By 2010, Choi’s Kogi, and other chef-driven trucks, realized that their vehicles could land them that coveted physical space. Kogi offshoot Chego became one of the first truck-turned-brick-and-mortar concepts that year, with Clover in Boston following close behind. Choi has since gone on to open or consult on four others. Clover’s first location has multiplied into five, with an expansion to Washington, DC on the horizon. (Muir says they’re the fastest-growing and highest-performing restaurant group in New England.) In Portland, Gencarelli and his truck Lardo quickly caught the eye of restaurateur Kurt Huffman; he now has three locations of Lardo as well as a pasta concept called Grassa.
After BJ Lofback launched his truck in 2011 with partner Carlos Davis, the two got through a busy Spring and Fall before hitting the dead calm of Winter. “There’s this allure of food truck life [before you open] where you go, I only have to work for three hours a day! And, I can open it whenever I want! The freedom is very intoxicating. And then the reality comes -- it’s not that at all,” he says. For him and Davis (and numerous other truck owners), the solution was to get into catering, which Lofback calls “easy money” compared to the truck. By late 2012, the business had two distinct arms, which meant they were also in need of a bigger kitchen. They were approached a number of times about taking over a physical space and found the right fit in a corporate office park just East of downtown. “It’s been this weird progression of the business. The food truck spawned a catering company; those two spawned a café,” he says. Next up, he’s taking over a restaurant/bar at a nearby hotel.
For Lofback -- and all truck-turned-restaurant owners -- the key takeaway from the trucks has been customer interaction. Not only does the window offer immediate feedback and adaptability, it breaks down the barrier between chef and customer. “There’s a crowd of people there to see you play, only instead of listening, they’re tasting. That’s the addiction,” says Lofback. For Muir, it’s shaped his business model. “Face-to-face is a really important part of who we are now but I didn't design it that way. People started getting much more emotionally involved than I ever expected.” As Sarah and Karl Worley begin to look into their own brick-and-mortar space, Sarah says, “It’s going to be really important for us to incorporate that visibility with our customers and keep that one-on-one interaction alive.”
Nothing but Wide Open Road So what’s next for food trucks? Owners coming onto the scene today face a very different set of obstacles than their forefathers -- no more permitting battles, an established customer base. Many cities now boast their own food truck associations. But new owners face their own set of struggles -- seasonal business trends, tight margins, breakdowns, stiffer competition for real estate. And most food truck owners will tell you the same thing: Don’t do it if all you want to do is make a living off a food truck. “The business model sucks unless you look at it like, this will help me launch something with real revenue,” says Gencarelli.
For example, a number of established restaurants have launched trucks to test the waters in new markets, like Cambridge restaurant Area Four, an all-day café and wood-fired pizza concept that launched a truck last year, pedaling pastries and piadina sandwiches. “For us it was a way to increase our brand outside of Cambridge and into Boston. It’s a means to drive additional people to the restaurant,” says co-owner Michael Krupp. Last year, it just broke even, he admits. “But it’s mobile advertising. There’s evidence to support that it does drive business back.” This year, he’s sending the truck to Nashville where he’ll collaborate with a couple of guys who are testing out their own restaurant concept. Portland, Oregon ice cream cart-turned-scoop shop, Salt & Straw, is about to expand into LA. They have a physical space but they’re also building out a 14ft truck, which will hit the streets right after the space opens. “We started with this vision, ‘what if we could export happiness?’ It was this idea of being able to bring something cool to a community. The truck is a great opportunity to do that and tell people, using our own voice, about who we are,” says co-founder Tyler Malek.
And just because a restaurant comes along doesn’t mean the trucks go away, in some cases. As Clover Food Lab expands, Muir says, “Now we’re using [the trucks] to figure out real estate and to see where we’ll open new restaurants.” And while Riffs works on expansion plans, Lofback says, “The truck is probably the most profitable thing we have now. [Plus], I think about it as an intelligent business decision: it’s constant advertising.”
Mostly, though, the life of a truck lives well-beyond its owners. After you add a fully functioning kitchen and put a system for cooking in place, the trucks can be passed along. Biscuit Love, which got its start thanks to the generous loan of a truck from a fellow local chef and restaurateur, eventually moved into its own retrofitted Airstream trailer. When they eventually open a restaurant, Sarah says they want to pay it forward. They recently collaborated with an area high school student who wanted to test out an Indian-Southern truck concept. They worked alongside him for the day, temporarily transforming the truck into the Namaste, Y’all concept. Perhaps the truck would go to someone like him, or another business owner looking to get out of the gate. “We’ve had a whole bunch of people who have loved us in the right ways and we made the right relationships,” says Sarah. “So what’s the point if we can’t help to breathe life into something else?"
Erin Byers Murray lives, writes, and eats in Nashville where she’s currently the managing editor of Nashville Lifestyles. Follow her at @erinbmurray.