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VOL. 127 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 2, 2012

Dining on the Go

Food trucks prove viable real estate option for owners

By Sarah Baker

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The local food truck scene is proving to be a viable alternative for Downtown lunch-goers, with plenty of repeat customers.

Customers line up for lunch at the Revival Southern Food Truck, parked at Main and Madison Downtown. The truck features gourmet upscale Southern food without the high price, said chef and operator “Crash.” (Photo: Lance Murphey)

And with the ability to change locations daily, mobile kitchens have appealing real estate implications.

The latest addition to some of Memphis’ highest foot-trafficked intersections is Revival Southern Food Co. The 28-foot commercial food truck is run by chef and co-owner “Crash” Hethcox, who offers Southern-inspired sandwiches, tacos, plate lunches and desserts that highlight local farms and ingredients.

He has 15 years of experience in culinary hotbeds such as New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.; Oxford, Miss.; and the Caribbean. He’s done the brick-and-mortar scene before, and right now, that’s “way on down the line.”

“With a brick-and-mortar establishment, on a slow day, you’re just stuck,” Hethcox said. “(Wednesday, Dec. 28), we were Downtown for lunch and then moved over towards the Forum for all of the Grizzlies’ game, so we can go wherever the business is.”

The Memphis City Council gave final approval in April to an ordinance that sets new rules for mobile food vendors, including hours, times and rules for where the merchants can park or set up their mobile stands. It also establishes a minimum distance of 50 feet from existing restaurants in the Downtown area and in the rest of the city.

“Memphis is kind of behind when it came to food trucks,” Hethcox said. “Luckily, they saw there was a market for it and you get nationwide attention.”

The Shelby County Commission held a preliminary discussion Dec. 14 about permitting the trucks to operate in unincorporated Shelby County, such as certain areas in Cordova.

Revival will initially focus on the Downtown and Memphis Medical District areas during the week and local festivals, parties and events on weekends, said co-owner Adam Bettis, who assists in Web, social media and overall brand marketing.

“Our commissary is in City East Bagel (and Grille),” Bettis said of the restaurant at Poplar Avenue and Kirby Parkway. “We actually rent out part of their kitchen and that’s where Crash does all of the cooking at night and on the weekends. We’re going to do some stuff out there once we get a following here.”

Besides the mobile advantage, food trucks are also able to cut back on overhead costs – a huge asset for a low-margin restaurant business.

“Food and equipment costs are the same, but everything else, we’re not even in the same ballpark,” Hethcox said. “You could lowball and do a restaurant for maybe $180,000. Some people spend up to $500,000 or $750,000. We’re not anywhere near that. That’s the advantage. And we try to pass that savings on, too. I don’t have to charge $12 or $15 to pay all my labor, rent, utilities and other things.”

It’s a concept Erik Proveaux, sole owner of Fuel Café, has been tinkering with for years. He’s been catering on movie and television sets for the past 12 years, often attracting hundreds of patrons a day. He even catered the Memphis stop of The Great American Food Truck Race, hosted by the Food Network in September.

“I make good money on that, and then it also helps supplement this place because it’s not like I’m a genius restaurateur. I kind of just stumbled into this,” Proveaux said.

Proveaux is referring to the Midtown brick-and-mortar restaurant he started two years ago at 1761 Madison Ave. after previous tenants Hatley’s Garage and Petra Café. He bought his food truck off eBay about six years ago and has been setting up shop in Downtown Memphis for the last three months.

Most recently, Fuel has been parking next to the Barking Lot, a new dog walk/run park at Jefferson Avenue and Main Street started by the Downtown Memphis Commission. Since Proveaux is still learning the ropes with the food truck, not to mention he began serving the Downtown area during the coldest part of the year, he’s exploring the idea of being in the same place every day.

“We still haven’t figured out exactly where the concentration of people is each time,” Proveaux said. “For me, as a business owner, I’m still learning a lot. We’ve got the food part down, it’s just a matter of getting the information to the right people at the right time so that they’ll come out and make it to where it’s worthwhile for us.”

At the moment, Fuel’s main concentration is Downtown daytime traffic. Moving forward, plans for the gourmet food truck are to explore other options, such as digging in deeper into office catering, local farmers markets, South Main Art Trolley Tours and Memphis in May.

“It’s really where there’s a gathering of people, that’s the best thing for a food truck,” Proveaux said. “I just want more trucks to be out there. I don’t know that two is the right number. Maybe it’s three or four or five, then maybe we gather at a place and have a mini-event-type thing. I think that would be good for everyone. And that’s something that they do in other cities, too.”

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