As the food-truck movement rolls steadily into Augusta, Edward Mendoza is jumping aboard. Havird Usry is, too.
For Mendoza, the venture started late last year as a substitute second location for his Kitchen 1454 on Walton Way. Usry, on the other hand, looked to the food-truck concept to expand his catering business at Fat Man’s Mill Cafe & Catering in Enterprise Mill.
“I was going to start a second restaurant, but it didn’t work out,” said Mendoza, who’s run his restaurant for three years. “I decided that the food truck would be a good alternative to do events and parties. It’s not so much going to run the streets every day, but we will do private events, caterings and parties out of it. It’ll also be a nice attachment to bring over for the parties and dinners during Masters.”
Mendoza and Usry are part of a growing trend throughout the area that began several years ago with larger cities, such as Los Angeles, Austin and Miami. The pair will soon join a slew of other local rolling restaurants, such as Laziza Mediterranean Grill, The Brown Bag and Crums on Central, that have all experimented with the concept.
For many entrepreneurs on a tight budget, food trucks have become a more attractive option over traditional brick-and-mortar establishments because they often proffer lower start-up costs, said Annika Stensson, senior manager of Research Communications for the National Restaurant Association.
“Food trucks also offer the opportunity for operators to expand their operations beyond the four walls of their restaurant,” she said.
“It allows a creative chef to have a restaurant without all of the overhead,” he said. “You can start a food truck for $50,000 or $55,000 whereas a restaurant, it’s a quarter of a million to a $1 million just depending on if you own it or what you do in it.”
Research conducted by the National Restaurant Association showed customers are just as eager for the restaurant on wheels concept to continue.
Nearly 75 percent of adults polled by the NRA said they’d likely visit a food truck if one was offered by a favorite restaurant, citing a unique experience, affordability and convenience as reasons, Stensson said.
As the rolling trend becomes more of a staple in the restaurant industry, Stensson said she expects more streamlined and sophisticated on-board operations.
“I think trucks will go from a start-up idea to a more long-term business opportunity,” she said.
Mendoza and Usry hope to see the food-truck culture evolve in Augusta as well.
Mendoza moved to Augusta from a city that had a lively food-truck scene: Dallas, which is also home to multiple food truck parks, something that Mendoza would like to soon foster locally. Mendoza envisions rounding up other local food trucks and setting up a mobile food court that also would share a bar and have live entertainment.
Southern cities such as Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., have tested the mobile food market with positive results.
The Atlanta Food Truck Park & Market, the city’s first permanent food truck site, opened in 2012 three miles away from the Midtown area, with as many as 10 trucks each day serving lunch and dinner to community members. A farmers market and live music is offered to the public on weekends.
In downtown Raleigh, a food-truck rodeo is held each year. with more than 50 food truck owners driving from across the state to attend. The event spans 10 city blocks, attracting thousands of visitors. In nearby Durham, N.C., there’s even a Web site – www.carpedurham.com – devoted to giving viewers a map that tracks truck locations based on operators’ Twitter posts.
Usry, the vice president of operations and development for Fat Man’s, said when he and his wife recently visited Austin, he realized that a strong social media presence for food trucks was an integral ingredient for success.
Though he and Mendoza both plan to park their respective trucks at local concerts and various events across town, they expect a big slice of business to come during Masters Week. The trucks are equipped with flat-top grills, fryers and other appliance found in a conventional kitchen.
The two also hope to roll onto Georgia Regents University’s campus in coming months.
“Its strengths is within numbers, kind of the food court effect,” Usry said. “When you have trucks running solo on the streets, it’s just not as effective.”
Usry will focus on weddings and has already pre-sold five packages for wedding receptions, allowing the bride and groom to choose a specific menu that will then be served from the truck. His first scheduled wedding is in March.
Mendoza plans to cook up variations of tacos.
Both Mendoza and Usry are awaiting final inspection from the city before their trucks are fully operational. Currently, they are allowed to serve only at private events.
“It has been done over the years but in a different type setting,” said Larry Harris, licensing manager with the city’s planning and development department. “You had the old chuckwagons and they basically went to the plants and serviced the industries where they had a built-in audience for lunch.”
As the idea morphed into one that saw owners investing substantially in their mobile meal tickets and hitting the road in greater numbers, city commissioners passed an ordinance in 2012 to stay on the front-end of regulation. Before having legal access to roam local streets, operators must first pass inspection by the Augusta Fire Department, Richmond County Health Department and Georgia Department of Agriculture if selling commercially-packaged food. A business license also is required, Harris said.
The ordinance also bans trucks from parking on city streets or providing seating, mandating instead that they set up in privately-owned lots designated for business or industrial use, be moved overnight and allow only high-top tables.
Harris said he doesn’t see any issues arising with food truck owners creating events similar to those in other cities as long as they follow guidelines set forth for festivals and as stated in the ordinance.
Leigh Fletcher, who runs Laziza’s 30-foot red box truck on GRU’s Health Sciences campus, said he’d like to see the city loosen up some on its regulatory requirements.
“Augusta is hard,” he said. “You have to be on private property here to operate. You can’t just go where you want to go like you can in other cities.”
Laziza has been serving gyros, falafel, shawarma and other Middle Eastern cuisine at local events and at GRU since late September. Fletcher said the truck allows him to experiment with dishes and test different markets across the region.
“We’re using ours more as a tool to help us not only advance our brick-and-mortar, but we use it for advertising,” he said. “We use it for looking at a possible second location for the restaurant as well. It’s really working well.”