The rule of thumb has generally been that you start a food truck, then transition to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. But lately a handful of restaurants have defied the food gods by condensing their brick-and-mortar establishments into food-truck form, including Brass Tacks, Ezell’s, Plum Bistro, Barking Frog, and The Walrus and the Carpenter.
It’s a far less natural process. Turning a food truck into a restaurant allows a kitchen to breathe, enabling new options and possibilities. The reverse transition means shedding and sacrifice, like choosing what to take with you during a fire—a really long-drawn-out fire.
But it’s often an effective marketing decision. Taking a restaurant mobile creates a more visible brand and reaches new customers, often funneling them back to the brick-and-mortar, where they can actually grab a seat.
“We’ve been a brick-and-mortar for 13 years,” says Bobby Moore of Barking Frog in Woodinville, who in May launched Barking Frog Mobile Kitchen, nicknamed Road Toad (the license plate reads RDTOAD). “We were bursting at the seams here. You can only generate so much revenue when you’ve been a brick-and-mortar for so long. We wanted to keep ourselves in front of people. I personally wanted to change with the times and not keep doing the same old thing.”
While it would be fun if food trucks simply shot out of their home restaurants like escape pods, the process is much more complicated.
“I like to have a hand in everything,” says Makini Howell of the vegan restaurant Plum Bistro and now the Plum Burgers food truck. “I was, like, ‘Oh, this might be a good idea. I’ll have the first all-burger, vegan food truck in the nation, and I’ll beat everybody to it,’ ” she says, chuckling. “But I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.
“We did a Kickstarter fundraiser and got funded for the truck, but navigating labor and industry and the health department and getting the right items for the truck is really hard,” she says. “When you build a restaurant, just about every architect in town can help you, or an equipment salesman can help you with this or that—it’s not like that with a food truck. Everybody’s guessing.”
Such food trucks are typically purchased at auction, at businesses like portlandfoodtrailers.com, and even on Craigslist (prices typically range from $20,000 for a basic used truck to upward of $120,000 for a new, souped-up vehicle). The ads highlight features completely foreign to brick-and-mortar restaurants: 40-gallon wastewater tanks, multiple serving doors, and 5,500-watt generators that promise to be “very quiet.”
A state-of-the-art, 22-foot freightliner, the Barking Frog Mobile Kitchen has plenty of room for all these bells and whistles. “We have two ovens,” says Moore, “a six-burner range, two commercial deep fryers, a 36-inch griddle, a 24-inch grill, a triple sink, two stand-up refrigerators, an under-counter freezer, a motorized awning, and tons of space in there to be able to plate up and whatnot . . . It’s a beast to drive, but it’s fun.”
Adapting to a small, mobile kitchen presents its own struggles. “You have to shrink everything down,” says Howell, “and then convert it to a mobile unit.” Plum Burgers converted what had been a coffee truck; Ezell’s Express transformed a uniform truck; and Narwhal, the mobile extension of The Walrus and the Carpenter, is operating in an adorable converted 1960 Divco dairy van.
Ezell’s Express faced a unique hurdle: The four fryers on board required plenty of propane. “We ran into a lot of challenges with propane and how much we can carry,” says Phylicia Davidson, co-owner of the truck with her cousin, Jennifer Stephens. “There was actually an issue where they thought it was a terrorist threat that we carry so much propane,” she says, laughing.
Due to space and time constraints, restaurants often streamline their menu and/or offer new items when going mobile. The main challenge for Davidson is that Ezell’s regular chicken “takes about 20 minutes to cook, and in a food truck you’ve got to be fast, you’ve only got a few hours to serve lunch. And so that’s why we went with the wingettes versus the full-size chicken.”
Plum Burgers’ transition was similar. “I didn’t want to take the bistro and put it in a truck,” Howell says, “because that wouldn’t work. It’s a burger truck. You’re not going to get ravioli with brown butter sauce on the truck, because that doesn’t make sense. You should go to the restaurant to get that.”
Plum Burgers focuses on vegan burgers and shakes, as well as its popular mac ’n’ yease, while Ezell’s Express pared its vast selection down to chicken strips, wingettes, fries, and rolls. Barking Frog Mobile Kitchen also serves a few home standbys, including truffle macaroni and cheese and braised short-rib sandwiches. Regulations prevent Narwhal from serving its beloved raw oysters (one day!), so obviously it fries them. Occasionally food trucks are used to test items for the brick-and-mortar menu, sort of like a farm team.
Since the ice-cream-truck method of driving around a neighborhood and blasting nursery rhymes isn’t a proper marketing strategy for these food trucks, they use other means. All four are busy on social media, cater social and corporate events, and can be found at various locations throughout the city, not just at Microsoft and Amazon. Barking Frog Mobile Kitchen will launch new menu items at the Velvet Underground Dining Experience on March 8.
Like a catered mobile billboard, each vehicle spurs customers to try the expanded menu at the brick-and-mortar location, which you could probably find by following the food truck.
There’s no telling whether more Seattle restaurants will transition to food trucks, though one can fantasize about places like Paseo and The Wandering Goose. In Kansas City, McDonald’s recently launched the one-and-only McDonald’s Fry Truck, just in case anyone hadn’t heard of McDonald’s. Applebee’s and Sizzler have one, too. How this affects the food-truck movement remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Not so cool now, are you, food trucks?