by Kristi Tousignant | Gazette.net
On your mark. Get set. Eat!
Food trucks, which have become common lunch stops in Washington, D.C., have started to branch out in Montgomery County.
Several new food truck businesses have been sighted around downtown Silver Spring this month, including Tops American Food Company and Sub-Urban-Bros: The Great Sandwich Truck. Each has been on the road for only a few weeks, but both have already been making regular stops near the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Colesville Road.
“We are going to get our feet wet,” said Rick Baldwin, co-owner of Sub-Urban-Bros, said. “There is so much to offer in Montgomery County.”
Bright, colorful food trucks with gourmet and comfort foods are one of the food industry’s growing trends. They have long been popular in big cities like New York and Los Angeles and began multiplying in Washington, D.C., in recent years, and now they are growing in the suburbs as well. They even combine quick food with new age social networking, tweeting their locations on Twitter so that loyal followers track them down.
Now trucks selling anything from pizza to cupcakes to lobster rolls patrol the streets, and entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in.
“What I don’t know is if this is a fad,” said Joe Walker, co-owner of Tops. “That’s where the calculated risk is.”
Sub-Urban-Bros has 173 followers on Twitter thus far, while Tops has 95.
However, the spread of food trucks into Montgomery County has been slowed down by strict county restrictions on mobile food service units. Each food truck is required to have a stationary kitchen in the county in addition to the truck, a requirement not common in other places.
Those setting up food trucks that change locations throughout the county also have to get permits from both the Department of Permitting Services and the Department of Health and Human Services, said Susan Scala-Demby, zoning manager at the Department of Permitting Services.
To get the permit from Permitting Services, food truck owners must pay a $295 one-year license fee, a photo ID fee of $38, an application fee of $38, and a $37 automation fee, Scala-Demby said. This permit only allows food vendors to park on the street, not in parking lots or on private property.
“The reason there are not many food trucks in Montgomery County could be that people don’t have enough money to pay for all the licenses,” co-owner of Sub-Urban-Bros Shane Patterson said.
Food truck owners also have to get a permit from the county health department, which is a $395 annual fee, said Kevin Chinnia, manager of the environmental inspection unit with the health department.
Food truck businesses also have to have a base of operation, Chinnia said. These places have to be licensed food service facilities.
The health department requires that a mobile service unit has cool running water, portable water tank, hot water tank and a wastewater tank, Chinnia said. They need refrigeration to keep cool foods at 41 degrees and steam tables to keep hot foods at 135 degrees. If they are cooking food, trucks have to have cooking equipment like a stove range, ventilation system and grease vents.
Chinnia said his department has noticed a steady increase in food trucks over the last two years. He said his department has heard increased complaints from established restaurants about food trucks parking in front of their businesses.
“You see them more and more all over the place,” Chinnia said. “You used to see just ice cream trucks in the summer. Now, you have these really restaurants on wheels. It’s hard to keep track of them. It is quite a challenge.”
Tops and Sub-Urban-Bros are among the first new food truck businesses to make their way into Silver Spring. Tops sells chili, fries, sausages, hot dogs and chili dogs. Sub-Urban-Bros sells sub sandwiches and soups. Both said obtaining all the county permits was time-consuming and expensive.
Start-up costs for a food truck business could cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000. With these upfront costs, Walker said he and his partner at Tops had planned not to profit for six months, but, Walker said they have been doing well so far, and if it continues, he said he expects to start profiting earlier.
“This is just kind of a phenomenon,” Walker said. “We like the business model of it. It makes it so much easier to set up.”
Patterson said he and Baldwin needed around $100,000 to start their food truck business. The custom-made truck alone cost $75,000, he said. Baldwin and Patterson set off the costs of maintaining their mandatory base kitchen by renting it out to other catering companies.
For the food truck business, Montgomery County is still largely uncharted territory, and businesses are still mapping out their strategies. Tops has only been operating several days a week but plans to expand into six days a week, Walker said. The Bros said they have only been working a few days a week, too, getting the feel for the new business.
“We like Silver Spring,” Walker said. “We like the density, and it’s the closest thing to a city feel.”
Baldwin and Patterson had each been working in the food industry for decades. Baldwin bartended and was the manager at Clyde’s in Rockville for a time. Paterson was a bartender in Olney for many years. They ordered a customized truck in October, and the designer painted colorful sandwiches and caricatures of the two owners across the sides of the truck.
They got the truck in December, but just began driving around two weeks ago. They have been making the rounds in Olney, Rockville and Gaithersburg, as well. They sell a variety of soups and subs, including a meatball one from Baldwin’s wife’s recipe and a veggie one of Baldwin’s creation.
“That’s our line, bringing sandwiches to the people,” Baldwin said.
The Bros have their base kitchen in Rockville. They get there around 8 a.m. in the morning, where they slice the deli meats, cook the vegetables and prepare their meatballs. Around 10:45 a.m., they begin looking for spots to park and sell. They can park in any public parking space as long as it’s along a two-lane road, Baldwin said.
Walker started Tops with his best friend last year. After coming across a particularly appealing chili recipe, they decided starting a food truck would be easier and cheaper than opening a stationary restaurant.
For now, Tops is a business on the side for Walker. He works in finance, but hopes to give that up once the food truck starts to boom. Walker said they plan to eventually expand into a fleet of seven or eight trucks.
“I have never had more fun than when I stand in that window,” Walker said.
Jordan Johnson of Silver Spring ate a bowl of soup from Sub-Urban-Bros Friday while waiting for his toasted sandwich. He had heard about the sub truck trolling through Silver Spring and had been following them on Twitter. When he saw they were parked on Colesville Road, he decided he would stop by while running some errands.
“[Food trucks] are new,” Johnson said. “They are novel. Everyone is talking about them. They also feel a little bit more personal.”
Whether more trucks will be revving up business and moving into the county remains to be seen.
“This is completely the Wild West at this point,” Walker said.