Fellow foodies will understand when I say I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to the phrase “food trucks.” Yes, they’ve been around for a handful of years now, but they’re still new enough—and varied enough—to make me perk up and pay attention. Serving up everything from soup to Korean tacos to macaroni and cheese to banh mi and so much more, these deliciousness-delivering trucks seem like a food entrepreneur’s dream. After all, they operate free of a brick and mortar space, allow for transition between roving meal hotspot and traveling catering truck, and let chefs focus on creating just a handful of menu items really, really well rather than building a full-blown selection.
Sounds like a dream job, doesn’t it? And it is, for many, but doesn’t come without some blood, sweat and tears, like any good start-up.
“People think that the open road and getting out and being with the people is going to be this dreamy life, but food service in general is tough, and a food truck is a restaurant that has to find a new location every day,” Ross Resnick pointed out.
And he should know. Resnick is the CEO of a Los Angeles-based company called Roaming Hunger, a company that works as an advocate for all things food truck. Roaming Hunger keeps a database of street food vendors and help spread the word about them to hungry foodies across the country. Resnick and his fellow Roaming Hunger-ites have been tracking the food truck world since 2009, documenting its growth from a mere 250 trucks in 2009 to upwards of 6,300 trucks today.
Resnick credits the Internet with the quick growth of food trucks. Though the trend started taking off in larger cities (such as Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin) people in secondary markets were able to follow along via social media and other online outlets. So when trucks opened in these smaller cities, their populations were already in the loop, as far as how the food truck culture worked. Not only that—they were thrilled to have food truck options in their own towns. As a result, food trucks have flourished in markets like Indianapolis, Nashville and San Jose.
And what exactly is the most important trait for a food truck owner to possess? According to Resnick, “First and foremost, you have to be a hustler.”
What with the long hours required, the marketing chops needed to uncover opportunities and the responsive, community-building skillset that’s a mandatory, this is no easy gig.
To learn more about the process of getting a food truck off the ground, Paste chatted with Mikiel Arnold, owner and chef of an Atlanta-based food truck called The Freakin’ Incan, about his experience getting his business underway. His food truck, which serves Peruvian offerings, opened in 2014, and serves the city of Atlanta and its Northern suburbs.
Where did your love of food begin?
Mikiel Arnold: I was born in Truijillo, Peru, to a Peruvian mother and American father. I have vivid memories of my grandmother wearing her apron and orchestrating help in the kitchen. She was an artist in the kitchen and I quickly fell in love with the cuisine. My family moved to the States when I was six, leaving our extended family in Peru, but we would return to visit every summer. It was so exciting to return to Peru every year and eat the foods and fruits that I had missed. I loved food—especially Peruvian food—but I wouldn’t decide to make a career out of it until 2007.
In 2007 I decided to enroll into culinary school and would graduate two years later. Before graduating I was required to finish a three-month-long externship in a restaurant of my choice. I decided to return to Peru and complete my externship in Lima, at Astrid y Gaston, working for Chef Gaston Acurio. The experience there was something I will never forget, and it furthered my interest in the cuisine.
What made you want to start a food truck?
MA: The inspiration for starting a food truck came from the desire to get my food out to the public in an inexpensive way. I had worked in several restaurants around town and in many different positions in the kitchen. I even had the opportunity to help my family start a burger joint out in Tucker [Georgia] called The Local No.7. This experience showed me exactly how much work went into opening your own place. I have always had the desire to work for myself and finally decided it was time to do so in early 2014. I had taken a food truck course called Food Truck 101 that was given by Greg Smith of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition a few years back. This class taught the ins and outs of how to run a food truck business and got me thinking about my concept.
My family and I have talked about starting a Peruvian restaurant long before I ever decided to enter the culinary field, so I decided to approach them with my food truck concept and quickly got them on board.
You opted to go with a trailer rather than a truck. I’m assuming this was a cost-related decision?
MA: After looking at the options between a truck or a trailer, I decided to go with a trailer. The trailer was just one third of the cost of what a truck would have been and [I] decided if things went well I could always add a truck to my fleet later.
What were some of the unexpected challenges you ran into when starting your food truck business?
MA: Securing a kitchen! At first, I was able to find a commercial kitchen inside a church less than a quarter mile from my house. I came to an agreement with the church and then approached the environmental health department to come out and inspect the kitchen along with county water.
At the business license office, I was informed that the church sat on a residential lot and I would not be allowed to operate a commercial kitchen from its location. This occurred in February and was a huge setback. The food truck season in Atlanta starts in March, my trailer was complete, and here I was with no central kitchen.
I had to scramble and found a 995-square foot strip mall space with the guts for a small kitchen. I worked out a lease agreement and started the build out. There was no equipment in the space like there was in the church so I had to come out of pocket to add a vent hood, sinks, refrigeration, grease trap, and the rest of the equipment I would need to get up and running. This sent my startup cost much higher than I originally anticipated but I now had the option to open up a small restaurant.
Yikes! So you weren’t able to get your business started until July as a result. Once you finally got the kitchen situation worked out, what did business start to look like?
MA: Our first event was be a private catering event for 60 people and was a huge hit. Vending opportunities, festivals, caterings, and charity events would follow here and there, but we were never able to fill our calendar because we got started so late in the season.
Our first few months on the road were extremely rewarding. Our food was received incredibly well, with customers sometimes coming back three times in an afternoon to order more food!
What has been the most rewarding part of your experience as a food truck owner?
MA: We have been embraced by the small Peruvian community in the area and have turned unsuspecting new clients into fans of Peruvian cuisine. The most enjoyable part of the business has been the interaction with our clients and sharing in their enjoyment of our food.
What’s your most popular menu item?
MA: Our clients’ favorite dish would be the empanada de lomo saltado. It’s a deep-fried empanada filled with stir-fried steak, onions and tomatoes in a spicy and savory sauce.
What’s next for The Freakin’ Incan?
MA: The food truck business slowed down in November, and we made the decision to park the trailer for the winter and complete the build out of our restaurant. We are just a few weeks away from opening the doors and look forward to the upcoming food truck season starting in March. Things haven’t really happened as anticipated but we have adapted and are determined to be the best new food truck in Atlanta in 2015!
What advice would you give someone planning to start a food truck business?
MA: Make sure you’re ready to go by the beginning of the season and all your permits and licensed are pulled. Starting late in the season only makes things more difficult. Take the time to learn the mobile vending regulations in your county and all the counties and cities you’re planning on vending in. They’re all different.
Anna Keller likes the occasional fancy, over-the-top meal served on a white tablecloth, but will be just a happy with dinner from Taco Bell (she and her husband were there the day they launched their new breakfast menu.) For her, food is about the experience, the story, the tradition, and the community it provides, and it takes a starring role in her blog, where she shares recipe creations and recreations—usually of the baking variety.