Restaurant Operators Are Investing In Meals On Wheels

By Karen Robinson-Jacobs
The Dallas Morning News.


In the not too distant past, many restaurant operators greeted the influx of food trucks with the warmth and esteem of villagers brandishing pitchforks.

Fearing poached sales and decrying unfair competition, brick-and-mortar operators worked with city officials in many places to pass laws governing everything from where food trucks could park to the hours they could operate.

Today, as more consumers dine on the run, a smattering of restaurant operators are moving past misgivings and investing in meals on wheels.

“It’s another opportunity for us to bring our restaurant to a place where we don’t have a brick-and-mortar (operation) nearby,” said Charlie Green, owner of three, soon to be four, Olivella’s Neo Pizza Napoletana locations in North Texas.

Green just paid $150,000 to buy and outfit a food truck that will operate around Southern Methodist University.

“It certainly expands brand awareness,” he added. “We are getting the truck in front of people who have never heard about us before. And I believe that’s going to drive traffic to our stores.”

A far cry from the much maligned “roach coach” of the past, today’s food truck is often a gourmet kitchen on wheels, boasting ovens imported from Italy and cutting-edge cuisine.

Food industry experts estimate there are more than 4,000 food trucks operating today in the U.S., with the majority concentrated along the coasts and in warmer climes.

Research from IBISWorld estimates nationwide food truck revenue at about $857 million. By 2017, food truck sales will reach an estimated $2.7 billion, according to food trends expert Phil Lempert, who quoted data from Emergent Research.

While that’s a tiny fraction of the $491 billion in restaurant sales estimated for 2015 by the National Restaurant Association, it’s still enough to get some restaurant operators steamed.

“They hate them,” Lempert said, describing the mindset of some restaurateurs toward the growing number of food trucks.

“You open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you have overhead, you have real estate taxes to pay,” he said. Food trucks “don’t have the same overhead, and they’re stealing customers.”

Green of Olivella’s is one of the few restaurateurs in the Dallas area with a foot in both camps. He’s aware that some restaurateurs are not food truck fans, but he saw a strong business case for adding mobile meals to his menu.

“One of our competitors made the comment that food trucks are for suckers,” Green chuckled. “He didn’t know that we were getting into it. I just listened to him.”

Green, who opened his first restaurant near Southern Methodist University in 2007, seized on the food truck idea after SMU asked him to be the official pizza purveyor for school athletic events.

“Rather than outfitting a couple of spaces (on campus) that we’d only use a few times a year, I thought this is a good time for us to invest in a food truck and not only have it available for that specific need with SMU but then also use that as an opportunity to build a private event business around the truck.”

Arul Rajah, who opened his first Bombay Chopstix restaurant in suburban Dallas in 2010, launched a food truck two years later to expand his chain’s off-premises business.

“I bought the truck to do private catering,” said Rajah, who owns the restaurants and mobile business with partner Debu Roy.

“I was not sure if I’ll make money. All I wanted was an extension to my kitchen for an out-of-kitchen party.”

He said the trucks, he has two now, do make money. And the trucks have boosted restaurant sales as walk-up guests later become sit-down restaurant customers.

But food truck success is far from guaranteed, even for a seasoned restaurant operator.

“Our argument has always been restaurants hold an incredible advantage over food trucks,” said Matt Geller, chief executive of the National Food Truck Association and of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.

Restaurants, he noted, have “climate control, restrooms, a roof over their head, they can serve alcohol.”

Still, Geller said, he regularly speaks to municipal rule makers who feel they need to “protect our restaurants.”

“One of the best things about food trucks is the innovation to come out of it,” he said. “Stunting competition (through legislation) is just blatant old-school protectionism.”

The city of Dallas requires food trucks to park in an established food truck area with the permission of the site operator. City ordinances don’t dictate how long the truck can stay there.

Parking is not allowed on city streets unless there is a specific event. Truck operators are required to return the food truck to its commissary for at least five hours a night.

Jason Boso, owner of the Twisted Root burger chain in Texas, said he’s seeing an attitude adjustment among his fellow restaurateurs as food trucks grow in popularity in North Texas. It’s not necessarily kumbaya, but there’s a lot less fear and loathing.

“They have seen that it doesn’t necessarily take away from their food sales, and it can add to it by just creating more foot traffic in their area,” said Boso, who has 10 Twisted Root locations.

In 2013, Boso opened a harbor of sorts. Called the Truck Yard, the 15,000-square-foot patch of vintage hubcaps, empty alcohol bottles and dirt can host up to three food trucks at a time. The trucks open for lunch and operate until midnight.

Food truck operators provide the meals, Boso the retro vibe. A cacophony of furniture styles, weathered picnic tables and low-slung lights add a backyard feel to the al fresco dining experience.

Boso, who has a waiting list of trucks, plans to open a Truck Yard next year in Fort Worth and hopes to expand to the suburbs and beyond.

As a brisk business over the holiday weekend gave way to a slower midweek, Eric Hansen plopped onto a mottled lawn chair at the Truck Yard and talked about his intended restaurant trajectory.

Hansen opened the Not Just Q barbecue food truck in December 2013. He wanted to use those proceeds to open a restaurant by October 2016. Spring rains, the nemesis of every food truck operator, floated that launch date further downstream.

He feels that as more food service operators navigate the moving and stationary waters, the wariness should ease.

“I think we should all work together,” he said, as nearby patrons savored brisket tacos topped with spicy cilantro slaw. “We all pay our dues, just like they do. This is a restaurant on wheels. In the long run, they’ll be just fine with it.”

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