EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is from the September issue of Flavor, the Press of Atlantic City’s magazine showcasing the food and drink scene in South Jersey. To get Flavor delivered to your home click here.
From cupcakes and barbecue to cheese curds and empanadas, foodies nationwide can get just about anything on a food truck. And while the food trucks themselves vary tremendously, from what they sell to how they’re designed, they have one big thing in common: They’re all part of an industry that is here to stay.
“The food trucks industry has experienced a boom over the five years to 2021, primarily as a result of the surge in gastronomy in the United States,” according to market research firm IbisWorld.
In other words, as our worlds get smaller, and we’re exposed to global ideas, our bellies — and appetites — get bigger, and we want to try it all. Food trucks are the perfect solution for a growing foodie nation.
“When it first started, I thought it was kind of a trend,” says Cassie Iacovelli, who in her role as executive director of MainStreet Hammonton has overseen the Hammonton Food Truck Festival since its inception in 2015.
“Now I’m starting to think it may be hanging around for a while,” says Iacovelli. “There are some (food trucks) that are pretty sophisticated and I think people are expecting more of a gourmet kind of approach to unique things they can’t get.”
And while that’s great news for those of us on the eating side, it’s equally promising for current and upcoming food truck operators — food trucks remain on the upswing, with food truck growth outpacing overall commercial food service 5.4% to 4.3%, according to FoodTruckOperator.com.
Unlike the traditional brick and mortar restaurant industry, the food truck business has a fairly low barrier to entry, and seems to value creativity and specialization above all else. So while a fantastic mashed potato recipe might not take you very far in the traditional restaurant world, it could make for an epic food truck.
“People like to eat and they like to eat different things. It’s a great opportunity for people to try food, and I know that for a restaurant owner or someone who’s going into the food truck business, there are opportunities out there, especially being so close to the shore,” says Cheri Caravano, a volunteer on the Hammonton Food Truck Festival Committee. “I can see food trucks being a thing for a long time. It just makes sense. If you have an art festival or a music festival, you need food.”
We spoke with three successful food trucks, each locally owned and each of which entered the food truck marketplace with a different plan in place, to find out how they’re rolling along in their mobile-based business.
Miss Connie’s Fire-Roasted Street Corn
(7- by 12-foot food trailer)
Connie Perks always wanted to do something a little more fun.
“I’ve been a career court reporter for over 40 years, and I’ve always had in the back of mind, ‘What could I do that would be fun?” says Perks.
An amateur foodie, Perks knew she’d be good in the food industry, but decided against going into the brick-and-mortar restaurant business.
“A lot of people who know the food business and are in the food business basically convinced me that it’s never going to happen because it’s just so difficult,” says Perks of her restaurant idea. “People kept suggesting food trucks.”
Fast forward to a party she threw where she set out her homemade elotes — Mexican street corn traditionally slathered with mayonnaise and topped with Cotija cheese, chili powder, cilantro and lime — and someone said, “You could sell these.” It was the idea Perks needed to give her the push into the food truck industry.
“I chose the corn because I had to stay super small, and I had to do something no one else was doing,” Perks says. “It was just a matter of logistics and being able to do the big dream I had but one that would actually work.”
Perks chose to start out with a trailer that’s pulled by a truck rather than a drive-able food truck. And rather than purchasing a used truck or trailer, full of equipment she didn’t need, she invested in a brand new trailer.
“Almost every food truck has a deep fryer. I’m not deep frying anything,” says Perks. “I wanted to start clean … so we picked it up in January of last year, and we slowly added the equipment. It was a pretty big investment. One refrigerator, for example, was $3,000.”
Perks' trailer is brand spanking new, and very small.
“This is about the smallest you can get,” Perks says. “Because of the fact that it’s a little trailer, I am very limited in adding anything. There’s literally 24 inches of butt space between the counter where you take the orders and the cooking equipment. I keep the menu simple because of the size of the truck and my ability to do too many different things and diversify too much slows me down. You really don’t want people to have to wait.”
Perks offers a limited, delicious and fine-tuned menu of corn products, mostly a variety of elotes — Mexican, American, Californian, vegan, French onion, Flamin' Hot Cheeto and cornbread crumb — but also stoned ground white corn grits, street corn nachos and corn muffins, all of which pair well with just about anything you can find at the other food trucks.
“I feel that I complement every single one of those trucks out there. Say Josie Kelly’s, for example, I absolutely love their fish and chips. I feel like the corn complements fish and chips. It complements a burger. It complements a sandwich,” says Perks.
With her well-designed menu and large fan base, one might think Perks would want to expand to a fleet of trucks, but she’s perfectly happy with her single trailer.
“The only growing up I would do would be to get a vehicle, something I could drive myself — the trailer is very difficult to back up,” says Perks. “I didn’t want to do it in the beginning because it’s very expensive to have a $40,000 vehicle that could break down. There are many factors to consider. But that’s about as big as I would get.”
Pirate Pete’s Soda Pop Company
(two 20-foot long trucks; one 10- by 10-foot pop-up)
Eric Shenkus could see what was happening with the food truck industry way back in 2016.
“I was involved in festivals and fairs for about 20 years on the festival production end,” Shenkus says. “I’ve produced the NJ State BBQ Championship and the Anglesea Blues Festival for 23 years and still do that. We saw a trend going on of food trucks stepping up from the old roach coaches, the old grease trucks, to really turning into some gourmet offerings.”
And though he realized food trucks had a lot of potential, he didn’t know exactly what his unique offering would be.
“We were looking around for different concepts of what we could do, and around the same time there just started to be the trend of food truck festivals and food trucks coming more prominently to special events and fairs,” says Shenkus. “We always loved to kind of dabble around and make some homemade soda, and what goes more perfectly with all these great foods that are starting to emerge on these food trucks than fantastic, ice cold soda pop?”
While the concept was a winner — Pirate Pete’s offers homemade sodas with names such as Cannonball Vanilla Crème and Blackbeard’s Black Cherry — it was equally important to Shenkus that this was something that could be done with his family.
“When my wife and I were sitting down coming up with the concept for Pirate Pete’s, one of the things we loved about it was it was a great way to introduce our children into business and give them a very approachable lesson in small business,” he says.
And it is a business. With two 20-foot trucks as well as a pop-up unit — a play on the soda pop they sell — Pirate Pete’s is a lot of work. But it’s also a lot of fun.
“What we’re seeing is that people are coming for the food trucks. We have folks who follow us event to event. It’s kind of cool and they follow other trucks, too, but in talking to our customers, one of the reasons they love to follow us is because we’re going to where the fun is,” says Shenkus. “In other words, we’re sort of doing their homework for them.”
As a veteran food truck operator, Shenkus is well aware of the challenges of the industry.
“It’s definitely a business where there are lower barriers to entry than a brick and mortar, but it’s one where people should be careful, like any business, and understand that it does require work and a certain skill set beyond, ‘I can make a great burger,” Shenkus says. “You have to deal with the mobile based aspect of it and the challenges that produces. Sometimes I spend more time at the hardware store than I do shopping for ingredients.”
Having some mechanical know-how is certainly a plus for food truck operators. So is having a good generator.
“That’s the way I spot a rookie — they went and bought the cheapest generator they could find,” says Shenkus.
Newcomers also need to understand how the food truck system works. In addition to needing a service area commissary for things such as capturing wastewater and prepping food, food truck operators can expect to encounter health and fire inspectors — as well as their associated fees — at every event.
“There are a lot of misconceptions of not paying the same taxes (as a brick and mortar). Obviously we’re not paying a property tax where the truck is sitting, but as these businesses expand, I have warehouse space, storage space,” says Shenkus. “Right now, with regulations, we get inspected by the health department at every event throughout New Jersey. I sort of joke with the health inspectors that they go to a brick and mortar once a year, but we see each other every week. But there are also a lot of fees attached to them.”
Despite the challenges, Shenkus is committed to the industry.
“If you’re willing to put in the time, it’s a great industry to get involved in,” he says. “Diversity is definitely rewarded in this industry.”
Josie Kelly’s Public House
(8- by 20-foot long truck; brick-and-mortar restaurant)
Kathleen Lloyd and her husband, Dermot, opened the Somers Point restaurant and bar, Josie Kelly’s Public House, in August of 2018. And while they had been curious about food trucks for a while, it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit, and they started doing mostly takeout for a period of time, that they made the move to add a mobile component to their business.
“We were like, where is this business going to go? How long are we going to be closed for?” says Shenkus. “I like to think that Josie Kelly’s is an experience. You go and sit in this beautiful atmosphere, it’s transformative. I tried really hard when I designed it to make it feel like Ireland. It’s very eclectic. It’s inviting and welcoming, with soft lighting and cool music. We’re very focused on Irish hospitality and welcoming people in, so when it shut down, well, putting fish and chips in a bag and driving 20 minutes away, that’s not what Josie Kelly’s is. That’s not a representation of what we do.”
A food truck however, could be.
“We teamed up with a custom builder and picked a truck and all the equipment. The cornerstone of this business was really that people can’t gather,” says Lloyd. “How can we still have that party atmosphere, that welcoming comfort food that everyone loves? We’re not putting it in an aluminum tray and driving it across town. That just doesn’t translate. We’re bringing the pub to you.”
For Josie Kelly’s, which already had an extensive menu, that meant narrowing down their options to about three to five items — often things such as mini crab balls, Brussels sprouts, Craic shrimp, and corned beef special in addition to their famous fish and chips — per event.
“We talk about adding more food trucks because you’re limited to what you can prepare. You only have a limited amount of space. So do you want a flattop so you can grill burgers or do you want a fryer so you can fry fish?” says Lloyd. “We chose to fry fish. So we can do burgers, but we keep them in hot holding. You have to be really strategic in what you want to offer. Our truck is a fish and chips truck, because that’s our number one seller in the restaurant. We are definitely open to adding to the fleet.”
Although the Josie Kelly’s food truck focuses primarily on festivals, wineries and private events, their brick-and-mortar establishment — and accompanying parking lot — gives them an added advantage in a state where food truck legislation often prevents food trucks from popping up on any given street corner.
“In the summer, we sometimes have an hour, or two-hour long wait,” says Lloyd. “So what we’ve been doing when we have the bodies to do it and the food truck isn’t at a private party, is launch the food truck in the parking lot. And it’ll be an hour wait for a table or you can just go and grab a fish and chips at the food truck, grab a picnic table and it’s like fast casual service in our outdoor dining area.”
For the Lloyd’s, the food truck has been a way to creatively extend their already successful business.
“That was really our goal. We made sure we had speakers on it so we could play music and we could create this whole Josie Kelly’s experience away from Josie Kelly’s,” says Lloyd.
Josie Kelly’s is far from the only brick and mortar using food trucks as a way to extend their reach.
“Vagabond just got a trailer. Essl’s got another. Bare Knuckle Café. A lot of people in the area,” says Lloyd. “The presence of food trucks is getting bigger, which is good. It will make people rethink legislation and maybe allow people to pop up.”
As for Lloyd, it’s been a fun, if not eye-opening experience.
“There’s a lot of things required to operate a food truck that I never realized, like fire permits and mercantile licenses and certificates of insurance,” she says. “There are so many little moving parts. When you get it, you think, ‘Oh, I’m just going to drive around and I’m going to sell fish and chips out of this window.”
“And it doesn’t work like that.”