Daily Blender Exclusive: The Business of Food Carts

Like many, I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the ongoing saga of street food. Growing at mind-boggling rates, mobile vendors (food carts and food trucks) have sprung up in cities across America, leaving city and state lawmakers scratching their heads and scrambling to enact new regulations, while traditional restaurateurs are left baffled at how to manage the customer ebb and flow due to this increasingly popular sector of the culinary world.

I’ve been most curious about the inter-industry vibes, of course. The ever-evolving dynamics of brick and mortar chefs vs. mobile chefs. At first, I had assumed that parties would be aligned, everyone cohesively making great food in their respective kitchens. I was taken aback, however, by comments I received from a handful of kitchen veterans who were surprisingly dismayed with the expanding mobile food venue.

Here in Portland, a city considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the mobile food army, the majority of the street food community is comprised of stationary carts and trucks – more than 450 of them – with most found on the same space of asphalt every day, 365 days a year. While I understood the complaints of those dissenting “traditional” chefs, from where I stood, I perceived the cart communities to be a welcome addition to an already-thriving restaurant scene.

After more exploration, I found that problems arose, mainly, around those vendors who are more mobile, cruising around in fancy Airstreams or repurposed school buses, essentially stopping where they could to peddle their delicious wares. Naturally, with the ability to move about the city, food carts and food trucks setting up shop at local sporting or music events, farmer’s markets, spaces where the 9-to-5 crowd would migrate for lunchtime treats, I could justifiably see where some restaurateurs were getting chafed. Combine that with a lack of city laws regulating both location and sanitation, and you have a mighty little struggle.

With my interest piqued, I took to gaining a little more insight into the street food business, and the challenges faced by this new wave of food entrepreneurs, by speaking with three food truck/cart owners – two mobile, one stationary – to get their take on it all.

Here’s what they had to say.

Food Carts and Food Trucks, Oh My!

Skillet, Seattle, Washington
Skillet, Seattle, Washington

Josh Henderson, Skillet Street Food, Seattle, WA

Working in restaurant kitchen since his teens, Henderson graduated from music school before completing his culinary education at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. “It really put me on the path that I’m on now,” he explained. “Before that, I was just doing a job. After that, it became a career.”

  • Established: 2007
  • Number of staff: 10-12
  • People served: “A few hundred a day”

What’s your philosophy behind Skillet?
Our philosophy was, and still is, really just to bring chef-driven, simple food to the streets. I felt it was really underrepresented. Our food is simple, not fussy, very ingredient-driven. In whatever we do, whether it’s catering or street food or a brick and mortar, that theme will remain consistent.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced?
Mainly, the inability to efficiently react to bigger problems. Just in the sense that if you run out of propane and you need to get more, you’re done selling. In a restaurant, you can function through issues, but with food trucks, you’re done. You lose a day of revenue. We sell for such short bits of time that if we miss that window, it’s hard to get that momentum back.

What has the response been from chefs and the community?
From chefs, it has been nothing but a good response. All of them want the food trucks. This is a free country, and people make choices where they want to eat, and if someone doesn’t come to my place, I’m not going to blame someone else. I’m going to ask myself what’s making that person go elsewhere. I have a real issue with [chefs who complain about street food]. I think it’s completely small-minded. We won’t park in front of a restaurant, or nearby one. There’s definitely some etiquette.

What’s the next move for Skillet Street?
We’ll be opening a diner next spring on Capitol Hill.

StrEat Chefs, Boulder, Colorado
StrEat Chefs, Boulder, Colorado

Hosea Rosenberg, StrEat Chefs, Boulder, CO

Nationally recognized after his win on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef, Hosea Rosenberg completed his education at the University of Colorado, graduating with a degree in Engineering Physics prior to embarking on his culinary career.

  • Established: 2010
  • Number of staff: Two prep cooks, three line cooks, a manager and a cashier.
  • People served: “On a busy lunch, an average of 200 people.”

Why a food truck and not a traditional restaurant?
Not only was I really interested in the phenomenon of the food truck movement, it allowed me to travel, cook and research for this kind of project.

What are some of the advantages to having a food truck vs. brick and mortar?
I love the idea of having a restaurant that not only changes the menu every day, but the location as well. If a place is slow for us, we just don’t need to go back. You see examples all the time of great restaurants in bad locations.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had?
The biggest one is people can’t always find us.  We have some semi-permanent locations that people just expect to see us at.  We post on Twitter, Facebook and our own site – but sometimes people forget to check and then get disappointed when we’re not there.

Do you think it’s easier to start a food truck than a traditional restaurant?
It’s definitely cheaper. I wouldn’t say easier. At least here in Boulder, dealing with permits, locations, and traffic has been very trying. Staffing is tough as it’s not a typical restaurant setting. And the fact that our business can be so drastically different every single day really keeps us on our toes. I think it’s every bit as hard as opening a restaurant.

What kind of response have you received from the local community?
Overwhelmingly positive. I get messages every day about how great and affordable the food is. Our customers are constantly asking for us to show up in new locations.

What’s the next move for StrEAT Chefs?
Expansion. We want to open more trailers in the area and then nationwide.

Whiffies Pie Cart, Portland, Oregon
Whiffies Pie Cart, Portland, Oregon

Gregg Abbott, Whiffies Pie Cart, Portland, OR

Growing up in the industry, Abbott was heavily influenced by his chef father. Working his way through the kitchen, he made his way from dishwasher to line cook before venturing out on his own food adventure.

  • Established: 2009
  • Number of staff: Three full-time, four part-time – “So much for my one-man operation.”
  • People served: 1500-2000 a week

Why street food and not a traditional restaurant?
I chose to do a food cart and not a traditional restaurant because I didn’t think I was ready for the responsibilities of a restaurant (large staff, multiple vendors, extensive menus, etc.). I felt like I was comfortable taking on a one-man show. I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be and how fast it was going to grow. The naiveté helped me get into the game and I’m very grateful for it.

What are some of the challenges you’ve run into?
Some of the challenges we’ve run into include: Plumbing nightmares (having to schlep water to the cart and paying astronomical fees to have the grey water removed, the pipes freezing in the winter time), working in a tiny space with NO storage (every day is a shopping day around here), standing next to a gigantic fan sucking in cold air in the dead of winter (it’s really cold in here in the winter), having to get by on food sales alone (no lottery and no liquor).

What do you feel are some of the advantages to running a cart?
The buildout costs were less than a brick and mortar would have been. In the summertime it’s great to be outside. I have some mobility and if I decide to move I don’t have to pay buildout costs again. I can focus on making one product as well as I can and people are cool with it. I can also offer that product to people at a price that is very reasonable because my overhead is lower.

Why Portland?
This is the city that I love. This is the best city in America to be into food. I can’t think of anywhere else where you have the wealth of farm fresh food so readily available and amazing restaurants that people who work in the industry can afford to eat at.

What kind of response have you had from chefs?
The response has been amazing. I think a lot of chefs yearn for the freedoms afforded by the food cart atmosphere. You get to cook and interact with your customers, get direct feedback and do what you’re passionate about. Who wouldn’t want that? At one point last year there was quite a nightly meetup of young up-and-coming chefs who would come hang after their shifts at the cart.

What kind of response have you had from the community?
The community response has been incredible. Portland has a truly awe inspiring sense of community for an American city. I’m very grateful to be a part of it.

There’s an assumption that it’s easier to open a food truck vs. a traditional restaurant. Your thoughts?
I think mostly this is true. It’s just like a restaurant without the front of the house things (china, linens, servers, etc.) and a really tiny kitchen and menu. This is reflected in the startup price. It’s definitely easier to manage.

**A big thanks to Josh, Hosea, and Gregg!


~Jennifer Heigl

*Photo credits: Skillet – Skillet Street Food; Streat Chefs – Streat Chefs; Whiffies – EaterPDX.com

2 replies on “Daily Blender Exclusive: The Business of Food Carts”
  1. says: Jenny

    Excellent interviews and great to hear their points of view. We don’t really have that problem as much here up in Seattle, but my bro is a big street food eater in Austin and I hear a lot of the old places are closing up shop b/c of the carts. But the carts have brought a lively vitality to the scene (already bursting with color), so I’m surprised to hear things are closing. I wonder how the Austin chefs are feeling these days, and if it’s the same as up here.

  2. Thanks Jenny. It’s an interesting discussion, and I wanted to give the cart/truck owners a chance to talk about their side of the business. It’s also a curious dynamic – as to whether restaurants that are closing would’ve closed on their own (due to the recession, lagging food/drink offerings, etc.) or if it’s really an influence of the carts/trucks.

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