Food trucks. Little mobile gourmet dispensaries that make anyone with any enthusiasm for eating at all think, “Duh.”
A quickly growing trend in the food service industry, trucks are a way for adventurous foodies to make their gourmet specialties available to the masses. In a 2011 “What’s Hot” survey of 1,500 chefs, the National Restaurant Association found that 30 percent of those surveyed expect food trucks and “pop-up” restaurants to be the top “operational” restaurant trend next year.
These vehicles aim to deliver the best of a chef’s repertoire, the tastiest bits of an edible venture, and elevate their potential via express marketing on the move.
“Being in a truck allows you to follow the people,” said Carlos Silva, owner and barista of Maddie’s Mud, an organic coffee truck that alternates between parking in the Marinwood Community Center and the farmer’s market in San Rafael throughout the week. “You can find out where they are, check advertisements for events, and there they are! Everyone needs coffee.”
But as much as the food truck community seems to feature spontaneous chefs bringing their delicious creations to the streets, each truck is a strategic business endeavor. Food trucks are selling unique concepts and test-running new ideas in hopes of gathering a wide audience.
What’s cooking inside is hardly any average food item. Often there can be ethnic specialties with a twist or two, or ordinary food items turned extraordinary — sandwiches with fries not on the side but in the sandwich itself, bacon tacos, spicy fruit gazpacho or triple-tiered ice cream sandwiches. Each truck is an individual project, aimed at marketing both a chef’s personality and flair for flavor.
One of UC Davis’ own food trucks is Star Ginger, a brightly orange-colored vendor of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine parked at the Silo on weekdays. The truck is the mobile extension of celebrity chef Mai Pham’s Sacramento-based restaurant, Star Ginger Asian Grill and Noodle Bar.
“This concept is definitely taking off,” said James Boushka, marketing director at UC Davis Dining Services. “Part of the popularity is that it’s some of the only Asian food you can find without going off campus, and they’re quick to prepare.”
On the menu is a variety of BBQ and curry rice bowls, soups and sandwiches. All dishes range from $6 to $8.
“The bahn mi sandwiches are definitely popular,” said Alex Lucero, one of the Star Ginger truck’s managers. “So much so that we usually keep a handful of pre-made ones in the oven for when we have a rush.”
The bahn mi is a Vietnamese-style hot sandwich served with a choice of five-spice pork, barbeque chicken or lemongrass tofu, available for only $6. Pham’s version of a bahn mi sandwich is revolutionary in that, unlike most Vietnamese sandwiches, it is served hot and drizzled with a spicy sauce — a mixture of Sriracha and mayonnaise.
Indeed, the truck seems to be gaining popularity since its opening this past October. Every day between passing periods there is a line of students waiting to get their fix to hold them over until they are done with classes for the day.
“What we’re really trying to work for right now is to get indoors into a restaurant,” Lucero said. “The truck is a stepping stone. We wanted to get out in the area so that everyone knows us. That way, if one of the contracts runs out in the Silo, we can take their place.”
As much as the Star Ginger truck is a means of expanding an already existing business, some trucks are simple start-ups. Not all trucks are created equal, or with the same goals in mind. Some strive to gain a following large enough to sustain a new restaurant, and some enjoy the flexibility and mobility offered to them by operating out of a truck.
“With trucks, you have freedom,” Silva said. “You can go wherever you want, open whenever you want, and close whenever you want. It’s almost selfish.”
Silva opened his truck, named after his young daughter, four years ago, and has since made his passion for coffee his full-time job. He serves coffee in its purest form, working off a simple menu that he plans to make even simpler.
“I think coffee should be served black. At least, that’s the way I like it,” Silva said. “I may stop serving the syrups.”
Silva explained the difference between each coffee drink, clarifying a concept that had been lost by many as a result of the dominance of Starbucks. Not all macchiatos have caramel.
“They are classified by the proportion of milk to coffee,” Silva said. “All drinks have the 2-ounce shot of espresso. A macchiato has just a tiny bit of milk. Once six ounces or more of milk is added, it becomes a latte.”
On how he generates his customer base, Silva suggested that the secret is simple: customer service.
“I’m old-fashioned,” he said. “If I have good coffee and I respect people then they will tell a neighbor and the neighbor will come.”
The Star Ginger truck operates off of a similar theory. Lucero, before becoming manager of the truck, previously worked as a bartender at the Gunrock Pub, also located in the Silo. He left, however, along with his friend, chef Matthew Hill, to set up his own network at Star Ginger.
“They have a family establishment over there,” Lucero said. “It’s a father/daughter type of thing, and we just didn’t want to be in that family … soon after moving over here I saw some of [the Pub’s] old customers in my line, and that’s when I realized that the customer service is really what makes or breaks it for them.”
Whether it is a leaf in the foam atop a steaming latte, an impromptu lesson on the anatomy of a coffee beverage, or a friendly face humoring the customer who asks for extra sauce, the friendliness and enthusiasm are what allow a passion for food to be driven to success, according to those in the food truck business.
“It’s a big world out there in the food world, but it’s actually really small,” Lucero said.
Especially in a truck.
LANI CHAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.