For entrepreneurs who dream of opening a restaurant, it's a cheaper and less risky way to get into business. If a cart or truck is at a location where it's not doing well, it's easily driven elsewhere. But an owner with a store in a bad location is stuck — usually with a lease. Restaurant failure rates are high — studies generally put it around 30 percent in the first year of operation. The trucks themselves are great advertising for mobile or fixed locations. Trucks in New York called, simply, Pizza Truck, are bright red or a collage of psychedelic colors. Kogi Korean barbecue trucks, which operate in Los Angeles, have big red flames painted on their sides.
Most of this new generation of street food purveyors want to open a restaurant someday, says Jim Ellison, a food court coordinator with the Economic Community Development Institute of Columbus, Ohio, who helps truck operators set up their businesses. "I work with nine trucks and 14 carts, and all would like to have a brick and mortar store."
Flirty Cupcakes, located in Chicago, started its first truck in May 2010 and added a second one that December. The $60,000 startup cost for each was significantly less than the $150,000 it took to open a bakery and restaurant in February. The low cost of operating the truck allowed owner Tiffany Kurtz to use the money she made to save up to open the store. Having the store solved another problem. Cart and truck operators often must rent space in commercial kitchens to prepare the food that they sell. But the popularity of carts and food trucks has resulted in big demand for kitchen space. And as their sales grow, owners need to rent more time. Kurtz found that she couldn't get all the time she needed to make her Devil in Disguise, Paradise Island, For the Love of Chocolate and other cupcakes. Having a bakery as part of the Flirty Cupcakes restaurant has eliminated that challenge. The space also is big enough to house her two trucks, which still hit the streets selling treats.
But running a mobile food business isn't a drive down easy street. There's a lot of work involved. A Flirty Cupcakes truck can make six stops a day. Each time it has to be set up and then broken down when it's time to leave. A restaurant doesn't need to be set up and broken down as much.
And then there's the maintenance.
"The trucks needed maintenance, with the engines breaking down and the batteries going flat. We knew a store would have less technical difficulties, and once we got the store manager, the store could more or less run itself," says Laura O'Neill, part of the trio that owns six yellow Van Leeuwen Ice Cream trucks in New York — three of the trucks also sell pastries. The success of the trucks, which began selling ice cream and sundaes four years ago, prompted O'Neill and business partners Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen to open three stores -- two in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. Customers line up to buy standards like chocolate and espresso, and also special flavors like Salted Caramel with Makers Mark Bourbon.
The Van Leeuwen trucks are still rolling. Like many mobile food sellers turned restaurateurs, the owners view the shops as an expansion of their business.
Another benefit of having a physical store is space. Cramped trucks can't fit every item on the menu. A store provides room to test and sell new flavors, O'Neill says.
"The pros really outweigh the cons or we wouldn't be doing this," she says.
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