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VOL. 128 | NO. 45 | Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Growing Concept

Food truck owners eye bountiful spring months

By Michael Waddell

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The winter months can be tougher on food truck vendors as cold temperatures often keep paying customers inside. But as spring approaches and nicer weather resumes, many local operators are getting set to ramp up operations.

Diners wait to eat from Mark’s Grill during a recent food truck rodeo at Court Square put on by the Memphis Food Truck Association.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

“The winter can be pretty rough,” said Erik Proveaux, owner of Fuel Café, who spoke from Nashville where he was set up to cater for the television show “Nashville.” “Things like this help me to get through the lean season.”

Taylor Berger heads the Memphis Food Truck Association, which currently has about 20 members. Berger runs the Yolo Frozen Yogurt truck, which handles primarily special events.

He estimates there are between six and 12 food trucks on streets on a daily basis, including Mark’s Grill, Fuel Café, Rock ‘n’ Dough Pizza Co. and others, and the remaining trucks like his handle mostly special events like weddings, private parties, farmers markets and corporate events.

In the first two years following approval for food trucks in the city, business has proven to be primarily seasonal as the harsher weather of the winter and summer months provide challenges.

“In the summer it can be worse,” Berger said. “People just do not want to be outside. So we saw a real drop-off when it got so hot this past summer and a couple of trucks even shut down.”

Revival Food Co. and Scratch were the two trucks that wilted in the intense summer heat, which made conditions especially rough on operators due to the cooking equipment in the trucks.

Berger believes this is due to a couple of reasons.

“One, Memphis is just not a pedestrian-friendly city, and two, there are rules in the ordinance that keep trucks from operating within 300 feet of a restaurant, except Downtown, where it is only 50 feet,” he said. “In Memphis, there are restaurants located at nearly every commercial corridor, so that really limits where we can operate.”

Owner Mark Hamilton of Mark’s Grill food truck, with Kathy Brauer, left, and Shelby Sperou prepare lunch during a food truck rodeo at Court Square.

Some of the food association’s concerns will be addressed this week when Berger meets with city officials to discuss the state of mobile retail in the city. One issue will be better food truck access to area parks. Food truck operators have had a hard time getting necessary permission at some locations like Tom Lee Park.

Berger hopes to also discuss the possibility of other types of retail, like clothing, being sold from trucks. The concept has been popular in Nashville.

Finding the right locations to set up has evolved during the past two years. Many of the trucks are doing their best business by setting up outside of office complexes on certain weekdays. In addition to various Downtown spots, other popular locations lately have been at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, The ServiceMaster Co. and the businesses of the Ridgeway loop in East Memphis.

“It’s been good, but it could definitely be better. It’s not as good as in some other cities, but there is always room for more trucks in Memphis with strong concepts,” said Berger, who cited the local scene’s latest addition, Stickem Food Truck, as a great example of a concept that works.

Stickem owner Ermyias Shiberou is looking forward to the warmer weather as he continues to build business after six months.

“It’s up and down,” Shiberou said. “We have some good days and some bad days, but my first experience has been going through the slower winter. Overall it’s been a positive for me so far, and I can definitely see a bright future for it.”

“It’s been good, but it could definitely be better. It’s not as good as in some other cities, but there is always room for more trucks in Memphis with strong concepts.”

–Taylor Berger
Food Truck Association

Stickem sets up for lunches on weekdays now, and Shiberou supplements the truck’s income by setting up at Shelby Farms Park on weekends.

“I’m still trying to find my market right now,” said Shiberou, who hopes to start setting up for dinners as well once the weather warms more.

He tries to not let weather be a deterrent to setting up.

“I try to keep consistency,” Shiberou said. “I’ll go out some days even if it rains, and I can be surprised with a lot of customers. When you see a lot people turn out in the rain waiting to eat your food, it really makes me feel great about the future. I found that if I keep quality products, there is a market for it.”

Monthly food truck gatherings like one recently held on Broad Street have helped raise awareness and bring patrons out for a social experience where they can try a variety of tasty foods.

“People are thinking about the existence of food trucks more than they were last year,” Proveaux said. “This year, I’m getting even more calls further out in advance for weddings and other special events.”

Berger agreed.

“We’re coming up on a prime time right now, so the mood is good,” Berger said.

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