It sounds like a Hollywood plot. An amateur cook opens a food truck and becomes a celebrated chef. Or a celebrated chef opens a food truck and finds the happiness that eluded him in the four-star kitchen. And it can become a blockbuster.
When food trucks began popping up in American cities over a decade ago, they presented a refreshing alternative to the drive-through window: a hipper, healthier answer to fast food. Yet in some ways, food trucks of the 2000s were what fast-food joints were to the 1950s: an unexpected craze that has turned into a billion-dollar industry.
In the last several years, many food trucks have built on success with sit-down restaurants and other forms of physical dining establishments. With low overhead and staffing costs, food trucks provide a unique conceptual testing ground that would prove too expensive, and too risky, for a brick-and-mortar restaurant to pull off without major capital investment.
"Food trucks can get to market without breaking the bank and to answer the question 'Does anybody care?'" said Ross Resnick, the founder of Roaming Hunger, a Los Angeles-based company that tracks and promotes food trucks.
The following restaurant success stories share at least one element in common: a humble food truck was the critical launchpad.
—By Sarah Chandler, special to CNBC.com
Posted 20 November 2015
When Portland, Oregon-based Burrasca's debuted back in 2013, the lean operation of the original food cart (they don't call them trucks in Portland) — a cash-only operation with low overhead, manageable food-cost ratios and a sole part-time employee in addition to the chef — were crucial to achieving immediate profitability. "We wanted to start small, test the market (as well as ourselves), build a clientele and develop relationships that would eventually lead to crowdfunding supporters as well as our very small group of private investors," said general manager Elizabeth Petrosian.
From launching the food cart to opening the restaurant, Burrasca's transformation took less than two years. In the true indie spirit of Portland, Petrosian launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that, seven months later, brought Burrascas' loyal patrons a brick-and-mortar location on the southeast side of the city. Inspired by chef Paolo Calamai's Florentine roots, the new restaurant features a wider menu and charming touches that a food cart couldn't possibly match, like tables inscribed with the names of local characters from the chef's home village. From just 148 backers, the restaurant gathered $13,733 in donations from the campaign — $1,733 over its goal.
Petrosian stressed that the success of their Kickstarter campaign can be partly chalked up to Portland's "affection for mom-and-pop shops and underdogs." The city provides, she said, "a welcoming sort of laboratory for this kind of experiment. Running a successful food cart gives you a certain amount of street cred. It's hard work, and everyone knows it."
Like Portland, Austin has provided a friendly business environment for chef-entrepreneurs, tailoring zoning laws and other regulations to support its burgeoning food-truck culture. No wonder the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" has become practically synonymous with food trucks. True to the city's start-up ethos, trucks like Torchy's Tacos and The Peached Tortilla (Southern-Asian fusion) have transcended their DIY roots to become established restaurants.
Judging by the length of its lines, Austin's standout food-truck success story remains Franklin Barbecue. After the original food truck that drew a cult following, pitmaster Aaron Franklin's namesake closed up the mobile operation and launched a sit-down, lunch-only restaurant. Barbecue fanatics responded, driving in from Houston and Dallas to line up for hours under the hot sun for a taste of the addictive brisket.
There's even a Twitter account devoted solely to the infamous line: time-stamped photos encourage patrons to check out the competition for a table. (If you want to be at the head of the line, be prepared to roll out of bed and wait with your morning coffee.)
Los Angeles' Staples Center may be best known as the home to pro sports teams the Lakers, the Clippers and the Kings — or as the place to catch a Lady Gaga show. But for foodies, it's also the home of LudoBird, the indoor offshoot of Ludo Lefebvre's chicken shack on wheels, LudoTruck.
Lefebvre, who has been called the "impresario of pop-up dining," is a telegenic chef from the Burgundy region of France, who spent 13 years cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants. Yet don't expect his street food to be fussy or predictable. LudoTruck plies one of the most quintessential American dishes, fried chicken, with an edge: As the truck's website proclaims, "This ain't yo' mama's fried chicken." The prices, however, are more Mom than Michelin Guide: Three pieces of decadent buttermilk chicken and lavender honey biscuit come to less than $10.
Lefebvre said that the fun part of a truck is you can do something different and fun that is maybe a bit from the local tastes. "People like to go to trucks to try new things. It is typically a lower-cost food option than a restaurant, so people are willing to try new things," Lefebvre added.
To Roaming Hunger founder Ross Resnick, Los Angeles' Roy Choi is the poster child for a food-truck chef connecting with customers. "He leveraged the food truck to build his personal brand as a chef," Resnick said.
Kogi Barbecue, the original Choi operation, sold Hollywood residents on marinated short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas before the phrase "food truck" was in common parlance and Mexican Asian fusion became a culinary subgenre. Since then, he's built a veritable food empire: five playfully diverse brick-and-mortar establishments, from a sleek Culver City dinner spot A-Frame to a Caribbean-inspired brunch joint called Sunny Spot (both pictured here). If you're craving a short-rib taco and are only passing through town on a connecting flight, you're in luck: Kogi Barbecue now serves its signature dishes at a stall in LAX's Terminal 4.
"There is no doubt that Roy Choi is the single chef who launched the food-truck trend. It is about food, a vibe and about mastering social media," Lefebvre said.
These days, Choi's mobile dining operation is a fleet of colorful trucks that roam the streets of L.A, using Twitter to shout out their locations.
If you're even remotely a seafood lover, the menu is mouthwatering: fried shrimp po' boy, Alaskan king crab and a slew of favorites you'd likely find in seafood joints up the Eastern Seaboard. Yet this joint is 1,400 miles from Boston's waterfront.
Featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive Ins and Dives," booming downtown Minneapolis restaurant Smack Shack opened in 2010 as a food-truck operation that still feeds downtown workers hungry for lobster rolls. Five years later, the rolls have become a practically classic fixture in the city's booming food-truck scene. Yet the truck's success wasn't a guarantee. The essential question, said general manager Jon Jacklin, came down to this: "How would landlocked Minnesota receive lobster?"
It sounds like the perfect script for the modern-day American Dream: three Egyptian immigrants open up a hot dog cart in New York. Except in the case of Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed, it was the humdrum reception of their original concept — Manhattan hardly needed yet another hot dog stand — that became the catalyst for the Halal Guys. What Manhattanites did want, it turned out, was quick-and-tasty Middle Eastern food. While the vast majority of their customers are non-Muslim, it didn't hurt that their menu was also halal: that is, food prepared within the strict guidelines of Islamic dietary practices.
The Halal Guys may be the franchise kings of the food-truck movement, but don't hope to see one of their carts popping up on your local corner. Instead, they've taken the concept inside to two brick-and-mortar locations in New York, plying the same items that gave their carts a loyal following. After 25 years of building their brand, they announced plans to franchise earlier this year, with over 225 worldwide locations already in the works. That includes more than 40 locations in Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines, three robust markets for halal cuisine. If you're interested in opening up the first Halal Guys in Paris (or Pittsburgh), the price tag is, as franchises go, fairly steep: You'll need $1 million in liquid capital and $2 million in total net worth.
The Peached Tortilla started as a truck and now has a brick-and-mortar location. But in another sign of how food trucks can expand into multiple venues, it has also announced plans to open an event space in the Austin area of Brentwood, according to Eater Austin.
"We started in a food truck because of funding," said Eric Silverstein, founder. "I needed to get the brand out there and make money before we could open a restaurant."
As for the cuisine, we were limited in what we could serve off the truck, based on equipment and also ticket times. We wanted our lunch customers to get served fast. So we stuck to tacos, burgers, burritos and bowls, all food items that could be executed off a lonchera-style truck. Local tastes and demographics should always be considered in building a food-truck menu. You have to cater to your demographic and take their food knowledge into consideration.
About the event-space plans, Silverstein said, "We have always focused on growing our catering business, and this is a natural extension for that side of the business. We have a number of catering clients, so why not offer them a place to hold their event?" The space will also house another production kitchen and the company's corporate offices.
Mexicue started out as a truck and now has two brick-and-mortar locations.
Dave Schillace, co-founder and CEO, said the truck wasn't only a great way to test Mexicue's concept and new menu items but also potential brick-and-mortar locations all over Manhattan.
"When you are starting a new concept, there are often many variables that are unknown things you think may work but do not, and things you thought would never work but end up working great," Schillace said.
Schillace said that he knew the food truck was ready to make the transition to brick-and-mortar — though you "never really fully know," he said — was the combination of the consumer response both online and in the street, where they would line up day after day, and the feedback Mexicue got from the press. "
"When you hear that you're doing something great and unique and that is backed up by people waiting in line for your product, you feel really positive about taking that leap into brick-and-mortar," he said.