By Dan Dickson | Business Lexington
Lexington, KY – Made popular on the streets of Lexington as mobile food merchants, a number of Lexington vendors have found a permanent place to park their trucks and sell their food.
La Petite Creperie first showed up at the downtown Lexington Farmers’ Market in 2010 and at special events. From under a tent, the “crepe ladies” serve simple, traditional crepes. They’re either sweet, like with banana, chocolate or cinnamon, or stuffed full of ham, eggs, cheese or vegetables.
“It’s unbelievable. We just have long lines all the time,” said Shannon Arnold, who operates the mobile business.
In late June, Arnold and business partner Linda Chambers opened a La Petite Creperie restaurant on Kentucky Avenue across from Woodland Park, in what was most recently Six Friends Cafe. Arnold and Chambers taught French at The Lexington School or Sayre and spent time in Paris.
“In France, I ate a lot of (crepes) because they’re ‘student, budget friendly.’ You could get a pretty nice meal fast for a few bucks,” Arnold said. “They’d cook right in front of you and you’d walk away with them. Easy, quick and cheap.”
“I’m French and came here 10 years ago with a family restaurant background,” added Chambers, who admits to needing time to get comfortable with American food and culture before opening a restaurant.
“I wanted to introduce the French casual experience to Lexington. French food is often thought of as sophisticated, expensive and slow, but there’s also a French culture of casual eating. I drove around Lexington for years to find a patio that reminded me of patios in France. We found this house, bought it and turned it into a restaurant,” Chambers said.
The crepe ladies plan to continue the mobile portion of their business.
Another outdoor cook who’s coming indoors is Ilias Pappas, who’s operated the Athenian Grill food truck at various sites since last fall. His restaurant is scheduled to open in late August in the former location of Belle’s Bakery on South Ashland Avenue.
“Operating a food truck business out of a tent has menu limitation. We’re constantly getting requests for dishes that aren’t possible on a food truck,” explained Pappas, who said he hadn’t been looking for a restaurant site but saw the vacancy at Belle’s, thought it could work, and struck a deal that night.
Pappas, a native of Greece, could have taken the property as is, slapped some paint on it and opened, or gut it and make it his own. He chose the latter. He’ll offer a few tables for eating in, encourage takeout orders and try to enhance his catering business.
His most popular dishes: the lamb gyros and the spanakopita, a spinach pie.
“With the quality of food, the uniqueness of our menu, the desserts and a market we’ll have on the second floor, we’ll attract people. They’ll find us,” he said.
Fans of Takeria El habanero Loko won’t have any trouble finding finding the popular food truck’s new restaurant, which opened in late June. Sitting at the corner of Vine Street and Limestone downtown, in the spot most recently occupied by J. Morse Bistro, the casual Mexican restaurant has a very visible and prominent location.
In an inventive and resourceful solution to opening a restaurant, two other mobile food businesses have teamed up to operate out of one fixed location.
Tim Latham, owner of Tnt BBQ & Grill, and Lincoln Ogata, of Ogata’s Hawaiian Grill, are serving customers in a space adjacent to a Shell gas station along US 27 between Nicholasville and Lexington. Both hope steady vehicle and foot traffic from the busy highway will attract customers.
“We share a commercial kitchen and a dining room. It’s a good location with a good lease rate with little start-up costs,” said Latham, who’ll continue the mobile portion of his business and, apparently, his day job. He’s a product line manager at Valvoline.
Latham is from Tennessee and hopes to hook people here on his Memphis-style barbeque. Ogata’s menu is described as “working man’s food” and comes from the Ogata family’s Hawaiian-style recipes.
Latham noted one big difference between operating a mobile food business and a stationary one: time commitment. “With the food truck, you’re at just one event location and plan everything for one day, but when you have to do it every day in a restaurant, it’s a whole different story.”
In a reverse scenario, another local restaurant has taken the sweetest item on its menu outdoors to serve customers under a tent. Thai Orchid Café, based off South Broadway near Virginia Avenue, now sells its popular ice cream flavors from a freezer on wheels at events and at the Lexington Farmers’ Market.
It’s described as artisan ice cream, handmade in small batches. “There is a craft to it. It’s just not throwing ingredients into a machine and having it spit out ice cream,” said owner Toa Green. The ice cream flavors vary by season and by the whim of the chef.
Green began with making coconut ice cream. Coconut is a common ingredient in Thai food. “I wanted to replicate ice cream made on the streets in Thailand and have for dessert in the restaurant. We experimented with other flavors and got great customer response.”
Last fall Green started an ice cream side business.
On the city’s experiment with downtown mobile food vendors, Green thinks it’s great. “The city is moving toward a more open environment for food trucks and mobile food vendors. It creates a great atmosphere, brings people out of their offices and homes, and creates a cool vibe which every city needs,” she said.