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Meals on Wheels

By Pat Pape

There was a time when a truck full of eat-on-the-street food was either a musical ice cream van or a "roach coach" of stale sandwiches and room temperature soft drinks. But the meals-on-wheels concept is changing, particularly in cities with high-density populations and pricey real estate.

Today, creative entrepreneurs have built foodservice opera­tions in Air Stream trailers, converted vans and custom-built electric cars. While some feature familiar menu items like hot dogs and fries, others serve up more innovative offerings, such as bacon ice cream or meatloaf made of spam and tofu.

Probably one of the best known of the new rolling restaurants is Kogi, the highly publicized "Korean BBQ-to-Go" truck with a cult following in Los Angeles. One reason for its popularity is Kogi’s chef, Roy Choi, a veteran of up­scale dining establishments from New York to L.A.

When he found himself unem­ployed, Chef Roy, as he is known, and a former co-worker decided to devel­op a menu merging Korean and Latin flavors and sell their offerings from a Korean-style taco cart. The business launched in late November 2008 with four employees and a single truck cus­tomized with a kitchen. Eleven months later, Kogi is a three-vehicle operation with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant and 53 employees.

"We hit a cultural nerve," said Alice Shin, creative director for Kogi. One way they did that was by posting Kogi’s evening locations, usually near busy clubs or the UCLA campus, on Twitter, and attracting scores of social networkers willing to wait up to two hours to purchase a $2 taco.

One club owner recognized Kogi’s early popularity and invited Chef Roy and his team to move into the club’s kitchen to prepare the same foods for his patrons. "It’s like we’re crashing on a friend’s couch," said Shin of the new relationship.

Across the country in Washington, D.C., tourists and ofï¬?ce workers are buying fresh, healthy foods from On the Fly, which serves customers from a pro­prietary electric-powered truck. "We wanted to create a mobile vending plat­form that provides natural organic food and operates in an environmentally re­sponsible manner," said Todd Cav­aluzzi, vice president of marketing for On the Fly.  

The company started in 2007 with a single vehicle and now has a fleet of sev­en. The green — literally — trucks are developed on an American auto plat­form and run on batteries that recharge when plugged into a 110-volt socket, "just like any appliance," Cavaluzzi said. While serving customers at an outdoor location, the back end of the mobile café is powered from a 220-volt socket, which runs the oven and refrig­erator. If no plug is available, the car re­lies on a gas generator instead. "We call it eco-vending, which means to vend in an environmentally responsible fash­ion," said Cavaluzzi.

The company has 25 designated parking areas throughout the city. Be­cause of a contract with the Smithso­nian museum system, On the Fly is al­lowed to park on the Washington Mall to serve the capital’s many summer visi­tors. In winter when tourists head home, the trucks can be found near lo­cal ofï¬?ce buildings.

The vehicles also make appearances at sporting events, fairs and even at pri­vate homes for catered parties. "It was part of our plan to reach consumers where they work and play," said Cav­aluzzi. Thanks to flags and banners around their vehicles, plus location an­nouncements on Facebook and Twitter, customers know where to ï¬?nd them.

Like Kogi, On the Fly quickly mor­phed into a bricks-and-mortar business with cafes in three local gyms and two museums. The restaurants offer seat­ing and extra menu choices. "The carts are more about convenience and food you can eat without a knife and fork," Cavaluzzi said.

Flip Happy
When Andrea Day-Boykin visited Ire­land, she sampled a crêpe and decided it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. Back home in Austin, Texas, she real­ized no local venue was serving the de­licious thin pancakes. So she and business partner Nessa Higgins decided to open their own crêpe kitchen — in a vin­tage trailer. "No one was doing it at the time," said Higgins, noting that re­stored trailers have become popular places for serving Austin street food in the four years since she and Day-Boykin launched Flip Happy Crêpes.

The two traveled through small country towns, leaving notes on front doors until they found the perfect trailer — a shiny, 1966 all-aluminum Avion, which looks much like an Airstream trailer. "It had been sitting in a man’s yard for 10 years," Higgins said. The newbie crêpe chefs bought the trailer and remodeled it in accordance with strict city regulations, which speak to everything from the type of water tank to the size of windows on the food truck. Today, the pair produc­es megacrêpes, which are used like tortillas to hold generous helpings of savory pulled pork with caramelized onions or whipped peanut butter with dark chocolate sauce, bananas and al­monds. Although it can move, the trailer re­mains parked in a permanent Austin location, serving lunch to a growing throng of fans every day except Monday and Tuesday. Simple outdoor seating allows customers to enjoy their food in the shadow of the trailer. "When we opened, we never really thought about the success we’d have," said Higgins, adding that they might consider operat­ing a restaurant some day.

The Skillet and Bacon Jam
Seattle’s Skillet has adapted two vin­tage trailers that provide street gour­mands with Thai red curry soup, ham-and-brie sandwiches, fresh salads and an array of tempting burgers. "We’re definitely a convenience because we’re bringing gourmet-style food to neigh­borhoods throughout the city," said Adrienne Carmin, director of market­ing. "It’s good, delicious food but super accessible."

The rolling restaurants serve about 200 lunches daily between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, at locations around the city. They cater special events and have a contract to park outside all Seattle Mariner home games. For $14 they will deliver tradi­tional box lunches, which are popular with area office workers. A minimum order of seven box lunches is required.

"We Twitter on a daily basis," said Carmin. "That’s a great way to commu­nicate with our customers. I think we could do [business] without Twitter, but it would be more difï¬?cult."

In addition to meals, Skillet sells logo T-shirts and hats and $10 jars of Bacon Jam, a proprietary condiment whipped up from bacon and caramelized onions. "Bacon Jam is going to make us fa­mous," Carmin predicted.

Selling in the Southwest
Not every street-food business started with a truck and then opened a restau­rant. Jan Wichayanuparp and Helen Yung launched their artisan ice cream shop, Sweet Republic, in Scottsdale, Ari­zona, a year ago, and later adapted a 1959 Chevy van as a second venue. Wichayan­uparp is the operations person, and Yung is the chef, creating ice cream flavors such as chocolate-stout and avocado-jalapeno, as well as treats such as beet sorbet. Everything is made from scratch, including the marshmallows and cook­ies that go into some of the flavors.

Sweet Republic’s van hits the street two or three days a week. "It helps the brand, and it drives trafï¬?c to the store," said Wichayanuparp. The van could play a more prominent role in the busi­ness, but Phoenix and Scottsdale have tough regulations regarding street food, requiring vendors to move their vehicles to a new location every hour. Sweet Republic uses Twitter to notify fans of the van’s schedule. Otherwise, "no one would be able to keep up," Wichayanuparp said.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, Chef Michael Napolitano, who has owned several res­taurants over the years, operates an upscale catering business with a 2,500­square-foot commercial kitchen. Five years ago, he had the opportunity to purchase two custom trailers from Starbucks "at a really good price," he said. He used one for catering large parties and recent­ly licensed the second one as an indepen­dent business, dubbed Relish, to sell gourmet hot dogs and accoutrements. Two popular hot dogs are the Oink­er, which is slathered with a bacon-and-­onion topping, and the Showgirl, fea­turing a strawberry, black pepper and red onion relish. The truck also offers bacon-flavored popcorn, beer on tap and "I make my grandmother’s carrot salad," Napolitano said. No single item from the truck costs more than $3. Relish travels to industrial and ofï¬?ce areas in Las Vegas at lunchtime and to special events throughout Southern Nevada. Napolitano had to secure permits from each city Relish serves, but that was simpliï¬?ed thanks to the fact that much of the food is prepared at the catering facil­ity and then ï¬?nished on the truck.

On the Road Again
With so much recent publicity about this new style, portable food business, many people have considered getting a truck and taking to the streets, Shin said. "It’s more risky [than opening a restaurant]," she warned. "But it’s more exciting too."

There are logical reasons for novice business people to begin their food op­eration with a convenient street-food truck instead of a full-fl edged restau­rant. The start-up costs are consider­ably less, and at a time when consumers are cutting back on restaurant meals, well-priced lunches and snacks are eas­ier to market.

Unlike a 50-seat restaurant, a travel­ing food vehicle is not limited to the number of people it can serve; however, a mobile business also will be a valuable extension of a bricks-and-mortar oper­ation. "People who have had ice cream from our truck come to the store," Wichayanuparp said.

Social networking is de rigueur for selling street foods. While some people dismiss Twitter and Facebook as pass­ing fancies, ComScore, a marketing re­search ï¬?rm, reports that Twitter usage increased 95 percent in March, with the number of accounts jumping from 9.8 million to 19.1 million. It’s estimated that more than 9.3 million people in the United States have active Twitter ac­counts, and that number grows daily.

Then there is the down side.

"Food trucks are not simple things," said Shin. "It’s almost easier to open a restaurant than a food truck because of what you have to go through." Every city has different regulations and de­tailed specifications for the business, some far exceeding the requirements for a restaurant. Seattle street food ven­dors are only allowed to park on private property, while vendors in other cities may conduct business in public parking areas. Some municipalities, such as Pasadena and Burbank, California, don’t allow mobile food vendors at all.

In addition, weather affects sales. "If it’s too hot or raining, business is slow," said Higgins of her Texas crêpe operation. And while most any truck or trailer can be converted into a foodser­vice operation, there is still much to be desired — like space. "There is no rest-room and not much storage space," she said, adding that only five people can fit in the Flip Happy trailer.

On the Fly suffers space limitations, as well. "We can’t get enough on one cart to feed hundreds of people," said Cavaluzzi of his company’s compact trucks. So a "roamer" with extra ice and drinks travels around Washington resupplying On the Fly vehicles throughout the day.

Meanwhile, prime vending locations have generated unhealthy competition in New York, where food truck opera­tors have sparred over choice spots, threatened violence and made phone calls to police. Midtown Lunch (, an online blog that publicizes economical Manhattan eat­ing establishments, blames the street vendors for the situation since they move so often instead of parking in the same familiar location each day.

Despite various challenges, mobile food vendors have just begun to rev their engines. In Austin, for example, roaming food vendors are mushroom­ing, selling everything from tacos to cupcakes. There is even an Asian food vendor dubbed Miso Hungry. "It’s great for Austin," said Higgins, noting that two separate crêpe vendors have popped up since Flip Happy was launched. "There are enough people in Austin. We aren’t threatened by it."

"It looks really easy," Shin said of the street-food business concept. "But if you’re not passionate about it, it’s not worth it."

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer.

Learn more about operating a successful foodservice program through NACS CAFÉ.