A growing number of Dayton-area entrepreneurs and their hungry customers are embracing the food-truck trend that allows restaurateurs to avoid the high costs of a bricks-and-mortar startup and to bring meals to wherever their customers are congregating.
Two new restaurants-on-wheels have joined the roster of local food trucks in recent weeks: C’est Cheese, described by its owner as a “mobile gourmet grilled cheese restaurant,” and OmNom Mobile Cafe, which specializes in vegetarian dishes.
“I used to joke around about opening a restaurant, but that is so much more difficult,” said C’est Cheese owner Trish Miles. “There’s so much more investment involved.”
OmNom Mobiile Cafe owner Xtine Brean — a native of southern California, where the food-truck trend first blossomed — said her mobile restaurant “allows me to do my own thing, to drive to where my product will sell.” The food-truck trend, Brean said, “is just getting started in Dayton.”
It also was slow to arrive here: The National Restaurant Association identified food trucks as a top trend in its annual Restaurant Industry Forecast in 2011. A restaurant association official said at the time that food trucks “will definitely become an important avenue of growth” for the industry. And the trend has blossomed in other parts of Ohio: Last weekend, the Ohio Food Truck Festival brought together about 50 food trucks at the Ohio History Center in Columbus.
The Dayton area has about a half-dozen food trucks, but there are signs of increasing interest that include the two newest entries into the market this summer. A “Dayton Food Trucks” Facebook page that is “dedicated to the food trucks and vending carts around the Dayton, Ohio area” now invites food truck operators to post their schedules as well as pictures of the food they serve. The food truck operators themselves routinely use their own Twitter and Facebook pages to let potential customers know where they’ll be serving.
Some food-truck operators got an unexpected burst of interest a couple of months ago when Columbus-based Johnson’s Industrial Caterers — which housed its Dayton-area operations at 2042 Webster St. in Dayton — shut down abruptly on July 3. But Matt Halpin, chef-owner of local food truck Fressa, said his and most other food trucks operate as a restaurant, preparing food to order, rather than Johnson’s trucks, which offered pre-made sandwiches and other items designed to be distributed quickly to a large number of employees.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what they did, but we can help,” said Halpin, whose menu focuses on what he called “comfort food with a twist.” Fressa is working with some businesses of 15 to 40 employees to try to fill the void left by Johnson’s departure, Halpin said.
Fressa and his fellow mobile restaurant entrepreneurs relish their role as trailblazers. “We are in a business that didn’t exist until about a year and a half ago,” Halpin said. The venture “was slow to get going, but business is good now, and we’re getting a good reception wherever we go.”
Daniel Kinney, owner of Caribbacanas, said there’s a camaraderie among food truck owners — “It’s not cut-throat competitive,” Kinney said — in part because owners have different aims: Kinney has a full-time job on weekdays and is more of a “weekend warrior,” he said. Fressa sets up shop Tuesday through Friday on Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton. C’est Cheese owner Miles has sold her wide variety of grilled cheese sandwiches at construction work sites, after school near Fairmont High School and near the Second Street Market.
Miles said her food truck venture was inspired by former neighbor Jenny Cox, who launched a dessert truck called “Go Cupcake” that celebrated its first anniversary last week. Miles left the work force to raise four children, later worked as a rowing instructor and substitute teacher, but ultimately decided, “I needed a job.”
Miles started exploring her food-truck options, found a specially equipped Suzuki truck in Michigan, and decided to focus on cheese, she said, “because it’s healthier than beef, and you can make so many things out of it.” On a recent visit to the construction site of a General Electric research facility near the University of Dayton, the C’est Cheese menu included Ham & Cheese; Pesto, Mozzarella.