Food trucks roll out in Baltimore
Published: March 2, 2011
The Gypsy Queen Cafe, Baltimore's newest gourmet food truck, first opened its sliding glass window for business in a bitter season. The converted DSL delivery truck officially became a mobile restaurant on New Year's Eve, and has since trundled over icy patches and maneuvered around snow drifts six days a week to bring crab rolls, sliders with bacon relish, and waffle cones filled with mac 'n' cheese to those intrepid enough to venture outside.
"I had to boil water yesterday and stick my hands in it because I was freezing," co-owner Annemarie Langton told a reporter one bracing day in January, early in the endeavor. "We are two crazy chefs, so the best time to start [a food truck business] is when you think it's the worst time." The truck was parked downtown on Commerce Street that day, and Langton and co-owner Tom Looney were preparing for the lunch crowd: shaping hamburger meat into patties, frying massive piles of onions, chopping slaw for tacos. Meanwhile, over the constant hum of the truck's generator, they sang silly songs, talked about boys, and taunted each other. "Careful not to chop your double chin over there!" Looney called to Langton, who was dicing onions at the other end of the narrow kitchen, about four feet away. Langton brandished her knife and laughed.
Langton and Looney have been trading friendly barbs for years, though the truck is a new venture. Looney and his partner Ed Scherer owned Helen's Garden, a beloved Canton restaurant where, for the last decade, Langton was the chef. When the restaurant closed last summer--for personal reasons, Looney says--the trio decided to scale down to a food truck. Scherer does the paperwork while Looney and Langton man the truck. As for the name, "I'm a gypsy and he's a queen!" laughed Langton, pointing at Looney.
The food truck concept is, of course, not a new one in Baltimore. An Andy Nelson's Barbeque truck first rolled down the street decades ago, and an unknown number of "taco trucks" ply the streets of Highlandtown and Fells Point. Tacos Jalisco, a large family-operated truck, has been serving up tacos de lengua on lower Broadway for a decade. But the new generation of gourmet trucks that has recently taken the country by storm is different: For one, they tend to be dependent on social media, alerting fans to their location via Twitter and Facebook. And they've been given a boost in the form of TV shows such as The Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race, which pits food trucks against one another in "a coast to coast culinary battle." (The local Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon was an unsuccessful nominee for the show, but Iced Gems, a local cupcake truck, was recently featured on MSN's Appetite for Life with Andrew Zimmern.)
Gourmet food trucks are so trendy in other cities that the variations have become truly baroque. In places such as New York, Austin, Portland, and San Diego, there are trucks that serve sushi, organic espresso, fine French cuisine, cardamom and gianduja ice creams, even schnitzel. Turf wars over parking spots are not uncommon, and in some cities so-called "bricks and mortar" establishments are beginning to feel threatened. In Washington, D.C., for instance, several restaurant associations and business improvement districts recently led a push to impose tougher restrictions on food trucks.
So far, Baltimore doesn't contain a large enough fleet to have such problems. But the city may be catching up. At least four new food trucks hit the streets in the past year. The city's database for mobile vendors does not track historical data, according to Brian Schleter, a spokesperson for the Health Department, so it is impossible to say whether this represents a measurable trend. (As of mid-February, the city had 62 food-vending motor vehicles registered. That category includes ice cream trucks, produce trucks, and trucks that sell pre-packaged chips and candy.) But anecdotal evidence--and active Twitter feeds--suggests that food trucks are finally trending in Baltimore.
The idea of starting a food truck first occurred to Tom Looney a decade ago. "My mother lived in Portland and there are a ton of food trucks there," he says. "And once I saw my first food truck--it was an Airstream, it was super cute--I was like 'Oooh.'" The time finally seemed right with the closing of Helen's Garden, and since the early frigid days, business has picked up for the Gypsy Queen, he says. On good days, they serve lunch to 75 to 100 people. (The truck currently runs a weekly circuit between the University of Maryland, Harbor East, Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Inner Harbor, and Canton.) Looney and company have big dreams: Some day they'd like to have a small fleet of trucks, perhaps a franchise. In the meantime, they are enjoying what they say is a stress-free work life compared to running a restaurant.
"We don't have to deal with employees," Looney says. "You know, 'My cat died and I can't come to work for a week.'" Langton is equally delighted with the setup. "We're the front of the house, the back of the house, the dish room, the whole thing," she says. "Everybody can go home. We got it!"
But several of the city's new food truck operators say they launched their business for quite the opposite reason: in the hopes of one day parlaying it into a restaurant. "The original plan was a restaurant," Missy Coatrieux of Creperie Breizh, which launched last November, says. "It just financially made sense to do this first." Coatrieux's husband Eric, who attended cooking school in France, whips up savory classics such as saut?ed mushrooms and Gruy?re, as well as sweet crepes, including the famous Suzette. The creperie actually operates out of a trailer rather than a truck, because, Missy Coatrieux says, it was significantly cheaper.
"The trailer by the time everything was said and done was, I think, $30,000," she says. "We went and looked at the trucks at the place in New Jersey [Vending Trucks Inc., one of the go-to companies for mobile food vendors], and they were $50,000 before you even started to put anything in them." That decision has been a hindrance at times, and has to some extent relegated the business to Baltimore County. "We can park in a normal parking spot," says Coatrieux, "but when you come down to the city it's hard to find a big enough spot to back it up into and then get the truck unhooked."
Lesa Bain, co-owner with Shawn Smith of the Curbside Café, a business that opened last May, also views it as a possible stepping stone to a restaurant. "I've always kind of wanted to open up a small burrito shop, and so when I thought of starting a food truck, I thought burritos would be the best thing," she says. Bain previously worked in finance, but now serves up burritos with unusual fillings such as chana masala. The duo initially bought a newspaper truck with the intention of renovating it, but that proved more difficult than expected. So they bought a second truck that had already been converted, and the Curbside Café was born.
All of the food truck operators City Paper spoke with were optimistic about their ventures. But Bill Irvin--manager of Kooper's Tavern and Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon--warns newcomers that making a food truck profitable isn't as easy as it seems. "It's a very, very difficult business," he says. "Go on eBay and look at how many food trucks are for sale."
The Chowhound launched at the end of summer 2009, making it the veteran of the city's gourmet food trucks, and the most well known. The purpose of the truck is to advertise the restaurant as much as it is to pull a profit of its own. And in that, it's been successful. Irvin says Kooper's Tavern has seen double-digit growth in the last two years, and he attributes at least part of that growth to the Chowhound.
"My advice is it's best to [already] have a restaurant," Irvin says. "And the second thing is you need to make sure you have a ton of money. I mean if you're doing this thing on a shoestring . . . It's just one of those things where before you know it, all your money's gone." With a restaurant, Irvin says, there's less food waste. Food that doesn't sell on the truck can be sold through the restaurant. Prep work is much cheaper because there's no need to rent a commercial kitchen, and restaurants can buy in bulk, which is also cheaper. "To be honest with you, if we had to do it without a restaurant, it would be one heck of a challenge," he says.
The long list of defunct local food trucks and food trucks that never quite materialized seems to prove Irvin's point. A grilled Caesar salad and crème brulee truck courtesy of restaurateur Jordan Naftal was supposed to take Howard County by storm last summer, but appears never to have made a sale. (The Twitter trail grows cold in June.) Other trucks that were rumored to appear, from one serving whoopie pies to another with Caribbean-themed cuisine, never did. In 2008, the internet was abuzz with chatter about Perfect Cupcakes, a mobile business run out of a tiny white truck. The Perfect Cupcakes web site hasn't been updated for a year.
And then we come to Juana Burrito. Juana Burrito--get it?--is the brainchild of longtime Baltimore mortgage broker Brian Sacks, who still runs a reverse mortgage business. Based on what he says was a roaring success with his food truck Juana Burrito, Sacks has launched Mobile Food Profits, a consulting company for others interested in starting a food truck business. What is unclear, and probably of interest to potential clients, is what happened to Juana Burrito herself.
"I'm not going into a whole lot of details about it because there are some things that are being worked out right now that I just can't talk about legally," he says. Sacks says the truck was operating in the city for about six months, but Facebook and Twitter updates indicate otherwise. A tweet from early April reads, "got our city permit tdy. . .We'll be on the st 15th." By late June, the truck had vanished. "Donde esta Juana?" a follower wrote on Facebook. "I could really go for a burrito right now. What the hell is going on[?]" wrote another. Sacks insists that the truck was highly profitable. "We were doing very well, we were doing excellent," he says. In one of a series of mass e-mails he sends out to potential consulting clients, he recently wrote:
I ran into an old friend of mine yesterday and he asked me how it was going. Last time I had seen him I had told him about my Juana Burrito Mobile Restaurant. That's when he started laughing. He really thought I was joking. After all I had been a mortgage banker for 20 years so this idea was on the opposite end of the universe for me. A few months after that he saw Juana Burrito and I at the Preakness. With lines around the corner that were 40 people deep. (there were 5 of these lines). He kept checking back during the day but the line never died down. They just kept coming from 8am until 7pm. THAT WAS A FIVE FIGURE DAY. We took in more that day than most make in a whole month. But best of all, as I explained to him, we do this most weekends during the spring and summer months.
On his web site, for $197, Sacks sells an "A to Z, paint by number blueprint for making quick cash with my own mobile food truck." The saga of Juana Burrito, though shrouded in mystery, would seem to suggest that there is more than one way to profit from the mobile food truck trend.
It is undoubtedly true that there are numerous reasons why hiring a consultant might be appealing for a food truck neophyte. Pitfalls range from the complexities of food safety requirements to more basic problems. "Where to go to the bathroom? We didn't think about that," Annemarie Langton of the Gypsy Queen Cafe says. "New Year's Eve I had to call my city police officer friends and have them escort me into Speakeasy [a Canton bar]." Restaurant equipment isn't generally made to withstand the effects of potholes, and then there are the city's sometimes puzzling logistical requirements. "We actually don't cook anything on the truck," Christine Richardson of the cupcake truck Iced Gems says. "The only thing we do is serve the cupcake with a barrier of paper. But for the city, we have to have hot and cold running water. It's a little crazy."
From the looks of it, Baltimore City is still trying to figure out how to regulate gourmet food trucks. Most of the operators City Paper spoke with complained that the process was far from smooth, and calls to agencies presumably responsible for licensing--including the Department of Transportation, the Health Department, and members of the vendor board--resulted in a prolonged game of phone tag where no one person seemed to know all the requirements. Eventually, Brian Schleter, a spokesperson for the Health Department, provided some information on what is required. Necessary licenses range from a food license from the Bureau of Food and Institutional Facilities to a permit from the state's license department to, in some cases, a permit from the Office of Minor Privileges, which regulates items such as awnings and outdoor seating.
The process can be long, but in some cases it does seem to pay off. Until the success of her cupcake truck, for instance, Christine Richardson wasn't intending to open a bakery. Richardson initially purchased her refrigerated truck--a former delivery van--to deliver cakes, which she was baking out of a rented commercial kitchen. But seeing how often the truck was idle, last spring she began making cupcakes to sell out of it. "The very first day we went out, we sold out," she says. Before long, Richardson was making so many cupcakes for the truck--in decadent flavors such as English rose, blueberry, and s'more--that it became prohibitively expensive to rent the kitchen. So she recently opened a bakery in Reisterstown. Both operations are successful, she says. "Everybody said when we got the store, Are you gonna give up the truck?" she says. "No way. The truck is our mainstay business."
The gourmet food trucks now trolling Baltimore's streets are likely to be with us at least through the summer, as street festivals come into season and office workers once more take to the streets for lunch. Next winter will be the real test of their longevity, with the glow of novelty dimmed and another long lean season ahead. Bill Irvin of Kooper's Chowhound hopes his new competitors will survive. "I welcome anyone who wants to come in who can pull this off, because the more there are of us, the better it is," he says. But he's not so sure they'll all make it. "If the restaurant business was so easy," he says, "then everybody would do it."
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