Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Part I: What does it really take to succeed in the Wilmington-area food truck industry?

Running a food truck is sometimes portrayed as an easier, less expensive, and more carefree alternative to running a restaurant. It's definitely a lot more complicated than that.

New Hanover County Parks Conservancy is hosting its 10th Food Truck Rodeo this weekend at Hugh Macrae Park. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy New Hanover County Parks Conservancy)
Food trucks are popular, and they seem simple enough. But what does it really take to make it in the food truck business? (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy New Hanover County Parks Conservancy)

WILMINGTON — Running a food truck seems simple: roll up to a brewery, sell until you’re out of food, and call it a night. But food trucking is harder and more complicated than it seems.

Related — Part II: What does it take to survive, thrive, and expand as a food truck?

Thankfully, the industry also has a sense of camaraderie – the sense of family isn’t just a silver lining, it’s an essential part of making it.

Port City Daily talked with veteran food truckers – including Michelle “Mama” Rock of T’Geaux Boys and Harley Bruce of Poor Piggie’s BBQ and Catering – as well as relative newcomers – including Molly and Brendan Curnyn of CheeseSmith and Erin and Kevin Langston of WilmieWoodie – for an inside look at the industry.

Money

WilmyWoodie Food Truck is offering up wood-fired pizza - on wheels (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
WilmyWoodie Food Truck is offering up wood-fired pizza – on wheels. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

For chefs, a food truck presents a lower financial barrier to having their own kitchen than a brick and mortar – but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap.

A used food truck can run around $30,000 to $40,000, and used trucks run the risk of having “hidden costs,” like engine problems or faulty kitchen equipment. On the other hand, a new truck – or even a new kitchen on an old chassis – can run over $100,000.

“A good rule is to have your first year in the bank, up front. But most people don’t have $30,000 in the bank,” Bruce said. “The problem is people want to sink it all into the truck. All new, chrome everything on a new truck, and you’re looking at a hundred grand.”

Bruce, who has three trucks and a catering vehicle, said keeping things simple has been part of his success.

“You know, BBQ isn’t supposed to be fancy. I like those places that are just BBQ shacks off the beaten path, you know? It’s all about the food,” Bruce said.

Rock also said having the first year’s cash up front is important.

“A lot of food trucks go under because they took out loans, they took out too much,” Rock said. “I tell people not to take out anything more than you could pay ordinarily, like a car loan, a few hundred a month.”

Getting started, Rock said many aspiring food truckers are shocked at the expenses.

“They have what they think is enough money, and then you have to fix something on the truck, and there’s renting commissary kitchen space, and food costs, and even if you’re doing it all yourself and there’s no salary, it’s more than you thought,” Rock said.

Once a truck is up and running, both Rock and Bruce said having a minimum is crucial (i.e. a set amount paid by brewery, bottleshop, or other company that wants to have a food truck on their premises). The minimum varies, depending on food and labor costs, but without one, food truckers run the risk of striking out and eating the cost of the food on board.

“It’s home runs and strikeouts,” Bruce said. “More strikeouts than you might think.”

Rock added that newcomers to the industry sometimes misjudge how well they’ll have to do.

“You drive out somewhere and you get a line with twenty, thirty people and you think you killed it — but you just broke even,” Rock said.

The permit process

Running a food truck means all the bureaucracy of a restaurant, plus the DMV, with some special permits just for food trucks themselves.

“You’ve got to get everything inspected and permitted and insured the way you would a restaurant,” Rock said. “And then you’ve got to get it inspected and permitted and insured as a motor vehicle. So, twice the fun.”

The permitting process alone is quite a challenge. Ask most food truckers and they’ll tell you — there are a lot of un-permitted trucks out there. And, while it’s illegal, and possibly dangerous, to go out un-permitted, it’s easy to see why.

The Curnyns found there way through the process with help from Rock, but for newcomers the system is confusing, and help is hard to find.

“There’s so much that goes into it, and there really isn’t a good place to find the information,” Brendan Curnyn said. “There isn’t a website or a number to call for someone to just lay it out.

Molly, Brendan’s wife, said the couple talk to aspiring food truckers and hear the same thing.

“We talk to people and they don’t know when to get insured, what kind of insurance to get, how to get inspected,” she said. “We just knew to call Mama Rock.”

Kevin and Erin Langston also got a leg-up on the process with Rock’s help, and said there was definitely more to it than they initially thought.

“[There’s] getting our business plan, financing, and truck build together. Then it’s all of the paperwork, permitting, blueprints, commissary agreements,” Langston said.

(Author’s note: Asked about its permitting process, the New Hanover County’s health department said it would provide information last Wednesday. They have not yet responded.)

And that’s just the process of getting started. Then, food truckers have to navigate local regulations, event permitting, health and fire safety inspections, and so on. Food trucks also have to have inspected commissary kitchens that they operate out of. Rock and several others use Diamond Foods, in Wilmington, while others, like Bill’s Front Porch and Catch, operate out of brick and mortar restaurants.

Then, sometimes they have to go to court — as when Carolina Beach attempted to pass a protectionist law that would have banned most food trucks from the town.

Keeping it simple

Food trucking means hours of prep before the truck hits the streets, but all the work if for nothing if cooks can’t get food to customers fast enough. It’s one of the major things that kills food trucks, Rock said.

Some recipes lend themselves naturally to food trucks. Bruce’s pulled pork, for example, takes most of a day to prepare in his kitchen, but once it’s on the truck it’s simple to serve. Pizza, on the other hand, can take quite some time, so Kevin and Erin Langston put a lot of time and money into designing an oven that can crank out a pizza in under two minutes.

Molly Curnyn said her and her husband Brendan have worked to simplify and streamline their offering.

“We used to do four [sandwhiches] and went down to three, I think if you just have four or five things and do them awesome instead of 20, you’re better off,” she said. “We’re constantly trying to keep our wait time under five minutes, the more menu items you have the more you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

The Curnyns also said that, once they got started, they realized food costs could skyrocket when a food truck tries to take on too large of a menu. It also increases the risk of running out of popular items, and not having enough of others.

Probably the simplest approach belongs to Joe Loves Lobster Roll owner Tony Herndon, who essentially has one item on his menu: lobster rolls.

Herndon told Port City Daily last year, “it’s perfect, people get to the window, they know exactly what they want, and it’s the thing I’m serving, so we’re on the same page.”

Breweries and bottleshops

Food trucks like Wilmington's Joe Loves Lobster Rzolls, pictured here outside Salty Turtle Beer Company, are facing increased restrictions or an outright ban in Surf City. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Salty Turtle Beer Co.)
Food trucks like Wilmington’s Joe Loves Lobster Rolls, pictured here outside Salty Turtle Beer Company, are a natural pairing with breweries and bottleshops. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Salty Turtle Beer Co.)

The symbiotic relationship between breweries, bottleshops, and food trucks is easy to appreciate. Many of these establishments don’t have kitchens, and food trucks can’t serve alcohol, so it’s a natural pairing.

But breweries and bottleshops also get food trucks off the street, where it’s illegal to park in most municipalities. And they provide access to restrooms, which the health department requires for food truck employees.

 “It’s awesome, it’s all we do,” Molly Curnyn said. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be here.”

The Curnyns noted that, while breweries are great for business, they also book out a month or more ahead of time. It’s a complicated schedule, with a lot of moving parts, but for most food trucks it’s beneficial.

For her part, Rock said she had pulled back from some of the breweries and bottle shops.

“It’s been a little bit of overkill,” Rock said. “It was a special event if it a truck one day a week.”

Rock compared it to the cupcake craze of several years ago: cupcakes were suddenly everywhere, and then, after the fad died down, the region reached cupcake homeostasis; likewise, Rock said, the region is still feeling out the right number of food trucks, breweries, and bottleshops.

Catering: The secret ingredient

While breweries are the most visible place for food trucks, a major part of the industry is more private.

“Catering has made it for me, man,” Bruce said. “That’s the way to survive in this industry.”

While no one who has ever tried to cook pulled pork for 600 people would call the process easy, catering is certainly more predictable in terms of food costs and labor.

Like Bruce, Rock said catering makes up at least half of her business. Most catering gigs go smoothly, she said, but – because it’s a food truck – some people still expect that T’Geaux Boys can just roll up and serve food for a few minutes.

“Most people get it,” Rock said. “But some people do say things like, ‘can you just come by for like twelve people around 6:30,’ and they don’t realize there’s a minimum, there’s a lot of prep that goes on first. We aren’t just driving around with all this food on the truck.”

Up next: go big(ger) or go home

Getting started in the food truck industry is tough, but it’s only the beginning on the journey. When a food truck succeeds, it’s time to ask some tough questions about how to expand. Port City Daily talked growing pains and success stories, see what they had to say in the next installment.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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