Food truck owners set up shop in brick-and-mortar restaurants

Some mobile vendors use trucks to build a client base before opening a restaurant.

Published July 29 2015
Updated December 16 2015

The wheels are coming off.

Remember when food trucks were a hot new trend? In 2011 the Tampa Bay area started with about 13 food trucks; today that number is more than 150, with new ones coming onboard each week.

The trend is evolving again. An increasing number of those mobile vendors are using their food trucks to build a client base and refine a concept before launching brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Chicago Little Italy Restaurant in Lutz and Anise Global Gastrobar, Wicked 'Wiches and Chop Chop Shop in Tampa all began as food trucks, where the price of starting a business can be as low as $20,000 versus an initial outlay of more than $100,000 with a brick and mortar.

This truck-to-table phenomenon is playing out nationally in cities like New York, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Los Angeles, with a number of surprising rationales. They never planned to stay small in the first place.

"We started our food truck, Kind Grinds, in 2013 with the intention of starting a brick-and-mortar," said Steve Sera, who with his wife, Olivia, opened the Chop Chop Shop in Seminole Heights in June.

After working for local restaurants like Pane Rustica, Jonjie Sibayan opened the Filipino PAO truck in 2012 with the aim of opening a Filipino restaurant within a year. He bought a used truck for less than $20,000, had a hood installed and "stuck a PAO sticker on it just to get the name out."

The food-truck-first strategy is often financially driven, but there's also this: More adventurous diners patronize food trucks.

"The biggest hurdle (for us) was getting over the fact that no one had had that kind of food before," Sibayan said.

Would-be restaurant owners "are realizing the effectiveness of food trucks to figure out your clientele," said Jeremy Gomez, who runs the Generation Food Truck food court in Seminole Heights, which opens Monday. And they're educating those customers.

Focusing on University of South Florida students and Tampa millennials, Sibayan built a customer base through social media, food truck rallies and word of mouth. In August 2014, he opened PAO Cafe on Florida Avenue in Carrollwood.

Because space in a food truck is limited, a brick-and-mortar kitchen allows him to cook more things and offer an expanded menu, as well as use the restaurant kitchen as a commissary for catering and the food truck.

Plus, a food truck is always moving. A stationary restaurant is easier for customers to find.

Mobile cachet

Sometimes even your favorite date night restaurant had humble mobile origins.

"The food truck validated the restaurant," said Xuan Hurt, who with her husband, Kevin, owned the Stinky Bunz truck in 2012 before opening Anise Global Gastrobar the next year. Having looked for a tiny quick-serve space, they found only the glamorous location on Ashley Drive that was originally RawBar.

"Sometimes the space dictates what your final product is, and this was a much bigger project than what we originally intended," Hurt said.

Despite the upscale vibe of the place, the debut menu included the cult-following Korean-inflected buns popularized by their food truck, a truck they sold last year because it was too hard to do events and run the restaurant.

"Food truck owners work so hard," Hurt said. "It's a labor of love."

Brian Goodell, the man behind Wicked 'Wiches, one of the area's first food trucks in 2011, has had a different experience. He now has four trucks — his original, Texican BBQ, Slow and Low Barbeque and the Give & Grub truck he runs for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Laser Spine Institute. But he also debuted Wicked 'Wiches & Brew on S Howard Avenue in Tampa in January.

A brick-and-mortar restaurant strengthens the brand and also allows him to pursue his passion for craft beer, he said.

"We've been using the brewery and craft beer scene as a platform to create these funky, crazy sandwiches," he said. "In a brick-and-mortar, you can bring all those beers under one roof."

A restaurant is more expensive, with a "lot more moving pieces and a lot more laws and zoning and utility bills," Goodell said. But in some sense, a brick-and-mortar venture is hedging your bet.

"These days everyone is getting in on the food truck game," he said. "The trend seems to have reached its peak."

Scott Brown owns the Dude and His Food truck, and his partner, Jennifer Byrd, started the Aloha to Go truck. Together they have debuted the Aloha Dude takeout restaurant in Indian Shores.

Putting down roots gives him more room to prep for the larger events where they feed 500 people out of the truck he describes as "a ginormous beast." But brick-and-mortar is a little more stable and the reliance on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter isn't quite as intense.

"I'm not a good social media person," he said. "But it's essential with a food truck."

Corporate wheels

There's another twist in the busy food truck convoy. Brick-and-mortar restaurants, even monster corporate ventures like McDonald's, Olive Garden and Boston Market, are getting into the food truck business to boost their hipster cred, showing up at festivals and rallies to court new customers.

So while some businesses are putting down new roots, some restaurants are, as the Who says, making it "on the road goin' mobile."

In general, Goodell said, the food truck community ostracizes these "wannabes," and companies like McDonald's will practically give away food at rallies.

"Those guys aren't using a truck for income as much as to promote their brand," he said.

The irony is not lost on Generation Food Truck's Gomez.

"Corporations that have spent the last few years trying to litigate food trucks out of business are now trying to beat us at our own game."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

 
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