The how, why, and where of high-end food trucks
At lunchtime in Seattle, hungry office workers are bypassing the usual fast-food spots to line up outside a silver trailer and order Kobe beef burgers with bacon jam, Cambozola cheese, and arugula. In South Los Angeles, a solar-powered lunch truck is hawking sesame tofu wraps and yerba mate tea. Across the country in Manhattan, dinner crowds are leaving restaurants early to try the new crème brûlée at DessertTruck. When did street food get so fancy?
Most cities offer an array of mobile eateries, usually dominated by quick, easy options: tacos, sandwiches, falafel, gyros. But in the last year, food trucks have gone high-end, with some of the country’s most exciting new eateries operating out of makeshift kitchens in Airstream trailers and delivery trucks. Lured by the low overhead, the freedom to design their own menus, and even the possibility of building a sizable business, both experienced chefs and industry newcomers are bypassing the notoriously grueling lower rungs of the culinary world and starting their own truck-restaurants.
Josh Henderson, the chef at Skillet in Seattle, spent several years catering photo shoots before he and business partner Danny Sizemore found an Airstream trailer on Craigslist and retrofitted it with propane tanks, a four-compartment sink, refrigeration units, a stovetop, and a commercial hood. Getting the trailer in serving shape cost about $60,000—far less than the hundreds of thousands it takes to open a new restaurant.
Henderson’s bistro-style street food attracts lines stretching 40 deep for farm-fresh eggs and maple-braised pork belly at breakfast, and toasted walnut, sage, and Reggiano gnocchi for lunch. The operation has drawn such a following that the partners are expanding with additional trailers in Seattle, with an eye toward launching 15 to 20 trailers in cities up and down the West Coast.
THE MOBILE STOREFRONT
Jerome Chang left his job as a pastry sous-chef at famed Manhattan eatery Le Cirque to open DessertTruck with his roommate Chris Chen, a graduate business student at Columbia University looking for a way to break into the culinary industry.
“We had this idea of starting a high-end dessert business together, but neither of us really had a reputation in the industry or the resources to open a restaurant,” says Chen. “So we decided on a mobile storefront. Honestly, we had no idea how people would react to it.”
The idea has taken off, with local media and food blogs fawning over DessertTruck and passersby lining up for Chang’s upscale offerings, which range from rosemary-caramel goat cheese cheesecake to chocolate bread pudding topped with bacon crème anglaise. The pair operate the truck seven nights a week, opening at 6 p.m. and serving until the desserts are sold out.
BREAKING IN AS A PRO COOK
Other entrepreneurs, such as Kim Ima, the owner-baker-driver of New York’s Treats Truck, are making their first forays into professional cooking. Ima, a theater artist and lifelong baker, bought a used delivery truck on eBay, outfitted it with an oven and a serving window, and spent several months adapting her recipes for large-batch production before launching in May 2007.
“There’s something fun and appealing about the whole experience of buying homemade treats from a truck,” says Ima. “And people love supporting small businesses. They give me words of encouragement, and I get a lot of regulars.”
Starting an environmentally friendly food business was an added enticement for Ima—the Treats Truck runs on compressed natural gas—and other proprietors say that selling just a few items out of a small kitchen on wheels allows them to conserve energy and produce less waste than a traditional kitchen.
Kam Miceli and Mitchell Collier started Green Truck in Los Angeles out of a desire to promote organic and sustainable eating. The duo hired Beth Creasey, a former chef at LA hot spot AOC, to design a menu of gourmet salads, sandwiches, and wraps that includes vegetarian, vegan, and raw options. All utensils and packaging are recyclable, and the truck runs on a combination of solar power and the kitchen’s used cooking oil. The business now includes two Green Trucks traveling from South LA to Beverly Hills, with two more being custom built and future plans to expand to other cities.