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VOL. 8 | NO. 33 | Saturday, August 08, 2015

Fast Lane Flavor

Memphis food truckers share what it takes to run a kitchen on wheels

By Andy Meek

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From a distance, Memphis' food truck operators like Terry and Allison LaRue might seem like the ultimate entrepreneurial renegades.

No office hours, no working for the man. You set your own schedule. The food is yours to prepare and cook and serve, and if you do it well enough, if you're fast and error-free and if enough customers are happy, the cash register keeps ringing, and you get paid – indeed, you pay yourself. Not only that, but you get to fire the truck back up again tomorrow and keep doing this thing for as long as it makes you happy – and for as long as you can keep coaxing success from the grill in your independent kitchen on wheels.

That's how the LaRues’ life – as owners of the gourmet grilled cheese-focused Say Cheese food truck – might seem when customers encounter them at something like the food truck festivals frequently held around the city. Except putting your money through the window and walking away with a piping hot grilled cheese sandwich isn't the whole story, not by a long shot.

Behind the scenes, there's an intricate ballet of activity that goes on, the at times crippling uncertainty that has to be faced, the existential challenges that have to be met, the preparations and so many other things that happen in order for food truckers like the LaRues to put their fare in your hands.

After talking to them and some of their fellow food truckers at various stages of their enterprises’ existence, here – in the entrepreneurs’ own words – is a flavor of what it takes to make a food truck a success in Memphis.

THE MOTIVATION

The game plan, no surprise, varies from truck to truck. For some, the trucks are it, the full-time gig – the main and only source of income. For Fuel Café, the Fuel Food Truck is an extension of a brand that also includes a restaurant. For other food truckers, the truck is an early tryout for their even bigger dream – opening a restaurant down the line.

"My wife and I started this together because food is my passion – it's what I've always wanted to do. The truck was a means to an end. We actually just sold a percentage of our business so that my wife and I could open a restaurant with our new business partners. We'll keep the truck – the restaurant is going to be more of an extension of the truck, rather than the other way around, and it will probably also be called Food Geek. The location is still up in the air. We have a primary location we're working on, in Southaven. If that falls through, we'd like to be in Midtown."

James Norman, co-owner, Food Geek

"The absolute goal is to grow El Mero into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. That's the ultimate goal. My wife and I thought the truck could be a way to make a name for ourselves. It's easier to get started than an actual restaurant. It's a good thing a lot of times to start slow."

– Jacob Dries, El Mero

"It's my husband and me, and this is full-time for both of us. If we do this, we decided we wanted to be all-in. It's also a little terrifying. I don't think we planned on anything of this caliber. I'm super-conservative, and even though things kind of exploded at first, which was good, you remind yourself that it could also end at any time. We managed to stay busy during the summer. The Overton Park Day of Merrymaking, Symphony on the Square in Collierville – doing bigger gigs like that, I think, helped give us the confidence that we'll be OK. Going from two salary jobs to sole commission is very scary. We're learning.”

Patrick Niedzwiedz samples bison tacos from the Fuel Food Truck during a food truck rodeo in Court Square. (Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

– Allison LaRue, Say Cheese

HOW THEY DO IT

While there are more than 100 licensed food trucks in Memphis, they’re built around different models. Some are out only a few times a week. Others chase as many events and opportunities as they can.

It’s the ultimate grind: making sure the food is perfect, all the non-food factors like a well-functioning and stocked truck are handled, and showing up either to pre-set locations or events like the Memphis Botanic Garden’s Food Truck Garden Party, held on the second Tuesday of each month.

"Preparations always start at least a day before, if not two days before for larger events. We make fresh pico de gallo every morning for the tacos. Mixing up slaw, preparing other ingredients. I usually start about 8 a.m. in the driveway at home in my truck and usually open at 11."

– James Norman, Food Geek

"We go to the store at least two or three times a week, to Kroger or to Restaurant Depot where we get things in bulk. Paper products come from Amazon. We're averaging eight gigs a week. In the mornings, we're getting up and making sure we have everything we need for that day. Some gigs may only want these three sandwiches. At FedExForum, we're only allowed to serve Pepsi products, which isn't what we typically serve on our trucks. It's a lot of prep. Our tomato soup doesn't take long at all. The buffalo chicken we cook in advance. It's just time-consuming. It's about planning ahead."

Hot Mess Burrito co-owner Brad Sheffield prepares a signature catfish burrito during a food truck rodeo at FedExForum. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

– Allison LaRue, Say Cheese

"Everything we use is fresh, whether it's french fries or vegetables or chicken. We don't buy anything frozen. So there's a lot of preparation going on. A lot of cutting. A lot of dicing. And also a lot of sticking. Being prepared is the key between having a good day and a bad day, because people want their food fast and fresh. So if I'm not prepared, it's just going to be a really bad day tomorrow."

– Ermyias Shiberou, Stickem

“I love when people call us. We set up every Wednesday at St. Jude and try to set up regularly at other places like the Cooper-Young Farmers Market. Usually one of us is here five or six hours before an event. We make everything from scratch and try to do it all the same day if we can. The chorizo needs to sit overnight and marinate a bit. We make all our own tortillas. We rely almost solely on word of mouth and social media. I love it. I love to cook. I like meeting people and the opportunity to be out doing a service. It’s nice. It’s got its moments.”

– Will Freiman, Hot Mess

“We like to do different festivals if we’re asked, places like Fridays at the Dixon and St. Jude every Thursday. … A lot of it depends on the weather. We’re probably out three or four days a week. We have to have made sure the day before enough food is on hand. It’s super-important to have quality ingredients. We have to prepare the chicken, shred the lettuce, make sure the bacon is cooked. Right before we leave, we fire up the flat top so we can start cooking right away.”

– Erik Proveaux, Fuel Food Truck

“Our truck should be ready within the next month. We’re at the finish line now. El Mero – in Spanish, it’s kind of like saying ‘you’re the man.’ The original. The one. We serve tacos and side items, and we do our own version of – we’re not necessarily Mexican, per se. We like to think of the taco as the canvas. There’s a heavy Mexican influence. The sauces are all fresh and homemade. You’ll see things like green chorizo. We do our own spin on street corn. We cook to order, but a lot of it's already made, marinated the day before. For a food truck, a lot of it is speed. That's kind of what people look for. Customers want something quick, they're maybe on their lunch break. And within 10-15 minutes, you want to be able to grab your meal and go.”

– Jacob Dries, El Mero

LESSON'S THEY"VE LEARNED

Some common refrains emerge when talking to food truckers from around the city. That this is the kind of thing only a certain kind of entrepreneur can pull off. You have to be tough and committed, a quick study and a lot of things all in one. It’s a rewarding job, as well as the kind of experience where certain lessons and insights only reveal themselves over time – once you’ve actually spent time doing the thing.

The LaRues of Say Cheese, for example, are among the food truckers who don’t particularly relish rolling the dice – preparing food and just showing up, hoping customers follow. In addition to the wasted ingredients if few people show up, there’s an opportunity cost involved – they could have been somewhere else better and more profitable.

“We love people being able to enjoy our food. This is definitely not for the faint-hearted. You have to be determined and devoted to it. You’re not going to get rich doing this. But seeing people enjoy your food – that will keep you going.”

– James Norman, Food Geek

“You learn – to not have too much on your menu. Or, when you get invited to an event, not asking how many other vendors will also be there. Sometimes an event will have 100 people or so, but five food trucks have been invited, and nobody makes any money. … Food trucking is really about freedom. You get up and you work if you want to or you don’t. At the end of the day, you have to be driven to get up and make it happen, regardless of the weather.”

– Ermyias Shiberou, Stickem

“It's worth it, but it’s really seasonal. If it was only thing I had going on, I’d really have to account for that. There’s so much more involved than just the cooking. You’ve got to worry about the mechanics of the truck. For gigs themselves – the most important thing, first and foremost, is to actually do a good job. You have to show up on time. Let people know you're gonna be there, and follow through. Don't run out of food. Be clean. Fast. The food has to taste good and the price points have to be right.”

– Erik Proveaux, Fuel Food Truck

“There are so many things – making sure enough cash is in the till. Making sure you’ve got ice. Making sure things are fastened and secured in the truck. It’s a lot of little things. This business is no joke. It really is a grit and grind. I leave business cards. Talk to people at the register. At the end of the day, if you’re good and execute well and have good food, people will come to you.”

– Jacob Dries, El Mero

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