By Kevin Opsahl | HJNews.com
NORTH LOGAN — Walking around a bus yard in Boise, Idaho, Ramiro Martinez saw a variety of buses from different areas, and used for different reason. But was interested in purchasing a bus for one good reason only: To fill people’s tummies.
For $7,000, the bus was his and Martinez quickly went to work. He unbolted all of the seats and installed kitchen equipment; he gave the bus a crisp white paint job, with the words Taqueria “La Villa” in red lettering; and he installed benches stapled with a bright red cushioning and metal “counter tops” lining ether side of its interior so people could eat in an air-conditioned environment.
“It’s a nice place, the customers have a good view (of the mountains) and it’s something different,” Martinez said in an interview in his food truck, with his wife, Mariela Lopez Arreaga, who helps Martinez along with one other chef. “They say it’s cute.”
Martinez is not the only food vendor in Cache Valley. In the Sears parking lot, Rollin’ West Bar-B-Que, owned by the Norr family, can be frequently found; just a bit further, off of 1700 South, is another taco truck owned by Trevor Cranney.
The Food Truck Craze
The three known establishments in Cache Valley are part of a trend over the last 10 years.
Entrepenuer.com reports that the industry is booming, with approximately 3 million mobile food vendors in the U.S., more than 5 million food carts, and an unknown number of kiosks, which have appeared in malls, train and bus stations, airports, stadiums, conference centers and other locations.
Cranney credits the apparent increase in mobile establishments across the country to “the food truck craze.”
“It’s just the experience of, ‘where’s it going to be today?’ Also, people know that the food is authentic,” Cranney said. “And it’s a chase — even in Logan, you might have an hour for lunch, and you have to beat the clock back to work. It’s quick, you don’t have to dine in. I have really grown to learn and love the ‘culture’ of food over the last several years, which is what drove me to want to buy a food truck.”
Cranney bought the taco truck with his wife, sister and brother-in-law from a native Mexican chef on 1700 South six months ago. Cranney is a full-time employee at Icon Health and Fitness.
The costs of starting up a mobile food truck can vary, but it usually works out to tens of thousands of dollars.
Trucks must be purchased and then retrofitted into a kitchen that meets that standards of the city and the health department. Some trucks are specially made for the purpose, but those are more expensive, and are usually found in big cities like Los Angeles and New York City.
Trucks must also sign agreements with businesses to be able to park in their lots — whether it’s a grocery store or a gas station. Even though they are mobile, they can’t just go wherever they please.
In Logan, truck owners must obtain a special kind of business license and get inspected by the city and health department before they even open the truck. If they pass inspection, the owners will be given a green light to open their truck. However, they will still see regular inspections from Logan and the Bear River Health Department.
“Generally, the owners know what they’re doing, but others need help,” said Paul Taylor, chief building official for Logan city, who is responsible for such inspections.
Once the owner gets to work, they’ve got to purchase cooking equipment and stock up on enough food. Most Cache Valley vendors told The Herald Journal they opt to buy locally as much as possible, instead of having meats or veggies be shipped in.
Many of the vendors The Herald Journal talked to said that they save on overhead costs, unlike traditional restaurants — water bills and property taxes are not a concern.
Business in Logan
All of the vendors said Logan is generally a good place to open a food stand.
“People come into town, and say ‘wow, there’s a lot of places to eat with so few people!’” Cranney said. “So is there an opportunity for us? Yes, but at the same time, we are a small city, so there’s not a lot of places to park food trucks.”
Cranney said some people are hesitant to eat at food trucks, just because of their physical appearance.
“Some people think of it as the old ’80s term ‘roach coach.’ This is simply not the case today,” Cranney said. “But for me it’s making sure I share that fact that we’ve got great food products at a great price. Plus, the health inspector comes by not only to inspect but to eat as well.”
Chris Nelson, Environmental Health Scientist, Bear River Health Department, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald Journal that he once shared those fearful views about food trucks.
“When mobile vendors started appearing, I was initially skeptical because of all the things that could go wrong,” Nelson wrote. “Instead, I have been impressed with the willingness of these vendors to comply with food safety standards.”
Logan City and the Bear River Health Department make it harder for people to establish mobile food trucks because of the “inherently higher risks” with them due to “higher environmental exposure and a smaller, more confining kitchen area leading to food storage and preparation issues,” wrote Nelson.
“It takes a lot of courage to try a venture like this, in this economy, in Cache Valley. Helping these vendors in their entrepreneurial endeavors has been very rewarding,” Nelson wrote.
Food truck life
When asked whether owning a food truck full-time is feasible, Cranney said certain qualities are needed — show dedication, be “on your toes” at all times and “be open to change.”
Jeff and Roger Norr, of Rollin’ West Bar-B-Que, have been open since September 2011, and they say it’s a job that takes more than 40 hours a week — and that’s aside from their Logan business that the two men own together.
They have gotten a “huge” response from customers, and have catered at big events like the annual bike race in Bear Lake. They’re already thinking of purchasing another truck.
“I don’t think people fully understand the work that goes into it. You run that truck everyday and smoke the meats like we do, you can end up running it 16 hours a day,” Roger said.
He added, “people we talk to would like to see more food trucks in Cache Valley. They want to be able to follow them around — whether the trucks are at Willow Park Zoo, Nibley or Hyrum — but it’s going to take more cooperation with the city.”
Jeff and Roger Norr said one of the reasons they like working at the food truck because of the smell.
“It never gets old,” Jeff said.