Keep on Truckin’
Mexican Restaurants on Wheels Can Be Good Business
By Ed Avis
Taco Pacifico in Madison, Conn. looks like any small taco restaurant, with its desert-themed décor, faux clay tile roof, and sizzling griddle full of authentic Mexican cuisine.
But Taco Pacifico has four things most taco joints do not—wheels. It is a food truck, not a restaurant, and it delivers its guacamole, tacos, quesadillas, and other Mexican favorites to hungry customers around town.
“I started Taco Pacifico because I couldn't find any decent Mexican food where I was living in Connecticut,” owner Greg Sharon says. “I needed my daily fill. My motive was very self-serving.”
Taco Pacifico is one of thousands of food trucks delivering food to hungry customers. For some proprietors the truck is an extension of their restaurant; for others it is their only venue. Either way, food trucks are changing the way many in the Mexican restaurant industry operate.
It may seem that food trucks are in the news a lot lately, but their roots can be traced to the food carts vendors pushed through busy downtowns a century or more ago. Some of those carts likely evolved into loncheras, the popular food trucks that have served tacos on the East Side of Los Angeles since the 1960s.
Taco Pacifico’s roots are different. It started as a catering business in 2009, evolved into a food cart in 2010, became a food trailer in 2011, and finally became a full-fledged truck this year.
“Our truck is our kitchen,” Sharon says. “The truck has a deep fryer, a griddle, a 2-burner, 2-well steam table and a 5-foot bain marie. We prepare everything inside.“
All food trucks require appropriate permits from their local municipality. Local authorities have a keen interest in ensuring trucks meet health codes. And brick-and-mortar restaurants have an equally keen interest in making sure the trucks don’t invade their turf. Those two interests have created difficult permitting situations in many towns.
For example, the City of Houston has a two-page list of requirements food trucks must meet, including having a fresh water tank of at least 30 gallons, hot and cold running water, and a commercial vent hood over the grill or range. Furthermore, food trucks that plan to be parked anywhere for more than an hour must provide access to restroom facilities for customers and a permission letter from the property owner.
“It was difficult and expensive” to get the required permit, says Homero Poncé-Lopez, owner of Firehouse Tacos, a Houston food truck that opened in early 2012. Poncé-Lopez, who opened Firehouse Tacos after a 31-year career as a Houston fireman, says the permit cost him $1,200.
Getting the Truck
Some operators find decent used food trucks that can be renovated to fit their needs, while others buy them new. A completely outfitted new food truck can easily cost $100,000.
Fernando Ortega, who operates Empanada Armada, a Dallas area food truck that specializes in empanadas, bought a new truck from Cruising Kitchens (www.cruisingkitchens.com) in San Antonio when he launched his business earlier this year. Ortega’s father, Omar Ortega, owns a wholesale empanada business, and when the family saw Dallas’ food truck trend, they decided it would be a good way to sell their products, too.
“We told Cruising Kitchens what we needed, and three weeks later we had the truck,” Ortega says.
Before investing in any truck, make sure you understand the municipal requirements for food trucks. Houston, for example, requires that operators submit their truck plans before ordering the truck.
You can prepare the most amazing burritos in the world, but if people can’t find your truck, you won’t sell enough of them to keep on trucking!
Finding the right place to park is the first step to successful selling. Regular restaurants do not want food trucks nearby because they fear they’ll lose customers. Consequently you must find a spot customers can easily find but one that does not encroach on another business.
Letting customers know where you are is the next step—one commonly taken via Facebook and Twitter. Another important marketing tool is the truck itself. An attractive truck will draw more attention than a dingy, undecorated vehicle. Finally, if catering part of your plan, letting the right people know what you have to offer is essential.
“The majority of our business is private events,” says Ortega. “You need to market a lot to cities, private companies, and other organizations that do private catering.”
Food trucks present a great opportunity to build business, since they can extend your restaurant well beyond the four walls of your brick-and-mortars building.
“It couldn't be going any better for me at the moment,” Sharon says. “Apart from being booked for private taco truck fiestas every weekend, I constantly receive accolades from new customers thanking me for starting this business. Cars honk and shout ‘TACOS RULE’ as they pass my truck on the highway. “
Click here for an interesting article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a Mexican food trailer in that city.