Food Truck Business a Bumpy but Rewarding Ride

Luis Mora, Juan Herrera and Taylor Frizzell of Slidin’ Thru prepare food for customers during Vegas Streats in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. photo Leila Navidi

By | Las Vegas Sun

Luis Mora, Juan Herrera and Taylor Frizzell of Slidin’ Thru prepare food for customers during Vegas Streats in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. photo Leila Navidi

Ric Guerrero’s plans to expand his business, Slidin’ Thru, end with world domination. He is only half-kidding.

“We had a meeting, and our marketing person used those very words — world domination,” Guerrero said with a laugh. “To think, ‘Slidin’ Thru Tokyo, coming soon!’ I always say dream big.”

His business does not have any actual plans to expand overseas, but Guerrero is planning to open two brick-and-mortar restaurants in Las Vegas this winter. Slidin’ Thru already operates Slider Truck, a mobile food truck, and Slider Truck HQ, a non-mobile eatery attached to a bar off Sunset Avenue.

It’s noteworthy growth for a restaurant that began on wheels, and a sign that the Las Vegas food truck scene could be on the road to bigger things.

Don’t call it a roach coach

Food has been sold from vehicles for decades. The ice cream truck is a staple of suburbia. During the years of rapid expansion in Southern Nevada, mobile kitchens would pull into construction sites and serve tacos or other quick meals to workers. To this day, you can still find their operators setting up shop on the same residential street corners or business parking lots, serving their familiar food to their regular customers.

What some informally call “the food truck revolution” — which started in Las Vegas when Slider Truck hit the streets in March 2010 — took the concept from shiny, unmarked trucks to flashy, graphic-wrapped vehicles with comic-book themes and fancy logos. Operators eschewed quick comfort foods in favor of truffle-covered tater tots and Asian-fusion sliders, aiming at white-collar workers with smart phones as opposed to blue-collar workers with limited lunch options.

Such food trucks have exploded onto the scene in cities like Los Angeles, using social networking websites to inform patrons of where they will be.

Since Slider Truck opened and Fukuburger followed suit a few months later, more than a dozen trucks popped up in Las Vegas. Some have already shut down.

“Everyone thinks it’s so easy,” said Colin Fukunaga, the owner and namesake behind Fukuburger, “but there is so much work behind the scenes. Plus, we still deal with the roach-coach perception.”

Some challenges for truck operators include prep work, which takes longer in the small space than in a typical kitchen, and health inspections, which, some truck owners claim, happen more frequently than with traditional restaurants. Then, there is the issue of licensing. With four jurisdictions in Southern Nevada, a roving kitchen must either pick one area or license itself in each.

Kim Farkas of Haulin’ Balls said she and business partner Gregory Arianoff chose to license in each area in order to give themselves options. Licensing fees add up, Farkas said. Arianoff said he would love to see the county create one license for food trucks, so they would no longer have to license themselves in individual cities.

“Food trucks have taken everyone by surprise here, so (the governments) are adjusting,” he said.

Even with proper licensing from the city, food truck operators must gain permission from property owners to park in lots. In addition, some areas require additional permits.

“We hear all the time that we need to set up at this park,” Farkas said. “Well, I don’t have a park permit.”

Cramped and lacking air-conditioning, food trucks are also physically demanding for the operators. Arianoff said he has seen the thermometer he keeps in his truck reach 140 degrees.

“Luckily I love the heat, so it doesn’t bother me,” he said.

“People always ask me what it’s like in the truck,” Guerrero said. “I always think, ‘You really don’t want to know.’ ”

So what makes the long hours, stress and miles of paperwork worth it?

From a business perspective, it’s overhead lower than that of a traditional restaurant and the ability to work for yourself. Guerrero said his goal was always to run a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but the capital required to start one eluded him. He got Slider Truck off the ground for less than $20,000. Its popularity helped secure the partners needed for his first and upcoming restaurants.

Arianoff, a veteran of the restaurant industry who has worked on the Strip and more recently opened Match in the Silverado Ranch area, said being a part of a new trend made sense — especially when traditional restaurants have been feeling the effects of the recession.

Match opened to solid reviews, and Arianoff attempted to utilize social media to promote and establish the business. It was even voted best new restaurant in Las Vegas, but that wasn’t enough to keep it afloat.

“This year we lost some big staples, like Rosemary’s,” Arianoff said, referring to a longtime locals’ favorite, which closed in July. “If those guys can’t hang anymore, good luck for the rest of us.”

A makeshift food court

Food Network launched a television series in 2010 called “The Great Food Truck Race,” which just wrapped its third season. The show takes food trucks on a cross-country road trip, stopping at various cities to compete in challenges centered on which truck can make the most money.

On screen, competitors undermine one another and compete for the same prime location on high-traffic streets.

Away from the spotlight of cameras and the edit-happy fingers of producers, local food truck owners said the industry was far from cut-throat. In fact, helping one another is considered a key element.

Fukunaga remembers when he launched Fukuburger months after Slider Truck’s debut.

“At first, people thought it was like a Yankee versus Red Sox thing, which was kind of cool. We played off that, but we were actually really good friends,” he said. “We have done some of our best business right next to them. It’s not a competition.”

Fukunaga said he has driven his truck across town to rescue a competitor whose vehicle had a dead battery. On the flip side, when Fukunaga’s fry machine broke, the operators of Muncheeze Truck let him cook fries inside their truck.

“With a food truck, there are so many hurdles and unknowns,” said Jolene Manning, owner of Sloppi Jo’s food truck. “Our first night, the lights in the truck wouldn’t work. Luckily, someone brought a floodlight so we could see.”

With kitchen and truck malfunctions unavoidable and potentially devastating, it behooves the owners to play nice and help one another.

“I always say two trucks are better than one, and three trucks are better than two,” Manning said.

Manning operates the Saturday Night Truck Stop in the parking lot of Tommy Rocker’s on Dean Martin Drive. The weekly event brings together various food trucks in a makeshift food court setting, allowing customers to try various foods and enjoy a more eclectic environment.

Vegas StrEats, another weekly event, happens downtown in the open space between El Cortez and the Ogden. Several food trucks have debuted there. In addition to food trucks, the festival has live music and booths by street artists.

“I grew up on the East Coast and I remember tailgates and being outdoors,” Fukunaga said. “We don’t do those kinds of things as much here.”

Fukunaga said he was happy to see events like Vegas StrEats changing that attitude in Las Vegas. Manning agreed that food trucks were helping shape and build more of a community environment in an area known for having none.

“I see good things happening with the community,” Farkas said. “It seems ready to bust out and come into its own, but the way Las Vegas is, it could also be a short-lived force.”

Back to world domination

Fukunaga, who left a corporate kitchen to pursue his food truck concept, conceded that he wanted to cover all his bases and not rely strictly on the food truck as a business.

He is partnering with Harry Morton, the one-time Lindsay Lohan boyfriend and restaurateur behind Pink Taco, to open a Fukuburger in Los Angeles.

“I always wanted to do something there,” said Fukunaga, whose parents live in the Los Angeles area. “Las Vegas is my home. I see us as the hometown kids who are bringing Las Vegas outward.”

Slidin’ Thru plans to open its next physical location in November at Durango Drive and Centennial Parkway. The second location, on Fort Apache Road and Tropicana Avenue, is scheduled to open early next year. Fukunaga, 25, has brought on seasoned managers and operators of traditional restaurants to complement his atypical experience. Guerrero said his five-year plan is to expand in the Western states, and the 10-year plan is to be a nationwide chain.

None of the proposed growth, Guerrero said, would be in the works without his little kitchen on wheels.

“It blows my mind,” he said. “I am elated and humbled by it all. Three years ago, I had been unemployed for 10 months and my girlfriend at the time was breaking up with me because of it. She said she needed stability and someone who was going somewhere. The week we broke up, I thought of the concept of Slidin’ Thru. Now, I am hiring 60 people.”

Of course, the street between traditional restaurants and food trucks runs both ways. Some roving food trucks are outposts of pre-existing brick-and-mortar restaurants. LBS Burger entered the market with its LBS Patty Wagon, as did POPS Cheesesteaks.

Jose Hernandez, general manager at POPS, said business at the restaurant’s physical location had gone up 8 percent since the food truck debuted just over a month ago.

“The truck has been great advertising,” he said.

Not everyone is expanding, though.

After an opportunity to sell her truck to a woman in Washington arose, Manning decided to leave the food truck industry. She said her one-woman show was all consuming and allowed no time for side projects.

“Just the social media and promotion of the truck alone is a full-time job,” she said. “I was doing it all on my own.”

Most don’t. Guerrero has fully invested partners in Slidin’ Thru, Fukunaga co-owns Fukuburger with partner Robert “Mags” Magsalin, and Farkas and Arianoff founded Haulin’ Balls together.

Even as Manning leaves the streets, she is happy about her experience.

“I felt like I accomplished things,” she said. “I gave 110 percent, met a lot of people and I think it has opened doors.”

Manning will continue running Saturday Night Truck Stop and hopes to help the food truck community establish itself with other events.

Meanwhile, Farkas and Arianoff said they were content with the status of Haulin’ Balls. They are in the process of altering their business strategy to include more catering and private events over street festivals and public stops.

Farkas said proof of that could be found in the season premiere of “The Great Food Truck Race,” held in Las Vegas. Total sales for each of the trucks were dramatically lower here than in other cities. The top two trucks, Lime Truck and Korilla BBQ, succeeded in large part because they partnered with Vegas’ established food trucks, Slider Truck and Fukuburger, respectively.

“People think you can just roll up on a busy street and people will come,” Farkas said. “That doesn’t happen here. We are a different kind of town.”

She added, “If I could figure out why, I’d be a rich woman.”