A food trend sweeping North America is luring entrepreneurs out of their boxes and into much smaller, aluminum-clad ones. On wheels.
Popularized by the Food Network show Eat St., trucks that specialize in serving up gourmet curbside grub – everything from artisan grilled cheese sandwiches and perogies to lamb's tongue – are increasingly pulling creative, business-minded foodies into the streets. While some owners are launching second careers, others see the food trucks as a low-risk way to road test their dream restaurant concept.
Twitter-fuelled lineups have been known to stretch several city blocks during weekday lunch service in cities across the country, from Vancouver to Calgary, Toronto and Hamilton. Weekend events have been drawing thousands more than organizers expected.
Does the hype translate into instant economic success? Not exactly. Food truckers say that thriving on the street isn't as simple as mastering social media – although it helps – and hiring a kid to mind the fryer.
"It's like celebrity status, having a truck right now," said James Boettcher, proprietor of Calgary's Fiasco Gelato food truck and the head of YYC Food Trucks, an association representing the city's food truckers. "You drive down the street and people are pointing. The hot-dog guys that have their little carts on the corner, they're losing their minds."
The "cool" factor also led Brendan Bankowski, managing partner of the Calgary-based restaurant Taste, to consider launching a truck.
"I was standing in the East Village in New York last summer. The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck pulled up and people came running out of their apartments and swarmed them," Mr. Bankowski recalled. "It was unbelievably cool. I rounded the corner and there was a taco truck. I rounded another and there was a Korean barbecue truck. I was inspired."
Despite a decade's worth of experience in the restaurant business, Mr. Bankowski needed to do some preliminary research before rushing out to buy a truck. He knew it wouldn't require the same amount of overhead as his restaurant – no glassware, tables, plates or chairs – but the profit margins he could expect were not clear.
Data on the business of food trucks is scant. Most cartrepreneurs find themselves interviewing the potential competition to get a sense of the numbers.
Mr. Bankowski, who now operates one of Calgary's most successful mobile vending businesses, Perogy Boyz, learned early on that food trucks typically bank a profit equivalent to about 40 per cent of sales (for a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, the number is closer to 15 per cent).
"That's the spark that gets people going," he said.
What keeps their interest burning are relatively low entry costs. Opening a restaurant can cost upwards of $300,000 before a customer walks in the door, but launching a food truck starts at about $35,000, said Lizzy Caston, an urban planner and food writer who advises municipalities on how to enable sustainable street-food cultures.
Most look to buy used trucks from the U.S. west coast, where food trucks have long operated. Costs can climb rapidly, depending on the complexity of the kitchen equipment and customization.
But mobility gives operators another an edge over bricks-and-mortar restaurants. "You can go where the people are," Ms. Caston said. "You're not stuck in a location that can't make money."
It also helps that one of the most important tools of the trade – social media – is free to any food truck operator who can master how to use it.
"Before we made one sandwich, we had 1,000 Facebook followers," said Graeme Smith, a laid-off steel worker who is now co-owner of Gorilla Cheese, a Hamilton-based truck that opened this year. "I knew we could build it big, but I didn't expect this kind of response," he said, adding that more than 50 per cent of his daily clientele track his location through social media.
Among food trucks, the observation is common.
"We've been open less than 75 days and we have close to 4,000 followers on Twitter," said Mr. Bankowski. "Social media gets you pretty far."
Social media, however, does not cut through red tape. Laws preventing food trucks from operating on public property are the biggest barrier operators face, particularly in cities without an established food truck culture. Unfortunately, that still includes most of Canada.
After much consultation with the burgeoning industry, Calgary recently launched a municipal pilot program to allow trucks to operate at several curbside locations across the city. Vancouver allows food trucks and Hamilton will license operators to vend relatively freely within the city (caveats are operating too close to schools or an existing restaurant without permission).
But food truckers in Toronto are up against major hurdles. The city will not license new food trucks – the 13 that operate across Ontario only set up in the province's capital when they can get permission to operate from private property, such as under-used parking lots, abandoned lots or at private events.
El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a St. Catharines, Ont.-based truck operated by chef Adam Hynam-Smith and his partner Tamara Jensen, holds the title of Ontario's first food truck. The couple made up for restrictive public access by working with wineries and other private establishments across the province that allow them to set up on-site.
"It's been successful in terms of the response, but that doesn't necessarily translate into financial success," Ms. Jensen said.
Since starting their engine a year ago, Ms. Jensen and Mr. Hynam-Smith have encountered several unexpected expenses. Pricey insurance – $8,000 a year, paid upfront – topped the list.
And gas prices are volatile; truck owners have to deal with this, including the cost of diesel if they run a generator to power their kitchens.
In Calgary, Mr. Bankowski warns would-be food truckers to expect similar bills.
"Your insurance is ridiculous because in Canada, no insurance companies really know how to deal with a food truck," he said. "There's all kinds of other expenses. You do have rent – you have to park your truck somewhere and you can't park it in front of your condo. You've got to have storage somewhere. And it's going to snow."
How to weather the winter is a big question for new food truckers. El Gastro shut down last January because business was too slow to operate. Mr. Smith of Gorilla Cheese said he and partner Scott Austin plan to operate through the year by targeting crowds after hockey games and tweaking their menu with things like soup.
Figuring out the perfect menu can make or break a food truck. While the concept has to be inventive enough to hook customers, ingredients have to be affordable enough for operators to make money.
"Our profit margins are not high," said Ms. Jensen, who works to stock her menu with from-scratch local ingredients and balances it with a blend of more costly offerings – such as sustainable, line-caught albacore tuna, which yields a slim profit – with lower-cost dishes that allow higher profit margins, such as soup.
"There's clearly a demand for it," she said. "But that doesn't necessarily translate into financial success."
"Like any small business, if you're good at your job, committed, methodical and have a good product ... you're going to do fine," Ms. Caston said. "If you don't, you won't. It's just as risky as any other business.
"They're not like adult lemonade stands. People don't realize they might have to haul in 50 gallons of water twice a day or change grease traps. If they run out of vegetables, they have to have them delivered or find someone to run to the grocery store. If it's cold weather, the pipes freeze and you have to figure it out."
Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, a San Francisco-based small business incubator kitchen, runs workshops to help would-be food truckers see through the fog of the glamour.
"You're not getting rich. Cooking has almost always been a working-class tradition with a handful of superstars at the top," he said. "Kitchens are full of people making less than minimum wage. They do it because it's a job."