Food trucks have become a staple throughout the city, and across the culinary and business landscapes
by Chalise Macklin
Chuck wagons and other forms of mobile kitchens, including food trucks, have existed for decades, but are more popular now than ever. Now that summer is in full swing, you’ve certainly seen them circulating throughout the Bluff City.
“Food trucks are pulling people out of the office building,” says Leslie Gower, vice president of Marketing and Communications for the Downtown Memphis Commission.
Since 2008, there has been a boom in food truck operations across the country. Right now, the revenue for the industry sits at well over $800 million nationally. According to the National League of Cities, the growth will continue to climb over the next five years.
“Food trucks can be a lucrative opportunity,” says Dr. Tyler Zerwekh, REHS Administrator Bureau of Environmental Health (Shelby County Health Department), adding that the application for permits “comes and goes in rushes. It is usually event-based driven.”
Americans’ need for instant gratification, their busy schedules, and craving for unique foods at affordable prices are all reasons for the uptick in sales and have created a profitable path for the food truck industry. Relatively low startup costs are also contributing to the increase in food trucks nationwide. National Geographic indicates that the average food truck’s startup cost is about $75,000 compared to about $250,000 to get a brick-and-mortar restaurant off the ground.
Voner Vanderhall, West Memphis resident and owner of The Vanderhall’s sandwich truck, started his business on less than half the estimated beginning price. He spent roughly $28,000 on his newly opened food truck. “I did most of the labor myself to reduce costs,” he says. “I was so excited after I received a 98 out of 100 inspection rating. I am off to a good start.”
The president of the Memphis Food Truck Alliance, Keith Paul, says, “For most food trucks, the overhead is low, it can give a person right out of cooking school the chance to hone their skills, and independence to the owner. If you don’t brand yourself well, if your truck breaks down regularly or for an extended period of time, or if your menu isn’t unique enough, someone will go out of business quick.”
New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas are three major cities known for a strong food truck presence. It’s a factor that helps drive tourism in those areas, and the cities are now seeing additional competition as more food trucks emerge across the country.
The movement caught on in the Bluff City in the fall of 2009. The DMC worked with then-City Councilman Jim Strickland to help shape the legislation for food trucks. “Food trucks have a downtown vibe,” says Gower. “We wanted to be progressive like other cities and add to the character and animation [of downtown Memphis].” The idea of adding food trucks in Memphis did not come without some reservations. Says Gower, “At first, we were a little apprehensive because we were worried about how it would affect our restaurants.”
Apprehensions eased after the city council approved legislation requiring that trucks remain 50 feet from the front door of any restaurant, and 1,000 feet from Beale Street, AutoZone Park, and any major festivals.
In fact, the addition of food trucks has added life to downtown Memphis and exceeded expectations. “Food trucks add a niche and vibrancy that is wanted by downtown workers,” Gower says. “We had no idea how well it would take off.”
Every Thursday, about 25 vendors participate in the Court Square Food Truck Rodeo. Gower confirms the rodeo draws anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people each week, many of which are the young professionals working downtown.
But the eclectic options are not contained to the downtown area only. Food trucks are also operating in the Medical District, Midtown, and parts of East Memphis, and are expanding into other areas. There are over 100 trucks operating in Memphis right now. At its peak, about 300 total were permitted to operate.
Food trucks are not legally able to operate without state and local permits. The health department will inspect food trucks twice a year, but can come out anytime for a surprise inspection; especially if there is reason to believe a truck is high-risk or if patrons submit complaints.
“Ideally [a prospective food truck owner], would pick up a packet from the health department before getting started,” says Zerwekh. “You must realize this isn’t a full-scale restaurant. You may have to scale down your operation.”
There are some things people should know before getting started. Much like a brick-and-mortar restaurant, a food truck owner must do research and be business savvy.
“It is a challenge,” says Ermyias Shiberou, owner of Stickem food truck as well as the brick-and-mortar Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen in Midtown. “It is not easy, but for someone who wants to make it happen, the access is there. [A turnkey] truck will cost you $30,000 - $40,000, but if you are handy and can do it yourself it could cost $15,000 - $20,000. I recommend [potential food truck operators] get the list of requirements from the health department and talk to the people there. They are helpful.”
“Running a food truck is like running any other business,” Paul adds, “and if you are not business-savvy you are going to run of money fast.”
Many owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants are purchasing food trucks as an extension of their operations. Restaurant owners feel it is another way to reach loyal customers, gain new ones, and compete with food truck owners.
One of the biggest concerns brick-and-mortar restaurants may have is that food trucks are going to steal their business, but experts indicate that they are likely replacing fast food meals. The traveling business could also send customers their way. Most people have around 30 minutes for lunch. If a food truck line is too long or runs out food, people may choose to go to the nearest restaurant to buy lunch.
“In many ways,” says Gower, “food trucks are growing brick-and-mortar restaurants’ business as well because of the overflow.”
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