Diary of a New Food Truck Owner, Part 5: Flat Tires and Freon Lines

Diary of a New Food Truck Owner is an ongoing series where we talk with Meg Hilgartner, co-owner (with Siri Skelton) of a fledgling San Francisco mobile soft-serve ice cream business called Twirl and Dip. In this installment, Meg and Siri learn why a Freon line is a scary thing to mess with and why thieves will target their ice cream truck.

We bought the truck in Las Vegas and we had to get it home. We weren't about to drive it. The truck gets seven miles to the gallon. There's no passenger's seat. And it was having mechanical problems, so there was no way we were going to risk driving it through the fricking desert. The guy we bought the truck from hooked us up with another guy who was willing to drive it out to San Francisco on a flatbed truck for $700. He left on a Tuesday and he was supposed to be here on a Friday. But it turned out our truck was too heavy for his flatbed. He'd blown out three tires in the middle of the desert in Nevada and had to unhook the trailer and go all the way back to Vegas to get new tires.

By the time he finally got here, he was utterly beaten down.
And then the truck wouldn't start so we could drive it off the flatbed. Plus, the weight had made his wheel wells blow out. We ended up having to get it towed out of the flatbed. They had to lift it up and over the wheel wells, they were such a mess. It cost us $250—$700 to come all the way from Vegas and $250 for 50 yards.

We'd researched where we were going to park. We knew when we bought the truck that we needed to be able to work on it wherever it was. Also, that parking place had to be secure: a roof, walls. A lot of the machines on the truck already didn't have all their parts. Someone had stolen those parts and sold them for scrap. The inside of a truck is all stainless steel, which is about 70 cents a pound if you scrap it. There would be a lot of stuff that would be easy to take. So we couldn't just park it out on the edge of town.

We did a lot of research and settled on American Steel.
American Steel [a.k.a. Big Art Studios] is an art/work space in Oakland that used to be a steel factory of some sort. It's like a vast, vast warehouse; there are railroad tracks inside, and it's so big it takes up two city blocks. It had everything we needed: electricity, a place where we could securely leave our tools. It's cheap: $200 a month, plus a charge for electricity. It has interesting tenants, too. There's a lady who runs a worm farm.

American Steel also had Kurt.
Kurt is our mechanic. We found him by knocking on the door of American's Steel's office and saying, "Our truck is going to need some work. Do you guys know any mechanics?" And they said back, "Oh, boy, do we. You should talk to Kurt." So we did. Kurt lives at American Steel, and he's from Nevada, where he has a business fixing up and renting out motor homes. By an incredible stroke of luck we'd found a guy who's available to work at odd hours and knows all the systems we have in our truck: refrigeration, air conditioning, water. It's really complicated, and I don't know what we'd have to pay if we had to have separate mechanics for each of these things. I know nothing about cars and even less than nothing about trucks. Before we started on this, I knew how to put gas in my car, I knew how to put oil in my car, and once, under extreme duress, I changed a tire.

So began the fixing up of the truck. Siri and I were still working our regular jobs; I work with a caterer and she works at a restaurant. We'd work during the day and go to the truck whenever we could, mostly at night. The first thing we wanted to do was get all the stickers and paintings off the truck. There was a giant hideous painting of an ice cream cone in sunglasses on one side, and "Mister Swirly" painted on the front, plus layer upon layer upon layer of stickers, which we got off by heating them up with hair dryers and scraping them off with razor blades. We scrubbed the paint off with acetone and steel wool. With both of us working, it took almost two days.

The most challenging job so far was taking out the slushie machine. It had to go to make room for our soft-serve machines. But when we tried to yank it out, we quickly realized it was attached to the wall of the truck. We ran and got Kurt, and he said, "That's a hard Freon line." Freon is what makes your refrigerator and air conditioners cold. It's a gas, and it's toxic to your lungs, so you don't want to pull a hard Freon line out of the wall. Kurt told us we had to get a refrigeration guy out there to evacuate the Freon before we could get the machine out. Soft-serve machines don't use Freon, so all this is a complete surprise to me. The cost of hiring this guy to deal with the Freon, and some other things the refrigeration guy needed to do, ended up being $1,200. I kept going to the bank and taking out all these huge sums of money: $900. $1,200. Every day! I am single-handedly boosting the economy of Oakland.