From complicated truck build-outs and brand building to maintaining expensive equipment and keeping up with regulators, getting in on the mobile food truck revolution isn’t as easy as it looks. In the words of one food truck owner, “Things just happen when you’re driving older vehicles with thousands of pounds of equipment and food.”
Read on to learn how eight food truck vendors created their movable feasts and share their strategies for keeping them on the road. Click here to view a photo gallery of their food trucks.
New chassis and custom upfit helps avoid maintenance hassles.
Christian Murcia of Fullerton, Calif.-based Crepes Bonaparte keeps his menu true to the French form: simple, delicious street food.
Murcia and his wife, Danielle, started the company in May of 2008 as a private catering company. Last year, they expanded the business to include “Gaston,” the Morgan Olson food truck they engineered to serve all types of crepes, any time of day.
Purchased new from a local Chevy dealer, Gaston features a Chevrolet engine, a Workhorse chassis and a custom-built interior. A crepe grill in the service window allows customers to see their orders being made, while refrigerators, a deli case, a generator and other stainless-steel equipment are situated within the truck. Annual mileage is about 10,000 miles, comprised of trips back and forth between Los Angeles and Orange County, Murcia says.
Being based in Fullerton and having permits in both areas gives Crepes Bonaparte a distinct advantage over its Los Angeles-based competition. “[Running a food truck] is a lot more hours than you think it’s going to be,” Murcia says. “I remember when we got off [the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race] we had one ‘day’ where I literally worked 48 hours straight.”
The truck was outfitted by MSM Catering Trucks, a SoCal-based food truck builder. During the initial contract write-up for the interior build, Murcia made sure to include that Gaston needed to be completed in less than three months. “Some of the other food trucks take six, seven, or eight months,” he says. “I don’t know how they do it.”
Murcia went with a completely custom interior because standard food truck templates come installed with equipment he wouldn’t need to make crepes. Murcia says he saved $30,000-$40,000 by buying the chassis and customizing it himself.
On the flip side, “A really easy way to get into the industry is to lease a truck,” says Murcia. (Click link for more information on truck leasing.) He says six-month leases are available for food trucks with standard setups such as a stove, grill and freezer.
After a friend helped design the Crepes Bonaparte logo, Murcia had vinyl wraps created and installed before hitting the road.
In terms of maintenance, one of the most important pieces of equipment on the truck is the high-watt generator, which can cost $5,000-$7,000, Murcia says. “I know too many people that have blown generators because they don’t change the oil frequently enough.” He takes care of most of the maintenance on Gaston himself, though the truck is still under the manufacturer’s warranty.
Kelvin Natural Slush Co.
Food Truck Lesson No. 1: Make sure your equipment is properly bolted down.
New York-based Kelvin Natural Slush Co. has quickly become one of the most popular treat trucks in Manhattan thanks to its all-natural slushie drinks and cool blue-wrapped exterior. Named for the definition of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale, the company’s slushies were voted Best Dessert at the Vendy Awards in 2010.
Company founder and former corporate attorney Alex Rein says he was inspired to create an all-natural version of the convenience store slushie drinks he enjoyed as a kid.
“I wouldn’t really feel comfortable walking into the law firm carrying a bright blue slushie,” Reins says. “I thought it would be nice to offer a more grown-up version.” Natural Slush flavors include ginger, tea, or citrus and a choice of real fruit puree or other natural mix-ins such as fresh chopped mint or basil.
The Kelvin truck is a 2000 P30 Chevrolet Workhorse step van. Rein took it to a specialty shop to have the interior customized with top-grade slushie equipment, a generator and compressors. Unfortunately, some machines weren’t bolted down tightly enough, causing water leakage issues.
“A lot of the [equipment] is not designed to be put in a truck and rumbled around on the streets of Manhattan,” Rein says. “After things were really bolted in place, we haven’t had any problems.”
However, parking regulations and territorial street vendors also have created challenges for the Kelvin truck. “If you do happen to find a spot, store owners aren’t always happy to have you parked near their businesses,” Rein says.
Hiring is another challenge. Each employee is required to obtain a mobile vending license and an individual sales tax identification number, a process that can take up to two months.
Further, the N.Y. Department of Health requires food trucks to park at a Department of Health licensed commissary. “We’re in a lot with a dozen or so other food trucks,” Rein says.
The truck averages about 4,000 miles per year and performs mostly daily trips to Manhattan and back to home base. Rein has plans to expand into the outer boroughs. The commissary employs a full-time mechanic on staff who keeps the Kelvin truck and others maintained by doing routine checks every week.
Sales are rung up using a point-of-sale system and an HP touchpad tablet equipped with Postmatic software. “[It’s] great to monitor what’s working and what people like,” says Rein.
Schnitzel & Things
Weekly maintenance, daily challenges beset German-themed eatery.
As executive director and co-owner of Schnitzel & Things, Oleg Voss says regular maintenance is essential. “Things just happen when you’re driving older vehicles with thousands of pounds of equipment and food,” he says.
The New York-based mobile eatery was established after Voss was let go from his position at an Austrian investment bank in 2008. He returned home to New York and used his formal training from the French Culinary Institute to recreate his favorite Austrian dish: hand-breaded, deep-fried meat cutlets also known as Schnitzel. Voss started Schnitzel & Things in 2009 with a friend, and his brother Gene joined the company soon after. One year, later they were finalist in the 2010 Vendy Awards’ Best Street Food category.
“I thought that we could fill a niche, a void in the marketplace,” Voss says. “I just felt confident in my cooking abilities to start something on my own.” Three years ago, Voss purchased a 1999 GMC Grumman Olson step van used for package deliveries. With the help of a talented graphic artist and mobile kitchen builder, the van was transformed into the now-famous Schnitzel truck.
The truck’s interior was gutted and retrofitted to hold refrigerators, deep fryers, a grill, a generator and other required food-service equipment. Voss had custom-built covers made for the fryers for traveling. The initial three-month truck upfit was finished in six.
Despite the success, Voss says every day brings new challenges. He has tackled issues ranging from a broken generator and other equipment problems to lack of parking, other unhappy street vendors and parking tickets. He performs weekly maintenance checks and inspects the food service equipment at the end of each week as well. He brings the truck in for a checkup every three months.
“Some things we can fix ourselves, some things we can’t,” Voss says, regarding his truck’s high-mileage maintenance needs. (Click link for preventive maintenance solutions for high-mileage vehicles.)
Depending on the nature of the damage, Voss will visit either a truck repair specialist or the interior-build contractor.
“Recently, we had to take it in because we have two 40-gallon water tanks in the truck. One started leaking, and everything got flooded,” Voss says. “You’re constantly worrying about the truck.”
The Schnitzel & Things truck, which Voss describes as a “restaurant on wheels,” currently runs an average of about 10,000 miles a year. It spends one day per week at each of five locations in New York and has recently expanded to include the first Schnitzel & Things brick-and-mortar location.
“It may seem liberating to own your own business, and in many ways it is,” Voss says, however, “It’s very difficult, especially if you’re in a state with rough winters and hot summers. The heat from the fryers is almost unbearable in the summertime.”
Your server, chief cook and engine mechanic will be with you shortly.
For the past three years, Cody and Kristen Fields have been on a roll with Mmmpanadas, the couple’s popular Austin, Texas-based empanada food truck and catering provider. The company was originally started as a wholesale distributor for the Fields’ freshly made empanadas, but their food truck has also been growing in popularity in downtown Austin.
“The truck is a 23-foot moving billboard that can generate cash flow as well,” Cody Fields says. “The first year, I worked every single shift on that truck. One of the misconceptions people have is that they’re going to get a truck and put some kids in there and people will come eat. It’s not that easy.”
The Fields count increasingly convoluted food truck regulations and maintaining a power supply as top issues. The truck went through three generators in the first year before Cody realized the value in purchasing a top-of-the-line commercial generator.
To alleviate some of the equipment problems, the truck stays parked in one spot and racks up fewer than 1,000 miles per year. The empanadas are made from scratch at an offsite kitchen and warmed on the truck.
“You find yourself doing odd jobs, like diesel engine repair, that you never thought you’d be doing,” Fields says. “I’ve had batteries die. I’ve had to replace the glow plugs. This definitely requires maintenance, even now that it sits still.” Fields continues to maintain the generator himself and performs regular oil and filter checks on the truck every 100 hours.
Originally built as a pizza van and purchased on eBay, the truck, a 1986 Grumman Olson step van, was already equipped with the required sinks and hot water heater. In addition to replacing the pizza oven with a convection oven, Cody installed a generator and warming cabinet for the empanadas, a refrigerator and beverage coolers, a display case and branding graphics.
The truck is painted bright red and adorned with vinyl stickers. The Fields just bought a new magnetic removable menu, which makes flavors easy to remove if they sell out.
“I knew that the empanada was the perfect street food and I wanted to be downtown,” Fields says. “I thought that a truck was a good way to do it.”[PAGEBREAK]
Operate first, apologize later.
As the executive chef and owner of Skillet, a Seattle-based gourmet food trailer, Josh Henderson is no stranger to mobile food. Before starting his business in 2007, Henderson attended the Culinary Institute of America and “would travel with photographers and cook for a crew of about 15 to 20 people” in Los Angeles, he says.
Now, Henderson offers gourmet modern American food like handcrafted burgers topped with his award-winning Bacon Jam and served with Poutine fries. “It’s what I like to eat,” he says. “Any chef that’s making their food, it’s usually what they like.” Skillet, which serves the Seattle and Bellevue areas, is also set to open its first brick-and-mortar location in May.
In the beginning, Skillet got shut down a few times for multiple regulatory violations the company couldn’t afford to pay. “I didn’t think the [rules] were going to change,” Henderson say. “So we started operating and apologized afterward.”
Skillet’s current mobile home is a 1972 Airstream trailer. The ’72 supplanted a now out-of-commission 1962 Airstream, both of which Henderson and his team found on Craigslist and retrofitted themselves. The first trailer failed to meet Skillet’s load-bearing needs and the city’s food truck regulations.
“You always suffer in quality if you don’t have the money to put in the right equipment,” Henderson says. “You end up paying for it somewhere. If it’s not in cash or time, it’s in functionality and ease of use.”
The first trailer already had a commercial hood and other equipment, which was reason enough to purchase it, Henderson says. “We built the second one from the ground up. We built the chassis and put in floors and other stuff.”
After installing fryers, sinks and a griddle, the Skillet team applied the brand’s logo and got back out on the road for business. Currently, the trailer is taken to a mechanic every few months for routine maintenance and upkeep, Henderson says.
“Now [the challenges are] consistency and maintaining quality. We have to compete with rising prices and still provide value while staying true to what we want to do.”[PAGEBREAK]
Small truck, big menu and new regulations equal huge challenge.
Business partners Scott Baitinger and Steve Mai credit the instant success of their food truck, Streetza Pizza, to their knowledge of the Milwaukee restaurant scene and the loyal customers who stay connected through their social media outlets.
The Streetza Pizza truck is slightly smaller than your average food truck but boasts a huge menu that includes whole pizzas as well as catering services. Baitinger and Mai started by purchasing a 1988 Chevrolet P30 Grumman Olson step van from a former co-worker after determining that a brick-and-mortar restaurant would be too expensive.
“Milwaukee had no food trucks at the time,” Baitinger says. “We figured being first out of the gate would garner a fair amount of publicity.”
However, being first in the market also brought its fair share of problems. “We had to build our truck in conjunction with the health department, which hadn’t seen a lot of mobile food vehicles,” Baitinger says. The duo also made the mistake of purchasing all their kitchen equipment first before figuring out how much of power it would require.
“[We] bought a generator to power all the equipment, then figured out the department of transportation wouldn’t allow us to attach a generator as big as we needed to the truck,” Baitinger says. “We sold all that equipment and switched to propane.”
Once they obtained the truck, Baitinger and Mai added inflated panels in the box area and installed electrical and water systems, refrigeration and a pizza oven. They also painted the exterior but, about eight months later, decided to upgrade to a vinyl wrap. (Click link for vehicle vinyl wrap do’s and don’ts.) They got their customers involved by asking them to vote for a new logo via a Web poll.
Initially, Streetza offered only late-night service on the weekends but eventually expanded to festivals, lunch services and catering throughout the Milwaukee area.
“Condensing all the equipment needed to pull off pizzas in such a small space is a challenge,” Baitinger says. “It’s pretty tight quarters.”
Currently, the Streetza truck averages about 2,500 miles per year and tends to stay within the Milwaukee area near its commissary kitchen to mitigate some of the strain from the weight. “It’s definitely made for city driving,” Baitinger says. “When you’re driving 70 miles an hour for an hour and a half, you realize some things could probably be secured a little bit better.”
As far as maintenance, Baitinger and Mai have been pretty lucky and typically perform the standard oil changes and tire rotations as needed on the truck.
“We just had a new exhaust put on just because it was horrifically loud,” Baitinger says. “The truck takes about 10 minutes to start when it’s really cold in winter. The next truck that we get will be fuel injection for sure.”
Baitinger and Mai are looking to expand and are shopping around for potential Streetza trucks to acquire. They say that many food trucks in L.A. had an operating license for a year and wound up on the used market. Considering that many already have electrical and water systems installed, “there’s a tremendous savings that can be realized if you buy one of those,” Baitinger says.
Baitinger adds that the key to buying a used unit is to “make sure you know the history and if it’s been maintained well,” he says. “I think that’s why we’ve been so lucky.”[PAGEBREAK]
A trailer is a great alternative to a truck — if you know how to tow it.
Launched last year, Seattle-based mobile eatery and catering business BUNS is gaining momentum thanks to its premium organic hamburgers and specialty French fry offerings. California native Stewart Chung was inspired to create the mobile hamburger stand after moving to Seattle and being less than thrilled with the local burgers. “People like to have a reason to be outdoors,” Chung says. “If you do it right, I think you can create a very different eating experience.”
The BUNS mobile eatery is a custom-built, 20-foot food trailer that can be hitched to any tow vehicle. Using his background in architecture, Chung says the initial challenge to creating the interior was figuring out what type of equipment would work inside the space. Compared to the mechanical aspects, creating exterior wrap graphics and branding was a breeze.
“I wanted [the trailer] to be efficient, I wanted it to function, to be presentable, I wanted it to be low-maintenance, and I wanted it to be reliable,” Chung says. “I was going to do a food truck anyway after [creating a] restaurant. So why not do that first, have a little less risk and get people to know us?”
After placing an order with custom builder Wells Cargo, the trailer arrived some months later, empty, with Chung’s specifications for openings, appropriately sized doors, pre-installed electrical and plumbing, counters and cabinets for the commercial-sized equipment.
The BUNS trailer now houses a generator, a 48 inch-wide charbroiler, a deep fryer for the French fries, a refrigerated sandwich table to build hamburgers on, a full-size upright freezer and refrigerators for beverages and meat storage. The trailer currently travels about 600 miles per month and is often invited to provide lunch services for some of Seattle’s largest companies. BUNS also has become increasingly popular with some of the local school districts looking to provide their students with healthier hamburger choices.
Chung says that maintenance is less of an issue with the trailer compared to a standard food truck, though the axles need to be lubed and the generators need to be well taken care of just the same. “My tow vehicle is a normal truck that I can take to a regular dealer for service,” he says. “The challenge is moving around in a trailer. And you need to know how to drive them.”
Finding someone capable of driving a trailer efficiently and safely is more challenging than finding a cook that can flip a hamburger, he says. (Click the link for five trailering mistakes to avoid.) [PAGEBREAK]
Approval was the hardest ingredient to come by.
Fullerton, Calif.-based treats truck Chunk-N-Chip specializes in all-natural artisan ice cream sandwiches crafted from family cookie recipes and locally made ice cream.
Owner Claudia Gonzalez started her business in 2006 selling ice cream sandwiches through a traditional booth setup at festivals and by selling the cookies full time as corporate gifts.
She purchased a 2001 Ford Utilimaster step van last year after searching the inventories of several new and used commercial truck dealers. The truck was launched in August 2010 at an Orange County food truck fest and has since become a “full-time gig.”
“I was skeptical [of the food truck scene] at first,” Gonzalez says. “I was one of the many that had the whole ‘roach coach’ mentality. I didn’t think it was going to last.” After watching the food truck industry continue to grow exponentially, Gonzalez drafted up a business plan and found that running a truck would be more lucrative than opening a brick-and-mortar location.
“What caught my interest [in food trucks] was the variety of cuisines,” Gonzalez says. “With the truck, it’s a whole different phenomenon. I can’t keep up with the requests to be at a particular event or come out and sell at a location.”
Unlike other food trucks, Chunk-N-Chip uses its dessert truck solely for assembling the ice cream sandwiches, an important detail that made the custom build of the interior relatively simple, Gonzalez says. “The conversion didn’t take long. But it’s a tedious process to get your plans approved by the health department. That can take several rounds.”
The truck’s interior was outfitted with a freezer, ice cream cabinet, counters, a generator and plenty of shelves. The exterior features ice cream sandwich decals and original artwork by a popular Venice Beach-based artist.
“It’s rare that a truck would get approved [by the health department] in the first round, and they even tell you that,” Gonzalez adds. “The frustration is that instead of giving you everything up front, it’s done piecemeal. … You can’t get into the nitty-gritty of the truck until the plans are finalized. Then the turnaround is really reasonable.”
The truck was completed a few months later, but Gonzalez quickly learned that maintenance would consist of more than regular oil changes and tune-ups.
“Most owners don’t know that they have to maintain their generator,” Gonzalez says. “This was totally foreign. I could have easily blown out my generator, and [new generators] aren’t cheap.”
Gonzalez’ husband currently handles the oil changes on the generator, but the frequent tune-ups have been an added cost she says she never expected. Other challenges included scouting for routes and locations to set up business. Time of day was crucial, as many business lunchers would stop by the Chunk-N-Chip truck only after they’d already had their lunch.
“With the truck, it was really about going out to different cities randomly, not waiting for an event to take place,” Gonzalez says. “The great thing is I that already knew my product and how to sell it. [The food truck] was just in a different platform.” BF