Ethnic Food Truck Operators Feed Demand By Delivering A World Of Taste To Diners

By Karen Robinson-Jacobs The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Matt Geller, founding president of the National Food Truck Association says that innovation with ethnic cuisine is one of the main drivers fueling growth in the food truck industry.

The Dallas Morning News

Perched behind the steering wheel of a shocking pink, 28-foot food truck, Kalliopi Anastasis Papas paused and plotted her next move.

There were still several steps to go -- propane installation, inspections, permits -- before Papas could officially steer the mobile ode to her grandmother's kitchen into a red-hot food industry segment.

Within weeks, in a Frisco food truck park, Papas plans to launch Greek Girls Goodies, serving gyros, greek salads and other dishes popular in the land of her birth. And the food will be "au-THEN-tic," she said, leaning forward and drawing out each syllable.

Papas is part of a growing collection of mobile food entrepreneurs introducing meat-and-potatoes diners across North Texas and the nation to international flavors from Lao minced chicken lettuce wraps to Argentinian empanadas criollas, made with ground beef.

Demand for more intriguing fare is allowing operators like Papas to make money and share culture, while consumers experience the globe, one bite at a time.

"Ethnic cuisine is part of what's making the food truck industry so popular," said Matt Geller, founding president of the National Food Truck Association. "Innovation in cuisine is one of the main drivers fueling the growth."

Definitive stats on the size of the food truck market are hard to come by and vary greatly depending on the source. But there is no question that food truck sales are growing at a greater percentage than sales at brick-and-mortar restaurants.

A report earlier this year from the National Restaurant Association estimates food truck revenue will increase from $917.82 million in 2016 to $967.25 million in 2017, a 5.4 percent gain -- or a 2.8 percent gain if you adjust for inflation.

"This is tracking well ahead of the 4.3 percent change ... for all of commercial food service," said Elliot Maras, editor of the FoodTruckOperator.com website. He noted that those numbers do not include sales from food trucks operated by restaurants. So he thinks an estimate of $2.7 billion in total sales for 2017 "is not unreasonable."

Pappas had not thought about launching a food truck until a year and a half ago, when the suggestion came from her boyfriend and adviser, Roy Reece.

But she said she's long had a focus on food.

"I come from a very Greek-oriented background," said Papas, who was born on the Greek island of Rhodes and grew up helping in her grandmother's kitchen. "My life was centered around food all the time."

Her grandmother, or yia yia in Greek, was Rigopoula, a homemaker who raised Papas until the future chef was a pre-teen. That's when Papas moved to the U.S. to join her parents and siblings.

Back in Rhodes, Yia Yia raised chickens, served fresh eggs and sent Papas down to the seashore to collect sea salt.

Her grandfather was the town butcher, "so we know our meat," she said.

Papas, who is Kally to friends, hopes to convey that Mediterranean feel in her offerings. "That's really cool," she said. "To take that food that you're so passionate about and bring it to the people."

To be sure, trucks featuring tacos, pizza and other ethnic favorites predate the modern "gourmet" food truck movement, which began gaining speed in the mid-2000s.

Today, experts said, the menus are becoming more adventurous and more focused, featuring offerings specific to regions within a country.

Patricia Peralta and her husband, Diego Godoy, hail from Argentina, where they dined on empanadas criollas -- pastry pockets stuffed with ground beef, onions and paprika.

They translated those flavors, and their experience operating a restaurant in Spain, into the Gaucho Empanadas food truck, a "baby" that took to the roads and North Texas food truck parks in November, Peralta said.

Local residents for about three years, the couple launched their food truck here because "we know this is a good city to make business," said Peralta. "We're trying to find out."

The region has an affinity for dining out and for experimenting with menu offerings that go beyond burgers.

So far, so good. The truck regularly can be found in five food truck parks: Plano, Richardson, Frisco, Fort Worth and Dallas, Peralta said.

While the empanadas criollas are generally the crowd favorite, Peralta said she created a new recipe to entice Texans.

"We have brisket empanadas," she said with a chuckle. "You never find brisket empanadas in Argentina. It's like a mix, from Argentina to Texas. That's the idea, bring the style from Argentina but with Texas flavor."

Eric Berg is a Minneapolis-based food truck consultant who operates the website Gurumyfoodtruck.com. Of his 11 clients, six are launching ethnic food trucks.

One plans to offer a Mexican-themed menu featuring roasted corn. Another will sell Laotian seafood.

"It's not often that you see seafood out of a food truck," Berg said. "Not only that but to make it Lao. That makes it a little bit more exciting.

"You're starting to see sambusa pop up on food trucks and some of the more unique curries and those kinds of things," he added, referring to a pastry dish filled with lamb or beef that's popular in Somalia.

"I'm not saying you can't go out and get a burger out of the trucks in Minneapolis," he added. "I think people are looking for a more unique experience."

Berg, who has seen a steady pickup in his business, is part of the growing vendor network supporting -- and benefiting from -- the growth of food trucks.

At Car Wrap City, a cavernous facility in Carrollton, workers climbed motorized scaffolding to put the finishing touches on Papas' inaugural food truck.

The wrap was designed by local artist Tyson Summers, who also crafted the 12-foot-tall mural of Fritz the Deep Ellum Owl.

Wrapping food trucks is still a small part of the company's business, amounting to about three a month, said owner Scott Bechtel, 42.

Most of the food trucks he sees are focused on more "burgers, sliders," he said. "Once in a while you'll see a Russian, or something that's a little more unique."

A wrap like Papas', which includes design and installation, could cost upward of $4,000, Bechtel said.

That's just one portion of what Papas described as a " very, very expensive process" of getting the truck launched. She estimates she's spending more than $100,000 on the truck and the equipment.

That doesn't leave much money for an office, so her headquarters is now in her apartment. As a single mom, she's counting on the food truck to pay off.

Papas said she's not surprised that other ethnic operators are joining the food truck parade.

"We want to bring what we grew up with, what we think is good and ... we're proud of it," she said. "That's a great thing. The Vietnamese, the Greek, the Italians, whatever. You bring it. You bring your culture, and the be-all, end-all is the product. The product sells itself."

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