By Brandon Scott | The Huntsville Item
Food trucks offer lower overhead and ability to follow the customers
HUNTSVILLE — Food trucks are nothing new in Texas.
According to historians, rancher Charles Goodnight invented the chuckwagon in 1866, which carried food to cowboys and loggers.
Contemporary mobile restuarants serving food from trucks and trailers are catering to a growing number of urban and not-so-urban foodies.
Renting a food truck can cost from $2,000 to $10,000 per month. But purchasing a truck depends on how much equipment and space is needed. Some even build their own trucks.
Huntsville’s Emmie’s Eatery is the newest mobile food business in town, open now for about a month. Owners Jeff and Shana Spaulding said their inspiration came from the Austin food truck culture.
The Austin model
While some cities have strict food truck regulations, to the point of prohibiting them outright, Austin is grabbing the bull by its horns, according to owners.
There are at least 900 trucks in the city, and the city expects close to 400 more by the end of the year, according to the Spauldings.
South Congress Avenue’s food trailer parks are among Austin’s busiest. Hey Cupcake, Mighty Cone and Fry Baby are just a few businesses on the street.
Victoria Tyler, of Hey Cupcake, which operates from an Airstream like Emmie’s in Huntsville, said the trucks are more convenient for customers and smart for entrepreneurs.
Jeff Spaulding said food trucking allows the restaurant to best approach its consumers by simply being at the right place at the right time.
“It’s a lot more versatile,” Spaulding said. “I don’t have to build something and wait for people to come to me. I can build something and go to them, which is a totally different concept.”
Jaynie Buckingham just opened Cutie Pies, a restaurant in Austin that started as a food truck. Buckingham said she spent $2,500 dollars on her trailer but more than $25,000 for the restaurant building. One of her frequent customers decided Cutie Pies products were worth investing in, allowing Buckingham to make the move.
But Jeff Spaulding said he would like for Emmie’s success to transition into owning more trucks and broadening the perspective of food truck culture in the Huntsville area. The Spauldings are anticipating the arrival of college students in late August to help determine how successful the business can be.
“We want to follow the buyer rhythms of the college students,” Jeff Spaulding said. “Our truck was built to move. We want to go from the club scenes to the fraternity houses to private parties and weddings. Or we can take it to Austin or Bryan/College Station.”
Legislating food trucks
Just like traditional restaurants, food trucks go through extensive city health inspections.
Trucks are required to have three compartment sinks with hot water. The walls and ceiling have to be of non-absorbent material, according to Huntsville health inspector Devin Merchant.
Businesses have to provide trash cans with covered lids for patrons. Lighting has to be adequate and shielded. The doors and windows have to be sealed thoroughly to avoid insects from entering the unit.
“Refrigerators have to be 41 degrees and below,” Merchant said. “There has to be thermometers inside each unit and a food thermometer for checking temperature whenever they’re done cooking the item.”
Trucks also pay permitting fees, usually around $300 or more.
Sam Rhodes is the owner of SoCo ToGo in Austin and said the city set up a separate section of the health department just to further regulate the food truck industry.
“It’s very stringent,” Rhodes said. “We have to be really careful to not store anything outside of our trailers because we have to be mobile. Anything that is with us has to be attached and on the trailer as opposed to outside of it. Water consumption is really difficult because you’re not tied to a plumbing line under your trailer like you would be in a restaurant.
“You really learn how much would have taken water for granted previously. Here we have a tank that has water in it so you have to use that water very sparingly as you’re doing things throughout the day and still maintain health standards.”
Using social media
The easiest way to spread the word for a new business is through social media. Fortunately for food trucks, their target consumer is more than likely a social media user. Even though it is common for food truck owners to emphasize diversity, it includes reaching out to the wide range of people on Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook has more than 500 million users and Twitter has more than 200 million users worldwide — which gives food truck owners a larger amount of potential followers than an advertisement with the local newspaper.
“That’s all we’ve used for marketing,” Spaulding said.
Between the mobility of food trucks, and the ease of social media use, producers and consumers can sometimes meet each other halfway.
Trucks keep customers informed of time-sensitive, location-specific information, such as their daily (and even hourly) whereabouts, menu options and updates.
This weekend, Emmie’s informed nearly 300 customers on Facebook that the truck would be on the move come Aug. 2.
Emmie’s will open in the SAAFE House parking lot at 15th Street and Avenue M. But the truck won’t be there for long, because as owners describe it, business is mobile and location is key.