Food trucks provide on-the-go training for owners
NEW YORK -- Putting the cart before the store was the right recipe for ice cream maker Buck Buchanan.
Back in 2001, Buchanan was a stay-at-home dad using his training as a chef to give cooking lessons to supplement his wife's income. Boredom set in and he decided to start a gourmet ice cream cart. Later, he added a truck -- and drove to concerts and sporting events to sell his cold, tasty treats. In March, he opened his first Lumpy's Ice Cream shop in downtown Wake Forest, N.C.
"My thought was to build a clientele, build a customer base, so when I actually opened the store, people would flock to it," Buchanan says. After about five years, "people started hollering and screaming on Facebook: 'I love your ice cream, but I can't get it anywhere."'
Buchanan waited until he was sure he had enough customers to support a store. He found a spot in the city's downtown, which is being revitalized. The location has a parking lot. That's great for customers who have to travel to the store from far away.
"The goal is to be the ice cream king of North America," Buchanan says. But he wants to be sure first that there'll be even more demand for Lumpy's chocolate, vanilla and specialty flavors like Jamaican Joy -- which includes pineapple and raisins soaked in rum. In addition to the cart, truck and store, Lumpy's also sells ice cream at parties and special events and to restaurants and stores like Whole Foods.
Lumpy's is part of a small but growing trend spawned by the proliferation of food trucks and carts in cities and suburbs across the country. Entrepreneurs who thought it would be cool and lucrative to sell gourmet tacos, barbecue, ice cream and other food from trucks are opening stores and restaurants to build on their success. They're proving that taking an idea and trying it out on a small scale -- and in this case, putting on training wheels -- is a prudent way to start a company.
The experience of running the cart and truck also taught him a lot about how to run a business, Buchanan says. "We grew what I called smart. ... We'd get a new contract and we'd figure out how we'd work the contract. We wouldn't grow any further until we figured it out. You never want to promise something and not be able to deliver."
Food trucks and carts have been around for generations. Most are sellers of hot dogs and ice cream bars or are canteens on wheels that bring staple breakfast and lunch items to factories, auto repair shops and other businesses. What's different about the mobile food vehicles that have cropped up in cities and suburbs the last few years is that these serve trendy fare like Korean barbecue, Jamaican jerk chicken and cupcakes. They travel from one spot to another, often congregating in high-traffic areas like downtowns and state government complexes. Some have websites or Facebook pages so that hungry fans can find out what day and time they'll show up.
Street food has flourished in the weak economy as people seek inexpensive meals. Some want treats like cupcakes and ice cream that are different from what they'd find in a supermarket.
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.