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The food truck scene in SLO County

Expanding sector can cook up profits for those who have the necessary drive

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJuly 12, 2013 

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Kobe beef in lentils in an Indian-inspired red sauce. Pulled pork and jack cheese, cilantro and a special sauce sandwiched between slices of ciabatta bread. Orange chicken marmalade skewers with coconut lime rice.

It’s the type of food that could easily be found on the menu at fine brick-and-mortar restaurants on the Central Coast, or in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. Now, much to the delight of many San Luis Obispo County residents, it’s available locally on their favorite food trucks.

While mobile food vendors are not new, these gourmet restaurants on wheels continue to generate a following among foodies searching for innovative and exciting cuisine. In recent years, they have increasingly become regular fixtures — especially during the lunch rush — at select sites throughout the county, and at wineries and special events.

There are six mobile food vendors licensed to do business in the unincorporated areas of the county and six licensed in San Luis Obispo. It’s unknown how many operate in Paso Robles because the city does not classify mobile food vendors in a uniform way. Those familiar with the county’s mobile food scene, however, say that there are more in business throughout the county.

“People are still getting used to it here,” said Anna Andriese, owner of Haute Skillet food truck. “But I think the trend will stick around for a little while because it’s fun and it’s different.”

‘Expanding everywhere’

Fueled in part by the creativity of chefs, the rise of social media sites such as Facebook and reality TV shows such as the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” the mobile food movement has taken root in California and across the nation.

Matt Geller, chief executive officer of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, a food truck advocacy organization with more than 100 members, said food trucks “are expanding everywhere,” from California to Washington, D.C., and from Ohio to Baton Rouge, La.

“Forbes magazine named mobile vending one of the best business opportunities in 2011,” Geller noted. “It gives people the ability to start a business that can be cheaper than starting a restaurant.”

A food truck is not the same as operating a stand-alone restaurant, but it is a business nonetheless, Geller said, and “it has forced everyone in the food service industry to compete.”

The better food truck owners understand their market, the better off they will be, he noted.

“You have to have quality food and great customer service,” he said. “Just because you have a food truck doesn’t mean people are going to flock to you. You have to have something that people can get excited about.”

Erin Mazzei and her husband, Chris, believe they have the right ingredients to make their food truck a success.

The couple will soon roll out Gusto on the Go Bistro, an enterprise they started using their own savings. So far, they have a commissary kitchen — a licensed inspected commercial kitchen — a place to park their truck, food vendors and a route lined up.

Mazzei said she and Chris have started other types of businesses in the past, but the food truck has been a dream of her husband’s for some time.

“We decided that it was time for something different,” she said. “My husband is an amazing chef. He has no formal training, but you wouldn’t know that.”

Gusto on the Go Bistro will focus on California vineyard cuisine, featuring fresh ingredients from farmers markets. The Mazzeis plan to offer such items as truffle macaroni and cheese, mushroom risotto balls with French onion soup bites, and melon and tomato salad.

“There’s a lot of curiosity and a lot of acceptance,” Mazzei said. “I feel like SLO has a big enough population and that the people are cultured enough to appreciate gourmet food.”

Not an easy road

Owning a food truck can be a culinary adventure, but it isn’t for the timid entrepreneur.

In addition to applying for business licenses and permits, and complying with city and county ordinances, aspiring mobile vendors can expect to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 on a truck, said Geller of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.

Then there’s truck maintenance, along with labor costs and insurance, fuel and propane costs, as well as food costs, especially if chefs are preparing items from scratch.

Lori Nunes, owner of KunFusion, which specializes in an Asian style of cuisine, said operating her truck is “a tremendous amount of work.”

Nunes, who celebrated her second year in business in April, decided to go into the food truck business after the restaurant where she worked laid her off.

She declined to disclose how much she invested personally to get the truck up and running, but Nunes said she took out a personal loan and received a small SBA loan through the Economic Vitality Corporation of San Luis Obispo County. Rather than buy a new truck, she purchased an older truck in 2010 and refurbished it.

Although Nunes said she is profitable, she acknowledged that business isn’t always steady.

“If you watch trucks in L.A., San Francisco and New York, you can go to just one location in one day, but I have to go to four or five businesses and hopefully get 60 or 70 customers,” she said.

She supplements her income by providing food for weddings, as well as festivals and concerts such as the Avila Beach Blues Festival.

“We just did a wedding for 100 that went off without a hitch,” she said recently.

The food truck business has evolved through the years, said Lisa Dirkes Thomas, owner of 805 Pacifica Catering, which recently served patrons at the San Luis Obispo Concours at the Madonna Inn.

For Thomas, mobile food service used to be a family enterprise. Thomas’ parents bought a mobile food catering business in the 1980s, running five cold trucks and two mobile hot trucks. They served thousands of people at places such as Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and at construction sites for hotels and housing tracts, she said.

The economic downturn several years ago meant fewer construction sites for Thomas to visit and fewer customers with disposable income. As a result, Thomas, who is the sole proprietor, found it more difficult to run her food truck.

As competition from other food trucks heats up and operating costs rise, Thomas said it’s even harder to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She is applying for a supervisor cook position at California Men’s Colony, one of her preferred stops, in an effort to supplement her income.

“You have a lot of food trucks, and they are all fighting for the same places,” she said.

Cooking up niches

Like Nunes and Thomas, other food truck owners rely on a combination of daily routes and catering for special events to make up for the slow days and months.

When Andriese, a former pastry chef for Giuseppe’s restaurant, isn’t driving to her usual locations in the county, she caters weddings.

“I would say the days we operate the food truck, we’re breaking even,” she said. “But we really are excelling in the catering. We’re booked for 12 or 13 weddings, including rehearsal dinners. That’s where the money is coming from.”

Emily Marks, who owns Elly’s Sweet Tooth with her husband, Traven Marks, has found a niche with specialty desserts, which are sold out of a 1972 Argosy Airstream trailer. The couple spent about $20,000 to renovate it and obtain the necessary permits.

“We are currently doing events all over the Central Coast on weekends and take special cake and cookie orders such as birthdays and weddings,” she said.

The Markses also have worked with other food trucks, trading some desserts for food from Haute Skillet and The Pairing Knife, another new food truck, operated by Jessie Rivas.

“The goal is to have two trailers in three to five years, with one parked at a retro food trailer park with other food trailers seven days a week, and the other for local events,” Marks said.

Potholes and pitfalls

But the food truck business can be fickle, and it hasn’t worked out for everyone.

Duncan Palmer, former owner of Porter’s, which opened in October 2010 with a new diesel truck, faced significant challenges and eventually had to shut down his operation this year.

Palmer, who used his personal savings to start the business, said the costs were too high.

He was spending a lot of time driving around town and not enough time selling food at prices people were willing to pay.

Although he had a loyal following on his lunch routes, Palmer faced several obstacles. For instance, he was prohibited from selling food at local high schools, and to students at Cuesta College and Cal Poly.

“At my peak, I was doing maybe $18,000 to $20,000 a month,” he said. “I had so many slow months that, by the time I averaged in the slow months and the busy months, I was losing money.”

Palmer worked hard to give customers food prepared with fresh ingredients, but in the end, he had to move on.

“I am taking a break,” he said. “I worked 16- to 18-hour days. Now I am working in the garage and cooking at home for myself, where I can enjoy it.”

Despite the potential for pitfalls, many believe the risks and sacrifices are worth it.

Rivas, owner of The Pairing Knife, relocated from the Bay Area to San Luis Obispo County this year to become culinary director for Sextant Wines in Paso Robles.

In San Francisco, he operated Le Truck, but he decided to move his family out of the city to San Luis Obispo County for a better quality of life.

His roving restaurant is just one facet of his overall business, which includes the Sextant job and running a deli at Old Edna on Broad Street in San Luis Obispo.

He is confident his business model — and gourmet food — will be a hit, and he’s excited about the possibility of capitalizing on tourism here, which is a key driver for the local economy.

“I’m trying to build a company, and that takes time and a lot of trial and error,” said Rivas, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. “I’ve done this so much and so many times, and I rely on instinct and experience. That’s all I’ve got, and I know I can cook.”

Rivas added: “There are sophisticated palates here. People want good food; you just want to make sure they get what they pay for.”

Gallery: Photos of SLO County food trucks »

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