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VOL. 7 | NO. 33 | Saturday, August 09, 2014

Business on Wheels

Food truck owners face unique set of issues as numbers increase

By Andy Meek

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When asked once by a reporter whether he’d consider supplementing his business with a food truck like many of his industry peers, the owner of a popular Midtown restaurant was matter-of-fact in his reply.

Hungry patrons line up at the Stickem Food Truck during a recent food truck rodeo at FedExForum. The truck is owned by Ermyias Shiberou, who said he knows where he’s going most of the time, rather than setting out for a random location.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“A food truck,” he responded, “is no way for a grown man to make a living.”

It was a mixture of hyperbole and frankness about putting what amounts to a restaurant on a set of wheels and taking it mobile. The answer wasn’t a knock against those who attempt it, just that the hot thing at the moment in the restaurant business is both rewarding – and a major undertaking – for those willing to try.

For a customer, the experience of stepping up to the window of a food truck, sliding cash to the owner and walking away with fresh grub can belie the hard work that goes into pulling off the venture as well as the economics involved.

Nevertheless, the frequency with which food truckers are driving into position for one food truck rodeo after another in the city, among other things, suggests the model is popular and has staying power.

Based on conversations with a variety of food truck owners, the trick appears to be an appetite for risk, for being a jack of all trades – and on having more of a plan on the front end than you might expect.

The recent Hollywood film “Chef,” directed by and starring Jon Favreau, somewhat romanticizes the notion of a food truck, suggesting that all it takes is luck, the right equipment, knowing one’s way around a kitchen and then driving to a random location to serve the masses.

In contrast, local food truckers rely a lot less on luck or on the hope of scoring a location with a hungry crowd.

Central BBQ’s food truck, for example, tends to mostly show up at pre-arranged gatherings, not so much the events where you wait and see who walks up to the window.

Elizabeth Blondis, catering director for Central BBQ, said its food truck business is primarily of the type that’s booked from week to week. It’s at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital regularly, for example, as well as other businesses that want to feed employees on their own private property.

“The pricing is a little more than in the restaurant, and the menu is scaled down,” she added. “Although seasonally we’ll offer items not offered in the restaurant.”

“The pricing is a little more than in the restaurant, and the menu is scaled down although seasonally we'll offer items not offered in the restaurant.”

–Elizabeth Blondis
Central BBQ 

They do get calls daily, she said, from people who want the restaurant’s food truck to come out to an event.

Stickem Food Truck owner Ermyias Shiberou likewise knows where he’s going most of the time, rather than setting out for a random location or for something like a food truck rodeo to see who turns up.

“It’s different week to week,” he said. “I do have regular places I go to. On Tuesdays I’m at St. Jude. Saturday, I’m at the Memphis Farmers Market. Other days I might be doing a private event. There seems to always be a place to go and do business.

“It’s hard work. To make a living at it, you have to work hard and keep your overhead low. That’s really the key. But I love it. I love the freedom. I love that I can go where I want during the day.”

He tries to keep meal prices under $10. Customers appreciate that, he thinks, because of the products he uses and the fresh ingredients involved. Stickem’s main staples include food on a stick that’s fresh and uniquely seasoned, plus things like fries, vegetables and salads.

“I was in the process of considering opening a restaurant, and then the city ordinance passed for food trucks, so I started building a food truck that I was thinking could be part of a restaurant,” Shiberou said. “But the restaurant fell through, and I started thinking of a concept I could do for food truck. I came up with Stickem. There seemed to be less risk with that.”

And unlike with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, if he ever wants to change his concept, he notes, he can just put a new design on the sides of his truck.

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