By STAFF | Central Illinois Business
Zach Ware was a high school kid trying to find a minimum wage job in a bad economy when he hit on a business idea that was one of the hottest trends in the food industry — gourmet food trucks.
Ware and his mother, Marisa Anstey, of Mahomet, got the idea while watching a Food Network show featuring a waffle truck. They started the Crave Truck, selling street waffles around Champaign-Urbana from their mobile kitchen.
“It is very trendy and very popular,” said Rob Kowalski, assistant planning director for the city of Champaign. “Foodies love them, because it’s no longer the roach coach selling hot dogs. These trucks are very sophisticated. You can really prepare and serve some gourmet food out of them.
“They really bring a heightened sense of vibrancy to downtown,” he continued. “Some of the trucks are very creative, the design of the trucks. It adds interest to downtown and supports the artistic flair a community can have.”
The National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast mentioned food trucks among the major trends for the year. And chefs surveyed by the organization predicted food trucks would be the year’s hottest operational trend.
Food trucks are popular in cities, and not just among entrepreneurs. Established chefs and restaurant owners are joining the food truck trend as well, in some cases to make up for lost revenue at their restaurants, according to the Small Business Development Center Network.
Part of the appeal for those starting a business is the low startup cost compared with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. And social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and cellphone alerts, make it easy for potential customers to find a mobile food truck.
Marisa Anstey urged Ware to use social networking to develop a customer base.
“I wasn’t exactly Twitter-savvy when we started,” Ware said. “But with social networking, we can bring people to us, rather than going out and trying to find the most amount of people.
“It’s not even about the business so much,” he continued. “I love connecting with people I’m serving. I get to know my customer base more, and that’s really cool.”
Cities have different regulations governing where food trucks can operate. Ware likes to stay in a location for a couple of hours, so he can get out his ingredients and cook his waffles.
But a Champaign city ordinance required mobile food vendors to move as soon as they had served an existing line of customers. In Urbana, food truck operators can feed a meter or pay a fee to have it bagged.
The Crave Truck is now part of a pilot program in Champaign establishing zones downtown and on campus where food trucks can operate for up to two hours at a time.
Kowalski said the locations were chosen to minimize conflicts with existing restaurants and disruption of traffic flow, but to also allow the trucks to operate at places with good visibility. There are also restrictions on setting up tables.
At the end of the pilot program, city officials will evaluate how the program worked for food truck vendors, how it affected brick-and-mortar businesses and how residents liked them.
While the Crave Truck is the only mobile food truck so far participating in the pilot program, Kowalski said there has been interest from others, including two University of Illinois students who plan to open a food truck called Cracked to serve breakfast on campus; a local couple considering a cupcake truck; and Derald’s, which already serves food on campus in Urbana.
Ware appreciates that city officials welcomed the idea of working with food trucks.
In addition to sorting out the local ordinances governing the trucks, Ware said he has faced the same challenges as any other small business — refining his product, building a customer base and dealing with unexpected costs when the truck has had mechanical problems.
He’s received business advice from both local chefs and food truck operators around the country — and, most importantly, from his mom. Anstey previously ran a cafe in Mahomet, and she tested variations of a Belgian Liege waffle until she and Ware settled on the recipe they would use.
Ware believes the appeal of food trucks lies in the specialized products they sell and interesting atmosphere they provide.
“It’s not quite like a restaurant,” he said. “It’s on the go.”