Take it to the streets

Take it to the streets

Prompted by the need to be where the people are and reduce overhead costs, a growing number of operators are taking their fare on the road—literally.

Across the country, truck-based foodservice operations are serving up such moveable feasts as organic rotisserie chicken seasoned with lime and herbs, chicken and Thai basil dumplings with spicy peanut sauce, and wood-fired brick oven pizza cooked to order. The trucks, which fall somewhere between hot dog trucks and full-fledged caterers on wheels, offer flexible location options, usually zero rent and lower startup costs compared to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.

The Rickshaw Dumpling Truck was “a direct response to the price of rents in Manhattan,” says Kenny Lao, co-founder of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar [3], which has two traditional quick-service locations in New York City. “We wanted to use the truck as an R&D lab to test out new locations for possible [sites to open future] stores, as well as to see how small we could get the operational model.”

Rickshaw’s bestseller on the truck is chicken and Thai basil dumplings served with spicy peanut sauce. The dish was developed by chef Anita Lo. Six dumplings sell for $6. Lao says he plans on rolling out two more trucks this year.

For those considering a move into the fast lane, Lao says: “First make sure that a truck is consistent with their brand. For us, dumplings have always been a street food in Asia, finding their origins as food for weary travelers along the Silk Road. It was a natural fit for us to bring dumpling back to the street, and we are psyched we did it.

“Then, figure out your menu, then your equipment and how you can best operate within a small space,” he says.

Finally, he adds, “Get a good mechanic.”

Rickshaw’s colorful truck parks around New York City in predetermined areas that are posted on the company’s website. Most recently, a late-night route that runs on weekends until 2 a.m. was added. The truck’s self-avowed dumpling fans—there were 390 at press time—follow the location of the vehicle via updates from Twitter.com .

While the truck, which Lao says is profitable, was built after traditional restaurants were running, the opposite is true of the Nomad Pizza truck that is co-owned by Tom Grim and based in Hopewell, N.J.

Grim says when his mobile wood-fired, brick-oven pizza business was parked at events, such as nearby farmers markets and private parties, guests would ask where they could purchase the pizza on a regular basis. So Grim decided to open a 30-seat store, also in Hopewell, that would offer Neapolitan-style, thin-crust pizza topped with local ingredients. Such as a neighboring farm’s cheese, homegrown basil and, when in season, Jersey tomatoes.

The restaurant should help promote the truck business and the portable pizza operation should help promote the restaurant.

“We think one business will help the other,” Grim says.

Grim says he encouraged a fellow businessman to open his own truck operation in Los Angeles, pointing out that the West Coast city would not have the same seasonal challenges that Grim has in New Jersey.

Nomad’s truck—complete with a wood-fired brick oven imported from Italy, a sink and a generator—cost approximately $80,000 to build two years ago, Grim says. It is fabricated on a vintage flatbed truck that was bought on the Internet.

Grim, who formerly owned ice cream and candy shops in the Princeton, N.J., area, fired up his oven for events about 120 times last year. He charges $12 a pizza. At a four-hour clip he turns out 250 to 300 pizzas with the help of about a half-dozen workers. The pizza cooks in “under two minutes,” Grim says, noting that the high-heat oven is preheated for five hours and remains hot overnight.

The dough is prepared in advance, but the pizzas are stretched and cooked on location. For catering, which makes up the bulk of Nomad’s current business, Grim serves a minimum of 50 guests and up to 125. For that maximum crowd, he charges a rate of $2,150 for meals featuring organic salad, pizza and a dessert, such as sweet pizza with hazelnut-chocolate spread, strawberries and bananas.

Similarly, RoliRoti, a food truck regularly parked at the Saturday morning farmers market at Ferry Plaza - Embarcadero in San Francisco, offers an extended catering menu of shrimp satay, porchetta and roasted lamb with tarragon sauce for parties. When not catering, the RoliRoti truck draws lines for rotisserie Sonoma County chicken made in the truck’s ovens.