Cramped cuisine: How food trucks fit it all in

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By Bonnie Berkowitz, Seth Blanchard, Aaron Steckelberg and Monica Ulmanu | Washington Post

First of all, no matter what you think is in there, there’s probably more.

Most modern food trucks — at least the ones special enough to make it into your regular lunch rotation — are operated by serious foodies whose wheeled restaurants roam more than 300 U.S. cities as part of a $2.7 billion industry. They’re often veteran chefs who are used to the amenities of commercial kitchens or entrepreneurial home cooks who demand the perfect tools.

None of these folks are willing to compromise on equipment, even if it all has to fit, Tetris-like, into the space of a large minivan.

First in: The basics.

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Before a new food truck owner can shop for the perfect griddle or pizza oven, they have to figure out how much room is left after they pencil in the equipment required by their jurisdiction.

These basic requirements are similar around the country, according to Jason Tipton, co-owner of East Coast Mobile Business Launchpad, which has outfitted more than 400 food trucks in his Manassas, Va., shop over the past decade.

Kirk Francis (a.k.a. Captain Cookie) said anyone hoping to start a food truck should plan to work 100-hour weeks for the first three years. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
A small budget and a big oven

Start-up costs for a food truck average about $100,000, far lower than the several hundred thousand required for even a tiny brick-and-mortar place in the Washington area, Tipton said. Some trucks get on the road for far less.

“When I was a kid, I’d eat cookies until there weren’t any more cookies,” said Kirk Francis, who began baking as a 4-year-old with his mom. He had supplied cookies to a local coffee shop before deciding to bring chocolate chips (and fresh milk, of course) to the masses.

His budget was just $30,000 for the entire truck, and he wanted to make sure his cookies were baked fresh at the curb.

So he found a used, 625-pound Vulcan convection oven on Craigslist, stuck it into a 1988 Washington Post delivery van that he bought for $2,400, and Captain Cookie and the Milkman was born.

The truck is small — the 6-foot-1 Francis has maybe an inch of clearance when he stands inside — but the commercial oven is about twice the size of a normal kitchen oven and can bake 120 cookies at once, or 720 in an hour. Francis estimates that it has baked more than a million cookies since he launched the truck in 2012.

Francis told all this to a culinary arts class at D.C. Central Kitchen on a frigid March day when steady rain and gusty wind had kept most trucks off the road. When it’s raining, truck operators say, sales go down by half compared with a sunny day. When it’s cold and raining, sales drop to a quarter.

The cookie truck’s motor coughed and died as Francis pulled into the parking lot, and after the class of cooks-in-training checked out the truck and sampled cookies, he had to wait in the rain for a tow truck.

“You have to be able to roll with it,” he said, shrugging. “I never have to worry about the store breaking down by the side of the road.”

“You don’t need to go to a fine dining restaurant — you can get authentic food in the street,” said Harold Peña, top right, with his wife, Claudia Tempo, left, and children Stephany and Joseph. Joseph, the executive chef, uses an arsenal of up to 30 saute pans during a shift, and of course, the pasta boiler. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
Family biz and a pasta boiler

Thirty-six years ago in Colombia, the daughter of an Italian pasta-factory owner fell in love with a chef-to-be. Three grown kids later, the family business is wrapped up in a black-and-yellow truck with a (trademarked) spaghetti logo and a play on the matriarch’s name: Tempo di Pasta — “pasta time.”

Inside, the couple’s son, Joseph Peña Tempo, also a chef, juggles entrees in five saute pans at a time. Daughter Stephany Peña Tempo takes orders, handles the finances and serves as her brother’s quality control manager. Their sister, Angela Peña Tempo, is in charge of marketing and catering. Harold Peña, the patriarch, is in charge of operations, and Mom, well …

“My title is ‘everything!’” said Claudia Tempo, owner of the truck and ultimate authority on the Northern Italian sauce recipes that are the basis for everything they serve.

“We’re trying to make a fancy Italian restaurant — without wine,” says Joseph Tempo.

As a “cook-to-order” truck, Tempo di Pasta serves food made from scratch while a customer waits. (“Hot-and-hold” trucks are usually less complex inside because food is prepped off-site in a commissary kitchen.)

Because fresh pasta goes from perfect to mushy in seconds, boiling it in advance is unthinkable. So where a typical truck might have an oil-filled fryer, Tempo di Pasta has a water-filled pasta cooker. Each order gets a precisely timed dip in a wire basket, until it’s al dente.

Mounir Elhilali, left, and Robert Catanuso try to look as authentic as the crepes in their mobile bistro. “French tourists say these are the real crepes,” Elhilali said. “We get analyzed by a lot of people.” (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
A niche and the perfect cast-iron disks

Mounir Elhilali, a Morocco native who spent a lot of time with family in France as a child, had been a chef for 17 years in the United States when he and Robert Catanuso, a friend and former restaurant manager, decided to jump on the surging food truck wave. As they tossed around ideas, they noticed something. Or rather a lack of something. “Crepes the way they are done in France, you can’t find them here,” Elhilali said.

Most American crepes he tried were made with white flour, he said, not the hearty, bready buckwheat flour that is the signature of savory French crepes. And the cooking was all wrong. Batter shouldn’t be flung around in a uniform swirl, he said, but painted on and distributed carefully from the middle.

“The edges should be thinner than the middle so you have a combination of crispy edges and a soft middle,” he said, noting that “crepe” comes from the Latin word “crispa,” which means wavy and crinkly.

To create authentic crepes, he needed proper crepe makers. The several he tried either cooked unevenly or required too much oil to keep the delicate crepes from sticking.

So when the Crepes Parfait truck launched in 2012, its focal point was four 16-inch, cast-iron crepe makers imported from France and arrayed like a drum kit in front of Elhilali.

Is it hard to operate them all at once? “Not at all,” he said. “I wish I had five.”

Brandon Byrd said Gigi, his antique Metro Van, enhances his credibility. “If this is a vintage soda fountain on wheels,” he said, “the only way to do that right is to have a vintage van.” (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

Brandon Byrd is just as finicky about frozen custard as Elhilali is about crepes, and he couldn’t find the creamy frozen delicacy on the East Coast when he moved to New York in 2010 to work for XXL Magazine. Frozen custard is denser than ice cream, he said, thanks to ingredients (eggs and at least 10 percent butter fat) and technique (slow churning so that not much air is mixed in).

The squeeze of the recession on the publishing industry — and a hefty sense of burnout with the entertainment world, where he’d worked for years in marketing — brought Byrd to Washington in 2011 and the food truck scene in 2012. Now he is an evangelist of sorts, sharing the glory of Wisconsin-style frozen custard from a restored 1952 International Harvester Metro Van named Gigi.

In his home state, “the popularity of frozen custard is equivalent to gelato or soft serve on the East Coast,” Byrd said. “It’s like going to New England and having a lobster roll, like going to New York City and having the pizza. In Wisconsin, it’s brats, beer, frozen custard and cheese curds.”

Byrd adapted his mom’s recipes for Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, and he outfitted Gigi to function like an old-time soda fountain. Inside is a Kegerator with root beer for floats and an industrial blender for his signature banana and peanut butter shakes. And the keeper of the custard is a freezer that can hold 15 gallons at a time.

Byrd is far from the only person nudged into food trucks by the Great Recession. The modern food truck culture took root during that time, when people had less money to start new restaurants — and to dine in them.

Chef Roy Choi and his pal Mark Manguera are credited with launching the movement in 2008 with their Kogi BBQ truck. They began rolling around Los Angeles in 2008, slinging Korean short rib tacos and Tweeting their locations to the masses.

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Che and Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola took the plunge in 2011 after Tadd’s boss in the corporate world asked him which co-workers should be laid off next, Che said. They had hoped to start a restaurant, but lenders were suddenly stingy, so the couple maxed out their credit cards and cashed in their 401(k)s to trick out BBQ Bus, serving tweaked versions of Tadd’s grandfather’s recipes. They recently opened a brick-and-mortar smokehouse, and, like many food truck owners, do plenty of catering.

The recession “created a market that didn’t have a lot of money to spend and still wanted innovative food,” said Che, former director of the DMV Food Truck Association. “It all collided into a moment that we could never have engineered.”

Profits dropped in some places last year, including Washington, as new trucks poured into a rebalancing market. But Che sees an upside to the downturn.

“Just like when a new restaurant opens and has a line around the block the first six weeks, then it levels off? I think the food truck industry has experienced that as a whole,” he said. “But now we are a part of the rotation in folks’ regular dining choices.”

Sam Tahmasbi is the owner of two Persian cuisine trucks named Saffron. He says everything he serves (except water) contains saffron, sent by relatives in Iran. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

A typical food truck in the United States is about 24 feet long, said Tipton, whose company has outfitted trucks for markets around the country. But an unusual Washington regulation sets the legal maximum at 18 feet 6 inches — short enough to fit into a standard 20-foot parking space.

No one is clearer on this rule than Sam Tahmasbi, owner of two Persian cuisine trucks named Saffron.

First of all, let’s establish that Tahmasbi is not loosey-goosey about details. Before he launched his first truck in 2013, he tried about 200 variations of his tahchin, a baked chicken-and-rice dish, until his family said it was perfect and begged him to cook something else. He says he makes sure everything he serves (except water) contains saffron, sent by relatives in Iran, where it is less pricey. He is so persnickety about presentation that he grills his garnishes, often lemon slices, a pepper or a tiny tomato.

He planned the truck’s equipment just as carefully, including two types of grills — propane and charcoal — because authentic kebabs need real charcoal flavor, he said.

And the truck itself is impossible to miss: It looks like a tidy wooden cottage on wheels. Twitter followers know it as “the cabin.” The exterior idea came to Tahmasbi when he admired the character in the wood pattern of an old cutting board.

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“The idea at the beginning was wrap or paint,” Tahmasbi said. Wraps — essentially huge vinyl stickers — are the most common type of food truck exterior. “But I asked, as joke, ‘Is it possible to put real wood?’ ”

It was. It took an extra three months just to outfit the exterior of the truck in cedar and shingles, he said.

Then, after the body shop was finally done and the truck was ready to go — it was more than six inches too long.

Tipton said this is a fairly common problem in the Washington market because 18-foot-6 is not a standard length for truck manufacturers. The solution is usually to take the space off the back of the truck. But Tahmasbi couldn’t bear to cut through his meticulously crafted exterior, so he told the folks at the body shop to simply lop the nose off the cab. It is now exactly 18 feet 6 inches long.

– – –

El Fuego is a converted fire station supply truck that has served Peruvian food in the Washington area since 2011. “I treat it like a regular restaurant except we are on four wheels,” said Manuel Alfaro, the patriarch of the family that runs El Fuego. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
A fire truck and a lot of people

Many trucks are fairly simple to operate and usually have just one or two people on board. Others contain the tiny-house version of an entire restaurant kitchen and a whole staff as well.

Take El Fuego, a converted fire station supply truck that has served Peruvian food in the Washington area since 2011.

“I treat it like a regular restaurant except we are on four wheels,” said Manuel Alfaro, who grew up in Puerto Rico, trained as a chef in Spain and fell in love with the cuisine of his wife’s native country of Peru. He created the entire menu except for one item: The rocoto sauce comes from an old family recipe.

The truck, which has (non-working) roof lights and hose nozzle connections from its previous life, contains nearly every piece of equipment you’d find in any brick-and-mortar place, plus four — four! — people stationed inside. When everyone is in place, there is not enough space to fit a camera tripod in the center. (We tried.)

During a typical lunch rush, Alfaro’s son, Danny, assembles sandwiches. His childhood friend Lemine Cheikh mans the grill and deep fryer, which is nearly always going because french fries go into many of the entrees. Another family friend, Aracely Navarrete, operates the stir fryer. And Alfaro’s daughter, Stephanie, is the customer service rep who takes orders and money at the window.

Despite the close quarters, the four say they rarely crash into one another. “We all kind of have a little bubble we stay in,” said Stephanie.

Unfortunately, none of the bubbles are cool in summer. Many trucks have air conditioning units, but the people inside say the units often don’t do a lot to cool the workspace. Ventilation hoods suck out some heat, and windows, insulation and roof vents can help, but there’s no getting around the fact that food truck operators are trapped for at least four hours a day in metal boxes filled with steam tables, grills, stoves, fryers and ovens.

Manuel Alfaro says he keeps El Fuego off the road for the safety of his crew when the temperature soars past 95 degrees. Others tough it out.

“It’s brutal!” said Rob Miller of Ball or Nothing, a hot-and-hold truck that contains three large steam tables for dishing out meatballs and seasonal sides. “I’ve lost seven pounds in one lunch shift before.”

In the end, Miller said, “you just have to throw on a fan and power through it.”

food trucks (Washington Post)

What’s not on the truck?

One key thing: A bathroom. And food truck denizens put forethought into this situation.

“You plan ahead,” said Miller, a six-year veteran of the truck lifestyle. “I’m a little strategic. You pee before you leave the [commissary] kitchen.”

In an emergency, several folks said they’ll run to Starbucks or a nearby small business. They emphasized that they always buy something in return — usually a cold drink. But honestly, no one we talked to seemed to consider the lack of a potty to be a huge inconvenience.

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It’s just another little quirk of a quirky industry, part of life inside the truck.

The specific trucks in this story operate in Washington. But much of the information applies to trucks all over the country. Additional information for this story came from “Food Truck Nation,” a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation; the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the DMV Food Truck Association.

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