Hell on Wheels: Why Food Truck Owners Are Increasingly Turning to Brick-and-Mortar Shops
When Kim Ima launched the Treats Truck in 2007, the hassles that came with working in a mobile kitchen — speed bumps that knock whole trays of cookies on the ground, for instance — were worth it in order to be part of a massive trend. Customers eagerly awaited new trucks' arrivals in various neighborhoods; media coverage exploded; the whole concept got its own Food Network show. But booms are usually followed by busts, and the food truck business has recently become more difficult. Last month, Ima opened a brick-and-mortar outpost called the Treats Truck Stop, and though she still loves mobile vending enough to keep her truck on the road, her perspective changed: "I feel like I'm in a four-star hotel," she says of her new Carroll Gardens space. She's not the only one. Food trucks were once seen as a comparatively low-cost way to open a business (and generate street cred), but as the associated headaches pile up, many truck owners are happy to deal with the added costs necessary to open a traditional store, which can seem downright simple to run in comparison.
“Hands down, brick-and-mortar is easier,” says David Schillace, the owner of Mexicue, which includes one truck, and now, two restaurants. “Running three or four trucks, then working sixteen hours a day, is a nightmare. And it’s still not going to make you rich.” A truck can start up for as little as $80,000, and Schillace says he and his partners needed to raise around $2 million for their stand-alone spot. "We got into the truck business to launch a concept and shop it around,” Schillace says. “It was always a marketing tool, not a cash cow.”
That strategy became harder after every midtown corner got a truck. Though precise data related to the truck upsurge is tough to hone in on — street carts and food trucks operate under the same city permit — David Weber founded the NYC Food Truck Association in January 2011, with fifteen members. Now Weber, who also founded Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and wrote The Food Truck Handbook, counts 42 companies on the roster. Forty percent of them now also operate brick-and-mortar businesses, like Souvlaki GR, Schnitzel & Things, and Mexicue. Those figures don't include other notable truck-to-shop converts like the perpetually mobbed Big Gay Ice Cream or Bistro Truck, which aren't members of the association.
As the popularity of trucks exploded, two things happened: The city started cracking down on where and when trucks could actually sell their food, and competition became more heated as the number of trucks on the street rose. Laura O'Neill, co-founder of Van Leeuwen ice cream, which has five trucks and three shops, says competition for prime parking spots has practically become a blood sport — to deal with the hassle, some truck companies send out cars early in the morning to "hold" places.
But truck owners have to compete for a lot more than the best parking places. The first thing: a truck permit from the city. The Department of Health only grants 3,000 annual permits, which each last two years. The waiting list is so long that the DOH hasn’t taken new names since 2007, forcing entrepreneurs to turn to the black market. Individuals pay $20,000 for a permit that the Health Department originally sells for $200. “It’s impossible to afford, and you’re breaking the law,” says Yassir Raouli, the owner of Bistro Truck, who is opening a restaurant called Rustic L.E.S. this month. “And now that the blueprint is out there, it’s becoming even harder to operate in the streets.”
It's also much simpler to hire a staff at a shop. On any given food truck, all employees must first obtain a food vendor license, then begin the process of earning their Mobile Vending ID Badge through a citywide system. It takes three months, and the process doesn't really start until a potential vendor is offered a job. No one can work until they have one, unless they’re willing to risk a $1,000 fine that’s levied against the individual worker, not the business. By contrast, brick-and-mortar rules only require that one person (the manager, usually) in the space has their food vendor license, which is much quicker to earn. Not only does this mean that Ima’s parents could help wash dishes when the Truck Stop shop opened — something they could never do on the Treats Truck — but also that business owners have a lot more flexibility, and leverage, when it comes to hiring.
Another problem is finding a spot to actually put your truck when it isn't doing business. Per city law, food trucks can’t be stored on private property when not in use — only in designated food depot lots that tend to look like the auto-gastronomic equivalent of a graveyard that’s running low on plots. “It’s like finding an apartment in New York,” explains Ima. “Except with 50 roommates. And they’re almost all big, smelly men.” A spot in one of these lots, if an owner manages to find one, runs between $400 and $800 per month.
And, of course, there's the size issue: Most of the trucks are too small to accommodate people actually making food, so owners also have to rent commercial-kitchen space in spots like Red Hook, Long Island City, and even the back of a Brooklyn pizzeria, which is what the Mexicue team used overnight when they were first getting started.
Opening a traditional restaurant almost instantly eliminates that last issue, since food prepped in a restaurant's kitchen can be sold both on site and on the street. But space isn't the only benefit of running a shop instead of a truck. A week of shitty weather won't immediately obliterate a customer base if those customers can actually wait and eat inside; parking becomes a non-issue; and getting much-needed regular customers in the door is a whole lot easier when that door is in the same spot. “Check average is also lower on the truck,” says Schillace, pointing to the high number of customers who will grab one taco while walking through Union Square versus those that come into the restaurants for a full meal. All of this means finances are a lot more predictable with shops.
Trucks are here to stay, and they still offer some benefits: those lower costs; the flexibility to try new menu items and find new potential customers; continuous roving advertising. But as more truck operators move to full shops, those perks become increasingly less desirable when compared to the benefits (not to mention, legitimacy) that comes with a brick-and-mortar location. As Van Leeuwen's O'Neill says, “The store isn’t going to break down at three in the morning on the Williamsburg bridge.”