By JEREMY NISEN | TheDailySound.com
It’s been a mere two-and-a-half weeks into the O Street Truck’s operation and the team has already proved that it isn’t afraid to change the game plan.
The food truck came charging out of the gate in late March, serving breakfast and lunch at various locations, primarily corporate business parks, throughout the Santa Barbara/Goleta area.
“It’s a little bit of a shotgun approach, we’re trying everything,” said proprietor Liz Bradley. ” We eighty-sixed breakfast. We found that . . . breakfast just isn’t the kind of thing people do at corporate places.”
However, she says, lunchtime and late-night are “working really well.” Stationing a gourmet food truck with eminently affordable menu items outside of the likes of Wildcat, for instance, has inherently obvious potential rewards—and challenges. But O Street Truck isn’t afraid to capitalize.
“It’s an ‘adapt and survive’ attitude, which we can easily do in this mobile scenario,” Bradley shared.
That willingness to try anything and take a flexible approach may embody the optimism and hustle of a young, first-time entrepreneur, charging from the gate—but Bradley, 53, and her tight-knit team are hardly newcomers.
To the burgeoning Santa Barbara food truck scene, sure. But O Street Truck is an outcropping of long-time Santa Barbara-based business Olive Street Table, a manufacturer of French pastry-based products—predominately pizzas and tarts— that can be found in many retailers’ freezers (such as Lazy Acres and Costco).
Bradley, who founded Olive Street Table in 2003, readily shares the realities of doing business in the current economy.
“We had a couple of bad years,” she admitted. “So it’s become ‘how do we recreate ourselves?’ I don’t mean completely, we’re not losing our other channels of trade. But how do we find a new channel to help support this ship?”
Collectively, the Olive Street Table team—Bradley, along with Molly Mull and David Ross—decided a food truck would be that new channel. The truck, a 1993 GMC, was built for them in Los Angeles, a city seen by many as the progenitor of the food truck trend. The O Street Truck’s kitchen, says Bradley, “is nicer than any kitchen I’ve ever been in my life.”
“Seriously,” she emphasized. “And I’ve got a commercial kitchen.”
Taking it to the Streets
For a company that’s never had direct contact with the end consumer until a few weeks ago, Bradley, Mull, and Ross have seem to hit a few things out of the park right off the bat. They’re appealing to the eyes, the stomach, and, importantly, the pocketbook, as they strive to put the truck in front of as many customers as possible.
The truck’s graphic design, created by local artist Maria Rendón, is snazzy and distinctive with its text-heavy plastering of yellow and white on a red background. Ross, who manages the truck’s day-to-day operations, says that he takes advantage of the truck’s visibility, driving it through commercial corridors at times just to be seen.
The O Street Truck carries some products similar to what Olive Street Table has available for purchase in stores: a couple of pastry-crust pizzas, for instance, that the truck can sell for $4, since they’ve cut out all the middle men and are selling direct to the consumer. Among other menu items, O Street Truck also currently has a tomato-basil soup available.
But the stars of the menu all contain the words “banh mi.” The French Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches ($5) contain either marinated chicken or beef on a fresh baguette with cilantro, carrots, and cucumber, as well as a sauce with just about the perfect amount of kick. The truck also serves banh mi-style tacos, just $2, which Bradley says are a hit with the late-night crowds.
While sampling several of the truck’s offerings could result in a typical Santa Barbara lunchtime bill, it’s also very possible to spend $5 at O Street Truck and walk away satisfied—something that is rare amongst restaurants both mobile and stationary in this area.
Mull has taken lead on making sure the truck has places to operate. The truck’s lunch service, which rotates through business sites such as Mentor Corp., Allergan, and Commission Junction, is catching on. Bradley shared the results from a recent day at Mentor, with approximately 150 transactions in a two-hour period. (O Street Truck’s schedule can be found on its Web site, ostreettruck.com).
The time from when the team decided to create O Street Truck until it actually served food was about seven months—much of the delay was due to “jumping through bureaucratic hoops,” said Bradley.
“It’s sort of funny to see the sheaf of licenses that I have just to operate one not-so-small truck,” Bradley shared. “You just can’t go to any city or county place without taking your checkbook.”
“But I guess that’s old news, right?” she said, laughing. “That it’s hard being a business owner? Businesses are leaving California because it’s so expensive and hard to do business here. It’s red tape, it’s lots of dollars. That being said, I’m not going anywhere. “
Another of the challenges in operating a truck-based business—that automobiles will break down from time to time—reared its ugly head the very day that the O Street team spoke with The Daily Sound. Bradley hadn’t anticipated needing a repair a mere 2.5 weeks in.
“My business plan was to never see that truck in the driveway,” she said, only half-joking.
Mull, who joined the company fulltime in July 2009, says that at first she was anticipating a bumpy road in finding places to operate. The truth was quite the opposite.
“There’s been great enthusiasm from the private locations,” Mull said. “I was very surprised that all these people want us on their property.”
She says that the people working in corporate business parks appreciate that when the O Street Truck is there, they don’t have “miles to go” to find a lunch spot.
Indeed, the mobile nature of the truck allows it to cater to markets that aren’t being served by “brick & mortar” restaurants—a primary reason, shares Bradley, that any perceived conflict between mobile food and traditional restaurants is probably overblown.
Keep on Truckin’
O Street Truck is dedicated to perfecting its Santa Barbara-based business, yet Bradley does have some inkling of how she’d like to grow it, should it prove profitable. Her plan is to stay focused on very particular locales.
“Santa Barbara is very sophisticated and people here understand the culture of food trucks. It seemed natural that the culture here would support it,” she said. She also cites the college population—her “two-dollar taco” crowd—as a major catalyst behind the truck’s initial reception. Accordingly, Bradley believes communities with similar characteristics are her sweet spot.
“If I do expand, we’re looking at taking another truck up to San Luis Obispo, or places like Fresno or Sacramento, where it’s not a huge, sprawling urban center, but they’re still sophisticated places,” she said, “… and have college students.”
She characterizes the difference between being a pastry manufacturer and being out on the front lines, dealing directly with consumers, as “so much harder,” but adds that she very much enjoys it.
A couple weeks in, Bradley and her team are still enthused, amid 70+ hour weeks, a variable schedule, and the additional responsibilities of adding on a food truck to the existing business. But Bradley simply says the long work weeks and monumental efforts are “just what it takes.”
“We won’t have a life,” she quipped, “but we will have a future.”