Photo by Caitlin Abrams
How many food trucks have to turn brick-and-mortar before the phenomenon eclipses trend and constitutes a full-blown force for metropolitan transformation? How about this many: Smack Shack (multi-million-dollar-grossing downtown lobster behemoth), Sushi Fix (the new upper level for Wayzata splurge sushi), World Street Kitchen (national headline-making, Gen-Y culture-hopping, busy-all-day phenomenon), Chef Shack (best barbecue by a five-star chef), Hola Arepa (artisanal but quick and fun Central American cocktail and cheap eats), Hot Indian Foods (the Chipotle of good Indian), Foxy Falafel (Mediterranean food with a modern, organic emphasis), Potter’s Pasties (a London-evoking grab-and-go for the best hot pockets ever), A Cupcake Social (picture-perfect cupcake shop and tearoom), and Bistro La Roux (a bar and étouffée joint up in Circle Pines). Is that enough for you?
There are more coming: Vellee Deli (Southeast Asia through the prism of California street food) has a space in downtown Minneapolis and will open any day, while Sassy Spoon and Gastrotruck are both working on spots. We’ve only had food trucks in Minnesota since the spring of 2010, and we’re closing in on a dozen lease-holding, tax-paying, job-generating, food-scene-altering spots since then. You know how a little trickle of water can transform a mighty mountain? That’s what this food truck to brick-and-mortar trend feels like in Minnesota. It seems, then, a good time to ask: What exactly is this phenomenon all about? I called up a bunch of local success stories and the answers surprised me. Turns out, there are perfectly logical reasons why food trucks are terraforming our cities, though they may not be obvious to the average eater.
1. PERFECTING THE CONCEPT
The one thing I heard from every single owner of a truck-to-brick success story was: Driving food out to the public and then having to drive it home again is a ruthless form of criticism you can’t ignore. For instance, Josh Thoma started Smack Shack with a number of items that fell flat: “People just didn’t get chilled crab,” says Thoma. “But for some reason they totally got the lobster.” So over the months the concept morphed toward lobster. At Hola Arepa, co-owner Birk Grudem found that salads fell flat, but house-made chorizo arepas went great guns. Before he launched, he had worried that arepas were too exotic to find an audience, but over time discovered almost the opposite—people only wanted arepas.
Sameh Wadi, longtime chef/owner of downtown’s upscale Mediterranean- Middle Eastern star Saffron, actually found out about food trucks from a meeting the city called to gauge brick-and-mortar leaseholder’s feelings about food trucks coming to town. He already had an idea for a World Street food restaurant, but saw it more as a tablecloth-and-server concept, largely because he imagined he’d need servers to hand-sell odd foods to a conservative public. He started the truck with a very small menu: a taco, a sub, a spinach pie, a banh mi, and an ice-cream sandwich. All sold well. But the next year he decided to push his fan base and do edgy things like the Yum Yum bowl—his take on bi bim bop that started with grilled chicken, a fried egg, and peanuts. It was then he realized customers would follow him anywhere, if the flavors were good.
“The food truck changed my perspective on dining,” says Wadi. “The biggest thing was getting people to trust me. Before I had that year of experimentation I thought, people need this, people need that,” like a pre-existing understanding of the cuisine, or different comforts of the table, like a bread basket. The truck taught him to refine his concept to something much more along the lines of: Trust me, it’ll be worth it. “Before the truck, I was the Middle Eastern chef,” says Wadi. “Now I’m me. It’s easier.”
We are all familiar with the way that new restaurants can open rocky, and then close. The food truck process ensures that all the rough edges are knocked off by the brutal, but efficient invisible hand of the market.
2. WEEDING OUT THE WEAK
What do you actually get when you buy a food truck? For your $50,000 to $100,000 investment, says Thoma, what you’re really buying is a job. “I tell everyone who asks, get ready to work all the time. I hope you know a cheap mechanic and a repair guy.”
Everyone I spoke to says there is one big, invisible factor behind every truck-to-brick success: The years of wrestling with a truck. Everyone knows that enjoying a job is key to being able to work 100 hours at it, and the process of slogging out the long days of a food truck is a deep, fast, real way to understand if you want to do it at all. A lot of people find they don’t.
Food trucks in Minnesota never call it quits, or so it seems, because they don’t send out press releases to let anyone know they’re gone, they just vanish in the off-season and are repainted as a new truck for someone new, here or in another city. But they do close: Aussie’s Kebabs, Messy Giuseppe, Bloomy’s Roast Beef, Mr. Mustachio’s, Sayo, Melch’s Meat Wagon—they’re all gone. Did customers hate the concept or did the owners decide the job wasn’t worth it? We’ll never know.
3. MASTERING THE LITTLE STUFF—AND IT'S ALL LITTLE STUFF
By the time you actually open your restaurant, everyone says, you understand the non-obvious costs of your business, and there are many: accounting, fluctuating food costs, paper goods costs, prep time, labor costs, seasonal dips, waste disposal fees, and licensing fees. Doing your own accounting, which I’m told is standard for businesses grossing less than $500K, is invaluable training for really understanding your business. Another advantage to doing every little thing yourself is that you can train your employees in every little thing, and evaluate their work intimately.
4. PUTTING YOUR FANS IN THE BANK
They all say that after honing the concept, the second biggest advantage a food truck gives a brick-and-mortar is the marketing—old-fashioned handshaking, on-the-street marketing, and new-fashioned ceaseless tweeting. “When I first opened the truck, I was kind of resistant to the idea of Facebook and all that,” says Thoma. “But you have to do it, because people want to know where you are and what your specials are. So I did it. Then I came to enjoy it.” By the time he opened the restaurant it had around 5,000 Facebook followers, and a big Twitter following too. “When we opened our doors,” he recalls, “we had a line of 40 people outside in February. With a traditional restaurant opening you just peek out and wonder if anyone knows you’re there, and you don’t see people really come until you start to get full-fledged restaurant reviews. But by the time we opened we had thousands of actively engaged fans—that was incredible.” Erica Strait, of Foxy Falafel opened her Twitter account before her truck, to get people excited.
The other pre-marketing aspect of social media is that lots of people in other parts of the cities who have never tried your food are already aware of you, and may have been curious for a long time. The final piece? Downtown office workers who have been longtime fans are dying to take their non-downtown working spouses and friends to the restaurant, to share their favorite eats. It’s money in the bank.
5. GETTING THE MONEY
The biggest money in the bank, of course, is money. Everyone I talked to says their loan to open the restaurant was acquired partly by being able to show several years of actual earnings from the truck. “The banker from Sunrise who financed our loan, he had eaten at our truck, had seen the long lines, knew we were popular, and then saw our numbers,” says Grudem. “So he was more than happy to help us get a loan. Christina and I had always wanted a brick-and-mortar, other bankers we talked to before we had the truck were like: Arepas? What are those? It’ll never work.”
6. GRATITUDE AND JOY FOR SMALL PLEASURES
The single most surprising thing I learned from talking to successful truck-to-brick owners—and thus far, they’re all successful—is: They’re so grateful to not have to drive refrigeration over potholes. Evidently, the weakest link in a food truck is the freezer or refrigerator compressor, which breaks easily when bounced. “I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t had a food truck can really appreciate how beautiful it is in a restaurant to walk from your walk-in cooler to your prep area,” says Strait. The hazards of forgetting a critical ingredient for a dish are significant, she explains. You either have to strike it from the menu and lose money, or head to the base kitchen, which means lose your food truck spot and also lose money.
Other invisible bonds that connect all food-truck-to-brick owners, beyond deeply felt gratitude for the gift of on-site refrigeration? A practically rhapsodic feeling about the easy profits from alcohol sales, an ability to swoon over the simplicity of a life in which you can leave your blender on the counter at the end of the day without worrying about it crashing to the floor when you drive home.
Talking to this breed of restaurateurs feels a little like talking to people who survived the Great Depression. They are happy for so many of life’s tiny luxuries that the rest of us fail to even see. Guests lingering and adding dessert to a check without having to stand in line again. Not having to tell everyone where you are every day. People still come, even when it’s raining. Bathrooms.
Will the truck-to-brick phenomenon continue? Are food trucks to restaurants as residencies are to doctors? Probably. Food trucks are unquestionably one viable path to the top. After talking to various folks who took the path, I have a new respect for how much this prepares them in a unique way to enjoy their restaurant. That’s key, because when a restaurateur enjoys their place, the feeling spreads, giving the restaurant that spark that turns mere good food into that special chemistry of a great destination. One criticism of new restaurant owners is that they think it will be like throwing a dinner party, when it’s anything but. However, after you’re toughened up by life on the streets, says Grudem, you have mastered all the ‘anything but,’ which frees you for the joy. “It’s a lot more fun to have a restaurant. For us it’s like hosting a dinner party every night!”