucks seem to be announcing themselves on Twitter every day. So what is it that’s driving them? And how have the successful ones managed to get and stay that way? We talked with both new and well-established food truck owners about the meteoric development of this food trend and how they navigate this sometimes cutthroat business. So, if you’ve been dreaming about running your own food truck, here’s a little advice from the pros about the lessons they’ve learned and the pitfalls to avoid before you take the leap.
Lesson No. 1: It All Starts with the Money
Before you can even think about shopping around for exactly the right bun for your sliders, you’ll face the daunting tasks of securing funding and finding a vehicle that will fit your needs. For many new food trucks, the first step before hitting the streets is campaigning on Kickstarter, an online community-based platform for funding creative projects. Even with the help of a sizable loan (close to $36,000) from the local nonprofit Women Venture, Aussie’s Kebabs owner Chris Millner still needed about $3,000 for a down payment on a truck. The Kickstarter community proved very supportive, and backers actually exceeded Millner’s goal by about $130.
Pledges for Millner’s project started at a mere $5, though most chipped in at the $100 level, for which Millner offered a free kebab, T-shirt, personalized magnet, and the name of the backer and his or her city printed right on the trailer. Millner is hoping for a roll-out close to May.
Another new kid on the block, Neal Lenzmeier, owner of Neato’s Burgers, a truck specializing in duck-fat fries, drive-in-style burgers, and small-batch craft ice cream, took a more traditional approach to fundraising. “We went about getting funding from a number of private investors so that we wouldn’t have to take out loans just to pay back other bank loans,” Lenzmeier says. “Even after six months of research and writing, we went about $6,000 over budget.” Soon after, Lenzmeier and his business partner, Tony Gutierrez, found a truck in Ely that would fit their needs, but it was bare-bones. “We had to install the flooring, water tanks, and plumbing ourselves,” Lenzmeier says. “We purchased and installed a griddle, fryer, stainless walls, and the sink, and then hired a company to install the exhaust hood. So that was a lot of work we did ourselves, but we managed to do the entire truck for under $40,000, and from what we understand, that’s really inexpensive.”
Budget is, of course, relative to the scale of your project, but of the truck owners I interviewed about start-up costs, 40 grand was indeed at the low end of the spectrum. Owners’ initial costs averaged about $60,000, and all did some renovation work themselves. Several truck owners, including Tamara Brown, owner of Sassy Spoon, sought out the services of Chameleon Concessions, a Plymouth-based company offering hands-on services for food carts, concession trailers, and food trucks. “I started my whole project with a lot of online research and searching of ‘food trucks for sale.’ Since every state has different kitchen regulations for food trucks, I was wary of purchasing one that was already built out in another state, so I decided to search Craigslist for an empty truck,” says Brown. “After a few months of looking, I found an empty, cheap, 2000 Aramark truck in Wisconsin. The body was in fine shape, but the mechanics needed some work. Mark Palm of Chameleon Concessions did the building out of the truck and since it was empty, we were able to customize the space.”
But how do you know what you need in a truck? And where do you get equipment if you do decide to install it yourself? Lenzmeier and Gutierrez say you can do a lot with very little square footage. “We have maybe 50 and have a full-size sandwich cooler, freezer, 36-inch grill, and plenty of prep space. Our truck is on the larger side, and I’ve seen much smaller,” says Lenzmeier. “We found and purchased most of the additional equipment we needed at Northern Restaurant Equipment, which is in West St. Paul. They have a huge inventory of used equipment and can order new equipment easily.”
Lenzmeier recommends you buy a new hood for your range. “Just so that you know it’s new and will meet the NSF [National Sanitation Foundation] standards. We got ours online from a company in Georgia that builds them to order, but after you have your food license, you can open an account at Restaurant Depot, and they have equipment there.” Restaurant Depot is also where many of the truck owners buy the packaging for serving their food.
So there are a number of ways to raise the money for your project, but each method carries risks. And just like with a home improvement project, you can keep your costs down by buying a fixer-upper and doing the work yourself. But be honest: Do you know how to install plumbing and water tanks in a truck or trailer kitchen? It might be worth seeking a little professional assistance.
Lesson No. 2: Find Your Niche
Capital is obviously important, but without the right product to sling you won’t have much luck finding an audience. This tenet of the business was obvious to Brown, who is a trained nutritionist, when she came up with the concept of the Sassy Spoon. She noticed that with all the doughnuts, sandwiches, and piles of mac and cheese, foodies with celiac disease or gluten intolerance didn’t have a lot of options in food-truck fare. “I’m sensitive to gluten myself, and even for people without a gluten allergy, reducing the amount of gluten consumed on a daily basis has health benefits. I want to provide options for people looking for gluten-free food,” says Brown. “It’s about more than just leaving off the bread.” Whether you’re eating her buttery cauliflower mash and rich braised beef or her fiber-rich wild rice salad with spinach, dried cherries, and black beans, I doubt you’ll be missing a piece of squishy white sandwich loaf.
Gastrotruck owners Stephen Trojahn and Catherine Eckert wanted to operate their “gastropub on wheels” with a zero-waste philosophy, which includes a commitment to using the whole animal. “Absolutely everything on the animal gets used,” says Eckert. Gastrotruck also uses environmentally sound serving cups and eating utensils. “It is more expensive,” Eckert admits, “like close to five times more expensive to use this specific spork that can be recycled on site. But it’s very important to us, and I hope it’s important to our customers.”
Their service is quick, but the prep and planning for their dishes is decidedly slow. Rolls from New French Bakery are made daily. Pork belly is sous vide for more than a day before getting crisped on the flattop and made into deliciously decadent sliders. Pickled onions, mustards, and cornichons are all homemade and jarred by hand.
When Lenzmeier and Gutierrez were developing the Neato’s Burgers menu, the two St. Paul natives decided to carry the legacy of a local institution. “We had a loose idea of what we wanted to do,” says Lenzmeier, “but when Porky’s closed, we decided to pick up where they left off and do drive-in style burgers and shakes. We came up with our own recipes, and after trying different alternatives to boring old vegetable oil, duck fat was the best. It’s actually healthier in a lot of ways than vegetable frying oil. Anyway, we just wanted to do burgers, fries, and shakes without preservatives and fillers. We have a slew of special burgers ready to roll out for the foodie crowd, too: elotes, green chile, Thai, Korean barbecue, stuff like that.”
In sum, find a gap in the market and bring something new to the scene.
Lesson No. 3: Make Lots of Friends
Truck owners were reluctant to pinpoint any one factor as the “thing that can make or break your business,” but each one underlined the importance of building relationships with other trucks as well as brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“In our first year, there was a huge learning curve,” says Trojahn of Gastrotruck. “The ‘original trucks’ really helped to promote our business in St. Paul, so we found the competition to be not fierce, just mostly really supportive and trusting.” Trojahn credits special gatherings like Food Truck Court in downtown St. Paul with maintaining that well-organized sense of community. “In Minneapolis it really is more competitive, due to stricter regulations. People end up circling the block to take other people’s parking spots, which is perfectly legal, but yeah, it’s more cutthroat on Nicollet Mall.” Trojahn also spoke about the rumored backlash from brick-and-mortar restaurants. “We were sure to go and speak with restaurants in the area and make sure they knew we weren’t a threat. I think with customers, you either want to go and have a sit-down meal or get something quick from a truck window. We’re just sure to not park right in front of their place,” Trojahn laughs.
Lenzmeier also noted the importance of communication and having good relationships with other trucks. “We heard horror stories from the trucks that did the parade route on St. Patrick’s Day that were lined up together at Rice Park,” he says. Lenzmeier explains that with so many options in such a small area, customers tended to spread out and thus none of the truck owners pulled in much cash. “We, on the other hand, parked farther away and ended up selling 130 pounds of meat and potatoes in five hours and were totally sold out,” says Lenzmeier. “It really depends on if the ‘target market’ is out, and I think we’re all trying to figure out what that is.”
So this one is easy: Learn from the pros, and try not to step on toes.
Lesson No. 4: Go Where the Customers Are
Perhaps even more integral to the success of a truck is getting creative about where to connect with customers. This year brought some great opportunities for trucks seeking alternative venues, particularly at the newly opened local brewery taprooms. Both Gastrotruck and Hola Arepa have found success by parking outside Fulton Brewery, especially on Twins game days.”We’ve seen a lot of growth in the food truck business in general,” says Hola Arepa’s Christina Nguyen. “So there’s an increasing number of food trucks, but there’s also more awareness and demand for them than there was before.”
Neato’s Burgers was keen to get the business of the late-night bar crowd. “We have an unofficial agreement with the Turf Club to be their food truck for larger shows. We asked their permission to serve during the Meat Puppets show, which was a great night for us,” Lenzmeier says.
Aside from alternative venues, almost every truck owner said they would recommend setting sights on St. Paul, since the permits and laws about gathering as a group are much looser. For now. “The permits are difficult to obtain just like any other restaurant,” Lenzmeier explains. “Minneapolis has some of the strictest health codes around, which translate into more expensive buildout for your truck. The zoning is also pretty strict for food trucks, so the area where we can operate is limited.”
And again there are costs associated with that. An annual operating permit for a mobile food vendor in Minneapolis will run you $818, and before you can even get that, your food plan will have to be reviewed by the city, which costs another $359. “It was not very hard to get the permits at the city,” says Hoa Nguyen of YumMi, a food truck that sells Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches. “But the upfront costs were definitely a burden, especially because certain kinds of permits are not prorated for the duration of their validity, which is April to through April. So if we have to get a new special permit in December, we would still have to pay the full fee. Another restriction we’ve experienced is that although our annual permit allows us to vend at a fixed spot in downtown, if there are events organized around our designated spot, we’d have to get an additional permit in order to operate where we usually are.”
So read up, check with the city, read up, and check again, because it’s easy to get nailed with fees if you don’t have the right permits. It’s the “measure twice, cut once” rule of food trucks. And if possible, get in good with all the breweries that are springing up. You know who likes quick, cheap food from a truck? People who are a few beers deep.
The hours are long, the spaces are limited, and the competition can be stiff, but the intense passion with which these businesses are run ensures that Twin Cities food trucks won’t soon disappear from our streets. As these first-, second-, and third-year owners start looking at how they’ll reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of another season, will you be joining their ranks?