text by Kristin Owens | photos by Ben Bradley
Wood-fired pizza, Baja fish tacos, Thai noodle bowls, banana ice cream – everything you don’t (or can’t) make at home can be found on food trucks. NOCO is spoiled with an abundance of vendors offering hefty portions at great prices. Their popularity garners loyal followers, and the food-inspired seek them out.
It sounds like a fun job, feeding people and making money. But like homebrewers sitting in their garages dreaming of opening a taproom, there’s some business savvy required. Beware: It’s not all smiles and sausages. Before dipping into that 401k and buying a 1972 Winnebago to serve up mom’s famous meatloaf, take a pause. We asked some local NOCO food truck entrepreneurs about the business and what it takes to be successful in this very competitive realm.
Imagine running a restaurant. Staff, food, utilities and permits cost money. Now put the restaurant on wheels. Add gas and more permits. Insurance. Tricky maintenance. It’s a lot to think about. Sometimes it’s best to start small.
Jeff Marchio of Marchio’s Grill started his business with a cart, which resulted in less overhead. He says it was a more affordable way to get into the industry and provided a chance to try it out without overextending himself. After a successful year, Marchio added a truck to expand his authentic-Italian-based menu and serve more people.
Timothy Meador also started with a cart five years ago, but now his truck, The Tramp About, has a huge NOCO following and a loyal customer base. He agrees that carts are a smart way to scale up to the future.
Still, a truck accommodates more food, which can lead to more customers and more profits. Fancy a big, colorful truck with Mama’s Marvelous Meatloaf emblazoned on it? Here’s a reality check – food trucks can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 used, and up to $70,000 new. Just like a car, the price is contingent on how many customizations are needed, much of which depend on the menu. For deep fryer. Ice cream? Lots of freezer space. And all the appliances run on gas and electricity supplied by propane tanks and generators.
It may come as a surprise that not all the cooking is done in the truck. Per the Colorado Health Department, commercial kitchens, or commissaries, are required for food preparation and must be located within an hour’s distance of the truck at any given time. Kitchens can be rented by the hour or by the month, and most of the busy work – chopping, slicing and dicing – is done here beforehand. Hamburger patties are formed and weighed, buns sliced and sauces made. Basically, the truck is used for cooking, assembling and serving.
Smokin’ Bros. Barbecue. Photo by Kristin Owens
It helps if it’s a family business (more hands). Brantley Maitland, co-owner of Smokin’ Bros. Barbecue, has two brothers on the team. From scheduling to mechanical work, cooking, preparation and paying invoices, they’re in it together. Even his dad, Les, is involved, taking on the weighty responsibility of smoking meat 10 to 12 hours before each event. Being from Kansas City, they know quality barbecue will set them apart from other trucks. And since heading west, they’ve found a welcome home for their slow-cooked beef and pork, which are sourced from Colorado.
Other operational considerations include staffing. “For every one hour serving food, there’s at least another behind the scenes,” Meador says. This includes prepping and cleaning. With lunch and dinner shifts lasting up to eight hours, it’s a 16-hour day. Sara Gilman, Umami owner, says she works anywhere from 20 to 100-plus hours a week, depending on the season and the week. Summer festivals keep everyone busy. Staff need to be focused on customer service and willing to jump in to do whatever’s necessary at each location.
Roll It Up Sushi.
A happy customer.
Bigs Meat Wagon
Egads, the paperwork! Sales taxes differ among individual cities and towns, and truck operators need to know how much to collect based on where they’re located that day. The cost of permits and renewals also varies, from $120 per year in Fort Collins to $100 every two years in Greeley. But it’s not just money involved with keeping the business legitimate, being code compliant is critical. And because food is being sold, trucks are subject to county health inspections at least twice a year.
To be successful, a truck must be scheduled for as many events as possible. Planning a party or wedding? Kick traditional fare to the curb and bring in a food truck instead. Many businesses will schedule trucks for their employees’ lunch hours. After all, who wants to eat a bagged lunch when gyros are parked outside? Yet working the streets is a tough gig. It requires more permits, customer turnout can vary greatly, and zoning laws often limit parking to just two hours.
Thankfully, NOCO has no shortage of food truck rallies and festivals, full of hungry customers who are eager to try a variety of foods. The Fossil Creek Food Truck Rally runs Thursday evenings from 5:30 until dark. Now in its fifth year, the FOCO Food Truck Rally at City Park in Fort Collins offers up to 20 unique trucks, along with kids’ games and live local music every Tuesday night. “We have so many trucks, it will take the entire summer to try them all,” says organizer Sarah Ladley.
Competition among truck owners for a coveted festival space can be fierce. This year’s FOCO Rally has a waiting list, and to be invited back, trucks must prove themselves by serving quality food and feeding at least 65 people an hour, Ladley says.
Another thing we’re not short on in NOCO is breweries. Our beer culture is a nexus for mobile eateries, creating a winning, symbiotic relationship among breweries, food trucks and customers. Most tap rooms don’t have kitchens, and that plastic barrel of pretzels only goes so far. Hungry patrons aren’t likely to stay and have another round on an empty stomach. Food trucks fulfill a need, and the breweries make it worth their while by offering free electricity, free advertising and free parking.
But if you thought it was difficult to score a festival spot, try getting on the schedule at a brewery. Trucks need to show up on time, make awesome food and follow the establishment’s guidelines, or risk being uninvited back. Those few lucky trucks get a lucrative, 8-hour time slot in which to serve both lunch and dinner on pre-scheduled days.
The Cupcake Gypsie, sweet treats made with organic and local ingredients.
Why NOCO? What makes this area so inviting for food trucks? Meador hypothesizes that food truck popularity correlates to NOCO’s relaxed, friendly culture and, of course, our penchant for beer. Who wouldn’t want to sit outside on a sunny day, taste a flight, chat with friends and watch your dog (the cutest ever) play fetch – all while enjoying great food? There’s just no comparison to New York City’s street carts, which cater to busy execs in suits with limited time for lunch. In NOCO, there are so many ways to engage with people in social spaces such as music festivals, sporting events and almost anywhere outdoors. Gilman also points out that Coloradans generally are “adventurous eaters” who are willing to try new things.
And when it comes to food truck cuisine, it’s definitely not all hot dogs and kettle corn. Mobile chefs can whip up some seriously exotic fare to treat taste buds. Because although “quality is key,” Maitland says, originality also is important. Anyone can make fries, but how about Smokin’ Bros BBQ’s smokehouse fries topped with shredded slow-cooked pork, beans and white cheese sauce? Yeah, I thought so. In the end, it’s creative cuisine that distinguishes one truck from the next. “You need to be excellent to stand out,” Maitland says. “There’s too much competition to be average. Plus, it helps if you’re serving something unique or different.”
The best part about owning a food truck, Meador says, is the ability to change out the menu.
Owning a mobile eatery is “like changing your office space every day,” Gilman says. And if you enjoy travel and live music, it’s a bonus.
For marketing, food trucks rely heavily on word-of-mouth and Facebook, which is free and easy to update. They also get a publicity boost from festivals and breweries, which post participating vendors on their social media pages and websites. Overall, the mobile food market is competitive, but also cooperative. No one is trying to monopolize the industry, Marchio says. “They just want to cook their best.”
And for now, NOCO still has plenty of parking – and customers.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
The night before: Grocery shop, drive to commercial kitchen, prep food, restock serving plates and utensils, fill truck with gas.
The day of: Load truck, drive to site, set up truck, get grills going, cook, interact with customers, smile, and give back correct change.
That evening: Clean truck, grills and surfaces, drive back to commercial kitchen to take out trash, wash dishes, dump waste water, count the money drawers, deposit cash.
TRACKING THE TRUCKS
up-to-the-minute links to individual truck locations.
FOCO Food Truck Rally
www.focofoodtruckrally.com for weekly summer schedules.
www.coloradotruckie.com for directory organized by cuisine.
Find your favorite truck on Facebook for updates on menus and locations.Check out taproom websites and social media for schedules.