Truck-Side Dining (cont.)
Despite some of these burgeoning minichains, all of the chefs and owners are quick to point out that opening a truck-restaurant is far from a get-rich-quick scheme. The arduous process of securing permits, long days of driving and cooking, and hostility from other businesses present significant hurdles to turning a profit.
Most local regulations require that truck-restaurants operate out of a separate (no-wheels) commercial kitchen, so even a business such as Skillet, where all dishes are cooked on-site, must maintain a permanent kitchen to store and prepare the food.
“It’s not like a bunch of kids get together, buy a truck, and then spend 24 hours a day on it,” says Thomas Odermatt, the so-called grandfather of high-end food trucks, who opened the first of his San Francisco–based RoliRoti mobile rotisseries in 2002.
Odermatt, who comes from a family of Swiss butchers, spent two years operating a chicken rotisserie truck in Hungary before bringing the business to the Bay Area. Despite his confidence in his tender grilled chicken and his mother’s secret spice rub, getting RoliRoti off the ground was trying because he had to persuade a maze of local authorities that a mobile rotisserie kitchen would be sanitary.
“Nobody believed I could do a rotisserie truck,” says Odermatt. “So I had to demonstrate to the local authorities that I watch each piece of food and conduct quality control on each one, and I had to do this in seven different counties. I set up a hazard plan, a critical control plan, and did everything I could to show that the business would be clean.”
Once the appropriate permits are secured, there is still the issue of finding a place to park for the day. “It’s not like a movie set where you roll up and the cones are set up, and there’s a space reserved for you,” says Kim Ima of the Treats Truck. “There are days when I have to circle and circle before I can park, and that can delay me and cut into the time I can sell.”
RULES OF THE STREET
Despite the runaway success of some of these outfits, many localities are making it even harder for truck-restaurants to operate. Responding to complaints that LA’s many taco trucks are drawing customers away from local restaurants, the city recently passed a law limiting the amount of time a food truck can stay parked in one place to an hour. Similar limits on truck operations have been passed in New Orleans, Sacramento, and several smaller California towns.
Wafels & Dinges
While the local ordinances are mostly aimed at taco trucks, some business owners are not happy to see the high-end food trucks, either. Thomas DeGeest, who serves imported Belgian waffles topped with dulce de leche and Nutella from his Wafels & Dinges truck in Manhattan, was surprised when the management of an upscale hotel asked him to move. They felt his truck tarnished the image of the block.
“There’s a whole other set of rules on the street,” says DeGeest. “Some local businesses want you and some don’t. Every time you go to a new spot you don’t know whether people will welcome you.”
Despite the obstacles, none of the chef-owners CHOW spoke to will admit to a desire to retire their trucks and open a 300-seat restaurant. For them, nothing beats the delight on new customers’ faces when those customers see the fresh, gourmet fare being served.
“We call it the ‘Skillet face,’” says Josh Henderson, “when people come up to the truck, look in the food box, and see what we’re offering.”
After running RoliRoti for six years, Odermatt has expanded his business to include three rotisserie trucks and a small restaurant, but he still goes out in the truck twice a week. “I cannot be in the restaurant all the time, every day,” says Odermatt. “That’s just not me. I need the fresh air and the farmers’ markets. I’m used to the outside now.”