Not so long ago, Oklahoma City’s food truck fare was not for the faint of heart.
The only offerings to be found required a fierce appetite for both food and danger. This had more to do with location than with the quality of the food itself. For intrepid diners, venturing into crime-riddled parts of south Oklahoma City yielded a cornucopia of late-night taco and torte trucks. Another mecca for foodies – alas, one still occasionally plagued by drive-by shootings – was Bobo’s Chicken, a trailer offering the kind of fried delicacies that mouth-watering memories are made of.
It’s hard to believe that, just a few short years later, the popularity of Oklahoma food trucks has exploded. Lured by the twin siren songs of great food and ease of access, many diners in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa can find gourmet goodies just a short stroll up the sidewalk. In OKC, the revitalization of the Plaza District and Uptown, along with monthly block parties on the corner of Hudson and Eighth streets, have provided the perfect venue for mobile dining. In Tulsa, the establishment of the Guthrie Green in the Brady Arts District has proven to be a beacon for food trucks and mobile foodies alike.
“Nowhere else can you dine on Vietnamese-French fusion, Italian, street tacos, gourmet hot dogs, pizza, gyros, upscale comfort food and, of course, delectable mini-doughnuts, all in one beautiful spot,” says Laken Gooch, owner and operator of Lick Your Lips Mini Donuts. “Guthrie Green has been a major supporter of the Tulsa food truck scene, and both the operators and patrons are winners in having such a wonderful space downtown.”
“The push for food trucks at Guthrie Green was a real help,” says Tuck Curren, owner and chef of Tulsa’s Local Table. “After that, lots of festivals wanted food trucks.”
But Oklahoma has long been home to great parks, events and neighborhoods. Why, all of a sudden, the passion for mobile meals?
“Food trucks are taking off for several reasons,” says Mike Bausch, owner and operator of Andolini’s Pizzeria. “The popularity of food trucks on TV reality shows and in pop culture has removed the stigma associated with the concept of ‘dirty’ food trucks. Great, eclectic, niche foods can thrive in a nomadic environment to test out different groups and areas. That’s the beauty of the food truck – a location that can’t sustain sales all day long or on the weekend for a brick-and-mortar restaurant can be the ideal place for a food truck.”
“People like being able to walk up to a truck and get restaurant-quality food,” says Josh Lynch, owner and operator of The Dog House, one of Tulsa’s longest running mobile food operations.
The Dog House is the ultimate example of what many food trucks are banking on – variety and creativity in cuisine. Dog House customers can choose among such options as the Tulsa Dog with mustard, onions, jalapeno relish, bacon and barbecue sauce; the Chong (peanut butter, cream cheese, sriracha and pickles); or the Seattle Dog with cream cheese, spicy mustard and onions. Perhaps even more than ease of access, this type of innovative fare is responsible for Oklahomans’ outpouring of affection for food trucks.
But eager diners are not the only factor in the food truck popularity equation, Lynch says. The recent recession also played a part.
“I think when the economy took a dive, a lot of chefs had to close their restaurant doors,” Lynch says. “In turn, they purchased food trucks. A food truck is cheaper to operate than a brick-and-mortar [restaurant].”
Guy Romo, owner and chef of OKC’s Moto Chef, also credits the recent downturn in the nation’s economy.
“Recessions in major markets over the past 10 years have affected the restaurant industry in many significant ways,” he says, “especially those operating outside of a corporate chain. High-end, privately owned restaurants employ chefs at high salaries, so they are the first to go when times are tough. These chefs began seeking out a way to continue their trade on an independent basis with low overhead and very few start-up costs. Food trucks were the answer, and the public has responded to a non-pretentious environment that provides high quality food at reasonable prices.”
While less expensive to operate than a traditional establishment, running a food truck still comes with costs and complications for operators.
“There are so many pros and cons with a food truck,” Bausch says. “A full site needs so many small things that a truck never needs. Overhead [costs] that people take for granted, like maintaining a bathroom, lights, tables, chairs, underground plumbing, etc.…the truck gets to avoid most of those costs or does them on a much smaller scale. However, with a truck, nothing is a guarantee. Weather can blow an entire day, while it has significantly less impact on a brick-and-mortar site. When it comes to permits, they’re the same as a regular business. Our health department verification and business license are nearly identical between the truck and our full restaurants.”
Logistics are one of the biggest challenge for the food truck industry, says Romo says.
“One must imagine towing or driving a one-ton commercial kitchen, and combining that with the demands of an R.V. in constant motion,” Romo continues. “Propane tanks must be filled and up-to-date on inspection. Water tanks must be filled, utilizing the proper hoses and water sources. Gray water tanks must be emptied and cleaned. Equipment must be latched down and checked again. All paper goods, utensils, small wares and ingredients must be properly stored to avoid spills while in transport. Food must be kept at the proper temperatures during transport in order to meet health code requirements. A power source must be available, which in most cases requires a generator.
“A mobile food health department license must be up to date and posted within the facility, and an additional special events permit is required prior to most events that host food trucks,” Romo says. “These are only a few of an endless list, most of which I had to figure out as I went along.”
Events are where many food trucks gain much of their success and popularity.
“The whole point of a food truck is events,” Bausch says. “Some trucks, like ours, seek to have a baseline of daily sales at set locations, but a lot just live off a few days a week or even a few weekends a summer at big events. At the same time, a big misconception of large events is how profitable they are (or aren’t) for food trucks.”
Most big events charge more than just a fee, usually taking a percentage of sales – “sometimes up to 20 percent, along with a fee,” Bausch adds. “At some events, if we don’t have a crazy line, we could end up losing money. That’s because every event is a gamble…Nothing is ever guaranteed, and seeking the customer, seeking the sale, is the only way to achieve success in this business model.”
“People and location are two of the key ingredients when deciding where to sell,” says Gooch. “If there aren’t any people, then obviously you won’t have anyone to sell to. You need an area with lots of foot traffic and accessibility. Convenience is part of the allure of food trucks; no reservations are needed to visit.”
The most important consideration, however, is the food and the truck itself. According to Romo, for a food truck to be successful, it needs “a unique menu with items that are quickly and efficiently served, a visually appealing exterior, plenty of product to last through the demands of an event, as well as a smiling, informative and helpful staff.”
“It’s all in advertising and having a good enough product to back up what you’re advertising,” says Philip Phillips, owner of Tulsa’s Lone Wolf Banh Mi. “Obviously, being close to a bunch of people is not a bad thing. First thing, the event can’t rely on food trucks to be the only entertainment. You have to create a fun environment for people to want to come. You have to make good food to keep them coming.”
Many operators agree that proactive promotion is crucial for a food truck operation to be successful. Like many businesses, the use of social media is integral for mobile food vendors. Sites like Twitter and Facebook let customers know about new menu items, hang-ups with operations and, most importantly, where to find the food.
“Social media is definitely a must,” Gooch says. “We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for location, event and new doughnut announcements. With almost everyone always plugged into technology, you want to take advantage of possibly grabbing the attention of that potential customer walking nearby that happens across your post. We are always posting pictures of our yummy doughnuts and adventures to tempt our followers.”
As with all popular trends, some have wondered if Oklahoma’s love affair with food trucks will stand the test of time. So far, the signs are as good as the food.
“Food truck customers interact more, not only with one another, but with the chefs and cooks that are preparing their orders,” Romo says. “We know the names of our regulars, their tastes and preferences. We shake their hands and welcome them back, and I believe that sets food trucks apart from the day-to-day restaurant grind. This trend isn’t going anywhere soon.
“The food truck scene has developed in Oklahoma City due to the efforts of arts districts and small business owners that have organized events in support of this new OKC trend,” Romo continues. “I give that credit primarily to Elemental Coffee and Ludivine, and [to] the Plaza District on Northwest 16th Street. As more of these districts develop, the food truck business will continue to grow and to thrive.”
“Tulsa and OKC, respectively, both have bright, burgeoning food truck scenes,” Bausch says. “We’ve been down to OKC twice, once to help Moore tornado victims, and the second time to one of the H&8th events. What we’ve seen in OKC is right in line with what we’ve seen in Tulsa: A lot of ingenuity and craftsmanship coming together in a positive environment. The competitive nature of business is natural, but all the trucks we’ve seen are really into being a part of a larger community.”