More than Mint Juleps: Louisville’s Food Truck Scene Drives Competition

Food Features Louisville

Crowds weave and lines form between booths of eccentric sundries: pendants made of salvaged old coins, a t-shirt featuring Hunter S. Thompson with a cigarette dangling between his pursed lips, a hand-carved wooden six-pack carrier, a card that reads: “Give people high-fives for just getting out of bed; being a person is hard sometimes.” The longest lines always form in front of the food trucks, which makes sense because, according to Louisville, Kentucky food truck owners, the monthly Flea Off Market is one of the places to be if you actually want to turn a profit in the city.

Street food has existed in many forms throughout the years, from its origins in Ancient Rome (evidence of street food vendors was discovered at Pompeii) to today’s New York City hotdog and falafel vendors. However, the emergence of speciality food trucks with carefully crafted themes and menus sparked a newfound interest in both buying and selling the fare—a trend further reflected by television shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race.

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As Louisville’s restaurant scene has grown, it only makes sense that there has been a corresponding increase in the number of food trucks hitting the streets. The scene is vibrant and relatively varied— including treats like peanut-butter and pretzel donuts, Jamaican jerk pork, carnitas con kimchi tortas, and Kentucky ‘tot’ browns—a play on the Brown Hotel’s signature open-faced sandwich, “The Hot Brown,” resulting in tater tots covered in cheese sauce, diced tomato, turkey and bacon.

But here’s the thing: Louisville, which is often lovingly referred to by residents as “the biggest small town in the country,” has quickly become a fierce market; creating a harsh mobile kitchen environment in which the differences between those who succeed and fail become apparent. It’s a culinary “survival of the fittest,” proving that the road to successful street food is harder than it looks on television.

Yet in keeping with the national trend-one report estimated that there are over 15,500 individuals who serve food to diners in open-air locations—that doesn’t keep people from trying.

People such as Max Balliet, the owner of the Holy Mole´ Taco Truck. “I left my job working as the sous chef of a popular restaurant in town to start the food truck in 2011. At the time there weren’t any other trucks in town and I expected to be the first; mobile food has always existed in Louisville, but the concept of a food truck that moves from event to event was an unrealized concept,” Balliet said.

He continued: “Months before finishing my truck I heard news that another truck was rolling out—Lil’ Cheezers [a local grilled cheese truck] beat us out by a month or two. It was really scary leaving my job to start this, back then I wasn’t even sure if this was something the city was going to allow, let alone support. I had a lot of naysayers warn me that this was a risky business move, which considering my investment in the truck, was totally terrifying.”

Even before becoming competitive, the process of getting a sustainable food truck on the streets is one that many people romanticize. Yet, according to Food Truck Empire, an online resource center for food truck owners, 60 percent of food trucks fail within their first three years statistic similar to restaurants.

Trevor Decuir, a former vegan food truck employee-turned coffee shop owner, says that this idealization is something that happens in a lot of industries: “Bakeries and coffee shops are both considered high-risk operations because people look at them as low-skill jobs and think ‘I can do that!’ only to tank within their first year. I actually gave a couple some basic barista training a few years back. They had opened a cafe with almost no experience in the field.”

“Anyway, the same thing happens with food trucks. People see the glamour, get an idea in their head and a few words of encouragement from friends and they truly believe that’s all it takes.”

In reality, it’s much more complex than that. To legally operate in Louisville, like in most cities, a food truck needs state-inspected and approved plumbing, local health department permit and inspection, a statewide mobile food permit, a vendor permit and identification, Kentucky State Revenue Department number and registration, Louisville metro revenue department registration and general liability coverage.

Then come the upfront costs—both money and time—associated with getting started. According to Forbes, a “very reasonable range for getting a food truck off the ground is likely between $70,000 and $80,000. A reasonably-priced food truck, such as one that is only a few years old and can be ‘remodeled’ to fit a new food focus, will make up the bulk of the cost at around roughly $60,000.”

Joy Vest and her partner, who recently passed away, used to work on a food truck that specialized in organic, local fare. “My partner had this idea when he began. What he didn’t realize is how much money it really takes to pull off what we were trying to do. He bought an old trailer that had to be completely gutted and redone—walls, floor, the trailer hitch, everything,” Vest said. She provided a list of budgetary considerations that they learned along the way:

The cost of the food you sell.
Signage, a big one we learned thru being at events and not being seen in our white box.
Equipment. Pots, pans, utensils, paper goods, storage containers. Have you ever priced restaurant equipment? Wow.
Gas! We traveled to events from Memphis all the way to Pennsylvania.
Where do you sleep and how do you eat while on the road. We tent camped. Glamorous, I know, but cost-effective.
The hours. The hours some days were 19 hours long on your feet in the heat. No joke.
You have to love what you do.
Truck repairs. Trailer repairs.
Vendor fees differ at every event. Sometimes you don’t sell anything. It cost us
more to turn on the lights.
Generators, gas.
You need to know or be willing to learn about everything, electric, gas, plumbing,
cooking, service, booking, reading a map, how to handle employees.
The list goes on forever.

Once finally on the streets, though, competition begins.

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Liz and Jesse Huot are the co-owners of Grind Burger Kitchen, which started out as the Grind Gourmet Burger Truck.

“To be on a truly competitive level you’re not just competing with other trucks, you’re also competing with other restaurants. We never saw ourselves as wanting to be the best burger truck. We were always trying to be the best burger,” Liz said.

The couple started the truck in the spring of 2012, and by June 2014, they had grown into their current permanent location—which had been their plan all along. The Huots used the truck as a way to catalyze interest in their product in the cheapest way possible; the cost of a food truck is much lower than that of a brick-and-mortar place, but in their minds the benefits of a restaurant outweigh those of the truck.

“The restaurant sells more food than the truck because people don’t have to track us down, we have a great customer base that visits us weekly and we have more hours available. While the overhead for a truck was much less, the regulations and weather limitations make food trucking in Louisville a really volatile industry,” she said. “We would never go back to working out of a truck but it was a great place to start.”

In retrospect, Huot can attest to the competition, saying that while it might feel like Louisville has 30 festivals every weekend during the warm months, not all of them mean money for a food truck.

“When we were running our truck there were five trucks that got the majority of business in the city. Fortunately, we were one of them and with as few events as there are that equate to high dollars, we certainly weren’t going to give any of them up to any other food trucks,” she said.

“There were times that we seemed like bullies or that other trucks would try to push us out, but this wasn’t a hobby for us; it was our livelihood so we took it very seriously. As for working with other trucks, we formed a group with several other trucks and stuck around for a while but it was more of a defensive measure. Towards the end we had built relationships with trucks we liked to work with, so we always recommend them.”

Balliet of Holy Mole´ says that any truck can go out everyday and “cold-call a corner”—setting up on a city street and hoping that people will notice them and spend money there. This is the business model that is embraced by most of the food truck owners who clamor to find space between each other and the downtown sidewalks during lunchtime.

It has its pros and cons, especially when factoring in where food trucks can and cannot sell food. Legally, the required mobile food unit license from Louisville Metro gives trucks permission to park for four hours at a parking meter, or other legal parking space within the city. No mobile food unit vendor is licensed for a location closer than 100 feet from any occupied residence, nor can a food truck sell “within 150 feet of any restaurant, café, or eating establishment offering as a main featured item or items similar to that restaurant, café, or eating establishment at the time it is open for business unless approval is obtained in writing from the owner of the business,” according to city regulations.

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“The amount that you can make doing this is meager compared to big festivals and events, however it’s reliable for the most part. You don’t have to coordinate with anyone or ask permission or be invited. Also you can do it everyday of the week. The real hidden risk of starting a food truck is not being popular with the coordinators of the big events—farmer’s markets, music festivals, flea markets, etcetera,” Balliet said.

“If you can’t get into these events because you have a product that they’re not interested in or are unimpressed by, or you’re too unprofessional or whatever, you are only left with the street corner cold calling. It’s vital that you can get event organizers to notice you and take chances on you if you’re new and unknown. It gets harder as more and more trucks become popular and competitive.”

However, despite the growing competition, there are still entrepreneurs who are new to the street food game, but are making it work. Hi-Five Doughnuts, Louisville’s first and only female-owned and operated doughnut truck, is an example.

“We worked out of a pop-up tent for two years, then graduated to our truck, ‘Shelby,” said Hi-Five co-owner Annie Harlow. She and her business partner, Leslie Wilson, said that their business has quadrupled in the time they have been on wheels; and while they say that “competition is everywhere” they feel incredibly lucky, maintaining a positive outlook on their venture and their fellow food truck owners.

Balliet, who has been in business for four years, provided a more balanced look at the relationships between current food truck owners. Having seen a range of personalities over the years, he asserts that it is naive to assume that all these small business owners will get along all the time—but also recognizes that there is a certain level of cooperation that is sometimes necessary to make it in this business, which is locally demonstrated by the existence of organizations like the Louisville Food Truck Association and the Louisville Street Food Alliance.

“The range of personalities that I’ve encountered over these years has been really amazing. The idea that all of these small business owners are going to get along is really naive. There is a lot of competition, a lot of jealousy and spite. I’ve seen some real ugly stuff over the years,” Balliet said.

He continued: “But I’ve also seen some real compassion and community. It’s hard to run a truck, you’re going to forget things and make mistakes. Having friends with other trucks is important, we all need a hand from time to time. ‘I forgot a propane tank—it happens—can you help?’ or ‘I need napkins, shit!’ I’m always more than willing to help any street vendor I can with anything because I’ve been on the other side of it more times than I’d like to admit.”

But back on the pavement at the flea market, customers mingle between trucks— undecided whether they are in the mood for an order of truffle mac & cheese from the 502 Cafe truck or BBQ pork rind nachos from Lexie Lu’s—blissfully unaware of the work, sweat and vision that has gone into getting them to take a chance on that first delectable bite.

Ashlie Stevens is a freelance writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been featured at The Guardian US, Louisville Magazine, STORY Magazine and STIR Journal. She spends her spare time chasing food trucks. This fall, she will begin her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Kentucky.

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