You’ve seen the magazine covers (“Seattle’s Best Food Trucks 2012”) and read the headlines (“the mobile revolution has begun!”), but you need only look both ways on a busy Seattle street to see that we’ve got food truck fever.
In 2007 just a handful of sometimes-questionable mobile eateries roamed Seattle’s roads. Five years later, city regulations have changed, opening the door for a flood of high-quality food truck entrepreneurs. Food truck “pods” are popping up all over town – there’s one in South Lake Union, home to Amazon and its throngs of employees, and another recently opened downtown at Second and Pike. The food truck trend might lead you to think that food truck entrepreneurship is easy – roll out a truck, and watch the money roll in.
Not so fast, said Molly Neitzel, owner of Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. Neitzel, along with Josh Henderson of Skillet, Marshall Jett of Veraci Pizza, and Danielle Custer of Monte Cristo, were part of a panel on food truck entrepreneurship that took place during CIE’s annual ENTREWeek in October. Food trucks turned out to be one of the most popular features of the nine events offered during Entreweek 2012. Why so popular? CIE not only hosted foodie entrepreneurs, but their trucks as well. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to forgo the usual campus fare for wood-fired pizza from a clay oven on wheels or salted caramel ice cream from a gourmet ice cream truck?
Neitzel went on to say that after opening two successful ice cream stores in Seattle’s Wallingford and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, she thought it would be fun to add an ice cream truck to the family. It turned out to be a logistical nightmare. “Since the launch of the truck, I’ve opened three more shops,” she said, adding, “I’ll never open a truck again.”
Running a food truck is demanding, and owners face financial and logistical issues that don’t come up in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Custer, the newest owner on the food truck panel, had opened her gourmet grilled cheese truck, Monte Cristo, just a week earlier. “We’ve had four lunch services,” she said, “and the truck has been in the shop four times.”
It’s clear that food truck ownership is not for the faint of heart. So why are so many jumping on the food truck bandwagon? Perhaps because mobile food entrepreneurs know that a food truck can place them on the road to success. Food entrepreneurs see opportunity in using trucks as PR vehicles: develop a fan base with mobile food and those fans will follow once you find a permanent home.
Skillet is a great example. Henderson began serving burgers and poutine out of his silver airstream trailer in August 2007. By the time he opened Skillet Diner in 2011, the Skillet brand was hugely popular. Further success followed, and the brand now boasts a second location, Skillet Counter, plus a cookbook, a second food truck for catering, and products like Bacon Jam. Skillet’s success can be attributed in large part to the dedicated following of devotees who got their first taste of Skillet’s food when it was only served street-side.
Like Henderson, Marshall Jett opened his brick-and-mortar pizzeria five years after introducing his mobile Veraci pizza oven to Seattle farmer’s markets. “By the time we built Veraci in Ballard, we had a huge following,” he said. He added that the pizzeria’s opening coincided with the financial crisis in 2008, and remarked, “If we hadn’t established our business the way that we did and developed the momentum we had with our customers and our product, we probably would’ve gone out of business.”
All this transitioning from mobile to mortar may make food entrepreneurs feel a bit more stable, but it doesn’t mean the food truck trend is going away anytime soon. Even those with restaurants still keep their trucks running. Sure, owning a food truck can be a headache, and it’s probably not the key to riches, but they’re a great way to test a concept, build an audience, and be part of Seattle’s rolling food revolution.