While the idea of buying food off the back of a rehabbed, tricked-out FedEx truck may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the concept can be traced back to the 1800s, when wagon trains were a popular way to move livestock. Knowing that cowboys work harder on full stomachs, a fully outfitted “Chuckwagon”--complete with a cook--would accompany the crew on its journey, supplying them with daily meals and more.
Flash forward one hundred plus years, and food trucks have become regular fixtures throughout the country, including in Western New York.
And while opinions vary as to when the first food truck rolled up in our backyard, there is no doubt that today, food trucks are incredibly popular at both public and private events. More than 60 local trucks serve up everything from breakfast crepes to wraps to BBQ, tacos, gelato, teas, wine slushies, and traditional Buffalo comfort foods like wings and beef on weck. Whether you’re hankerin’ for Cajun, Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, Asian, Southern BBQ, Polish, or a delicious wood-fired brick oven pizza, chances are you won’t have to look far on any given day or night.
Leslie Zemsky, vice president of the Larkin Development Group--who prefers her other title, “Director of Fun for Larkin Square”--knows just how popular food trucks are in our neck of the woods. She was instrumental in starting one of the first food truck events, Food Truck Tuesdays, in Larkin Square in 2013.
“We started Food Truck Tuesdays because we wanted to get the dinner vibe going in Larkinville, to give people a reason to come down there,” said Zemsky. “At our first event, we had five trucks--and one of them sold clothing! But the event grew rapidly and, today, we have 27 trucks on any given Tuesday, with 50 in rotation.
“We try to be fair about who gets to participate, and we want to ensure we offer a variety of foods,” Zemsky added. “We achieved our goal of making Larkinville a holistic destination, where you can live, work, and play. The economic spinoff has been incredible, with distilleries and restaurants opening up, old buildings being renovated into business and living spaces, and thousands attending the Food Truck events each week.”
Other food events, such as the Taste of Buffalo, also embraced food trucks. “We had 13 trucks at this year’s Taste,” said Elizabeth Mamot, restaurant chair. “We take pride in the diversity of the offerings at the event, so adding the trucks was a good next step. It worked out great, as our vendors support each other in every way, which contributes to the success of the event.”
Several others, including the Buffalo Marriott Niagara, Canalside, Flying Bison Brewery, the Buffalo History Museum, and the Buffalo Bills, now offer food truck inclusive events throughout the season.
Which begs the question, “Is a food truck a viable, sustainable business?” As with any other type of business, the answer involves many variables.
Sean Regan, New York State Restaurant Association Western New York chapter president, said, “Food trucks are great--they are another outlet for food service, and a good way for people to start their career. Of course, we’d love to see more of them expand into restaurants, like Lloyd Taco, because Western New York can, and does, support a lot of good restaurants. It’s good for everyone!”
Both Chuck Incorvia, owner of Sweet Melody’s, and Patrick Ryan, owner of Fat Bob’s Smokehouse, had brick and mortar locations before branching out into the food truck business. In Incorvia’s case, he closed his restaurant to focus solely on his food truck and catering, serving gelato, sorbet, Italian desserts, and wine slush. “We wanted to be more mobile,” said Incorvia, who today has three food trucks and five mobile gelato stations (which can be used inside for private parties, etc.). And while it’s worked out well, Incorvia said it's not as easy as it looks. He held his own the first two years he had the food truck, but wasn’t able to set money aside.
“You have to understand the upfront cost involved,” he said. “A truck can cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $200,000, depending on your needs. Then there’s insurance--workers comp, auto, liability--and fixed costs, such as salaries and supplies. Plus, you need permits from each county in which you plan to do business, as well as health permits, fire inspection permits, and sometimes, event permits. That adds up quickly.
“You also need to be prepared to put in long hours,” Incorvia continued. “During the summer, we put in 16-hour days. Ours is a family business, so everyone is involved--which means we miss a lot of family events.”
Today, Sweet Melody’s is profitable, which Incorvia credits, in part, to the ever-growing number of food truck events. “There’s a huge revenue stream, plus, we supply restaurants and do special events, such as weddings and corporate events. And we are fortunate to have a very loyal customer base that likes our products.”
During the summer, Sweet Melody’s participates in approximately 200 events. Incorvia said that for a food truck to be profitable and successful, you need to know the audience you will best serve and participate in events that attract that audience. “We tried carnival-type events, and they just don’t work for us,” he said.
For Patrick Ryan, the decision to roll out a food truck last year was an easy one. “Barbeque and street food are a natural match, and as our catering service grew, a food truck seemed like a logical addition,” he said.
Ryan said the demand was there from the beginning, and so were the profits. But managing a food truck and a restaurant has its challenges. “Restaurants have routines and systems in place, and employees have specific roles,” he said. “You add a mobile operation, and there’s scheduling, estimating how much food will be needed for an event, and determining who’s going to staff it. On the flip side, we already had a cooler, a smoker, and other equipment, so we can prepare for an event more easily. We can always go back to the restaurant if we need more ingredients, and bring back any unused ingredients.”
For those thinking of branching out into the food truck business, Ryan advises doing your homework before purchasing the truck. “I was fortunate in that I have car mechanical experience,” he said. “Because you might know the food service business, but with a food truck, you also need to know how to service a commercial vehicle and all the DOT requirements.”
Ryan said he’s also careful about which events he chooses to attend. “As you learn the food truck industry and the market, you’ll learn what will be profitable and what won’t, which events are well-organized and well-attended, and how much food you will need to bring to each event.”
This year marked Maria Frayne’s first full year of operation with her Maria’s Bene Cibo (Italian for “good food”) truck. And while she’s been in the food service industry for years, Frayne took a slightly different route to arrive in the food truck business. When she left her full-time job as a result of an injury, she stumbled onto the New York State Self Employment Assistance Program, which allows residents to collect unemployment while building their dream of being self-employed. “I took classes, did investigating and research, and learned about taxes, regulations, and financing. Greg Straus from SCORE was a great mentor, helping me navigate the process,” said Frayne, who also got good advice from OutFront Food Trucks, where she purchased her truck. “I had a good idea of what I wanted to serve, and Latina Foods helped me fine-tune the menu and provided the fresh ingredients.”
Frayne has already turned a profit, learning a lot in her first year. “I practiced until I increased my serve speed rate,” she said. “I have a good routine down now and am blessed to still get help and advice from experienced people who know this business.”
Frayne recommends anyone wanting to start a food truck to keep the menu simple. “When you expand too much, it creates more work and the need for more food; plus, when people have too many choices, they can’t decide!” said Frayne, who relies mostly on word of mouth and social media to promote her food truck.
Matt Geller, president of the National Food Truck Association, has this advice: “Decide early on what you want to achieve. Is it one truck, multiple trucks? If it’s eventually to own a brick and mortar, be sure to give your truck a name that will translate well. Collect data, so that at the end of the year, you know where you did your best business, what items sold the best, etc.”
For more information on food trucks in and around Western New York, visit www.foodtrucks.com.