Food Trucks: Making Your Restaurant Concept Mobile

by Katherine Martinelli with Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
December 2009

Recipe

Whether it’s because of the economy, cultural exchange, or plain demand, street food is making its culinary mark. At the recent StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress, food writer Josh Ozersky called the food truck movement “one of the definitive moments of this generation. It’s not a fad like pet rocks or hundred dollar burgers. It’s a great way for young chefs to get into the business without having a wealthy backer.”

Increasingly chefs and savvy entrepreneurs are taking to the streets with their culinary training and business sense. Partially fuelled by the recession and a general trend towards more casual dining—not to mention a new wave of adventurous eaters—chefs are finding inspiration in global street food, both in concept and cuisine. Although no single person is behind this movement, Roy Choi of LA’s Kogi BBQ Truck has been credited with being at the helm. (Lev Ekster of New York’s CupcakeStop truck describes him as “the Michael Jordon of food trucks.”) As a group, this new wave of food truck chefs are proving that you don’t need a brick and mortar space to produce high quality, high concept food.

“Everywhere in the world there is street food,” says Choi. “What we did was tap into that here in America.” In fact, food vendors are nothing new. In the US they’ve traditionally been the domain of ethnic fast food, from the taco trucks of LA to the gyro stands and iconic hot dog vendors of New York. Around the world some of the best examples of a country’s cuisine are found on the street.

But in this era of upscale casual, wallet-friendly dining, the street food movement is growing especially fast.. Each city has trucks or carts with a cult-like following—and the trend is spreading quickly. Our 2009 Seattle Rising Star Award for Restaurant Concept went to Joshua Henderson of Skillet Street Food for his high end farm fresh street food sold from a retrofitted Airstream trailor. And Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog just finished retrofitting a 1962 airstream trailer (much like the one Skillet operates out of) and is about to launch his concept, gastropod, which will be the first of its kind in South Florida.

The obvious appeal of bringing your food into a truck or cart is the low overhead—there’s no rent, no getting a restaurant up to code, no large staff to pay. Jerome Chang of New York’s Dessert Truck says that financially “we absolutely would not have been able to open a restaurant.” In fact, he went about things backward, by starting out as a truck and moving into a traditional space (the Dessert Truck shop is schedule to open in winter 2009 or early 2010).

Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ Truck in Los Angeles says “for us it was really cheap…We opened Kogi for $1,500. We rented the truck, went to the Korean market and got sesame leaves and short ribs and we started our business that way.” Now Kogi is one of the models for people around the country looking to start a successful street food business.

There’s a caveat, however. Chang says that while the overhead can be extremely low, “you have to charge lower prices” because you are serving food from a truck on the street; your average Joe isn’t willing to cough up restaurant prices if you’re copping your goods on the pavement. “Bread pudding is sold [at Dessert Truck] for $5. In a restaurant it would be $9 or $10. We have the same margins as a restaurant.”

So don’t ditch your landlord and splurge on a vintage trailer lightly—running a street food cart or truck is not as easy as it sounds. Chang was a Le Cirque (New York) pastry chef before taking his confections to the streets, and he brings the same level of execution and quality of ingredients to his truck desserts as he did when he was in fine dining. Both Henderson and Choi have CIA and professional kitchen training under their belts.

Then there’s the issue of permits, which varies from city to city. Choi says that compared to other cities in the country—New York, in particular—Los Angeles is “the Wild West” when it comes to allowing food trucks and street vendors to operate; chaos reigns. New York, on the other hand, is notoriously challenging for those looking to (legally) start their own street food operation.

The creator of New York’s CupcakeStop truck, Lev Ekster, says that there is a seedy underbelly to the world of street vendor permits. With only 3,100 legal permits, people often turn to the black market as an easy solution to their permit problems. “The majority of permits,” explains Ekster, “all go back to…the old school families that have had these permits for a long time. You can go there and get a permit and find out a month later you have a counterfeit permit.” His suggestion: go the legal route. The easiest way to do that, he says, is to team up with someone who has a pre-existing permit.

Once the food truck or cart is up and running there is the question of how to promote the business. Although traditional branding (like a large logo on the truck) does some of the work, these days it’s all about utilizing social media to its fullest capacity. Choi and Ekster have found Twitter to be an immensely powerful tool. Not only does it let followers know where the truck is and what menu items are available, it’s a great forum for real-time feedback—an excellent catalyst for growth. (Check out our Power of Twitter feature to learn more about how Choi and Chef Grant Achatz use Twitter.)

For his part, Choi is calling for industry support of food trucks and carts, especially as the industry embraces street food indoors, in restaurants capitalizing on the popularity of street vendors. “There’s no support mechanism and we’re all on our own, yet you guys are labeling us the next food movement,” he says. “How are we supposed to survive without the support? We have to create a new structure and support system.”

Considering the current support system for food trucks and street vendors consists entirely of traffic lights and shady permit bureaus, Choi may have a point.