Food truck explosion challenges chefs to come up with the new next
Posted March 24, 2016 5:48 p.m. EDT
Updated March 25, 2016 6:02 a.m. EDT
Durham, N.C. — “Don’t buy a space,” Becky Hacker’s father pleaded.
Becky and her husband, Mike, were Durham food entrepreneurs striving to start their own business. The couple had a long history in the restaurant industry. Becky worked front-of-house as a waitress at Watts Grocery, where Mike has 25 years of experience as a chef.
“His favorite food is pizza, and pizza wasn't being done on a food truck yet [in the Triangle],” Becky Hacker said.
With a $35,000 budget and an old trailer from Mike’s defunct touring rock band, the couple decided to take a chance on the Triangle and become part of the burgeoning food truck industry.
Their plan: he’d cook the food and she’d manage the business.
And with that, Pie Pushers was born.
Every week starts the same way for the Hackers. Mondays and Tuesdays consist of food preparation and running errands in anticipation of the busy weekends when they see the bulk of their business.
As head chef, Mike is in charge of acquiring ingredients and curating the menu with new specialty pies. With the help of their seven employees, Mike prepares the food, sets the truck up (usually in 90 minutes), and takes customer orders while simultaneously placing pizzas in the oven.
Becky, who received an MBA from Marquette University, handles the business side of the truck’s operations by making budgets, analyzing costs and promoting the truck on social media. She spends a majority of her day in front of the computer -- about 10 hours a day on average.
“When we set up our truck for just a few hours at one spot, it’s pretty much like you’re setting up a small event every time,” Becky Hacker said.
In peak times of the year, the Hackers said they work at least 60 hours a week.
Although Becky described the venture as “successful,” she declined to provide figures detailing Pie Pushers' monthly expenses and profits.
But that success has come with a host of challenges.
A lukewarm reception by some Triangle municipalities, food truck laws that vary from city to city, stringent health code regulations and a struggle to increase profits in a near-saturated market are just a few of the problems the duo has encountered.
What was once old, now is chic
The food truck phenomenon isn’t new.
In fact, its roots date back to the 20th century when food trucks became synonymous with greasy, cheap food, construction sites and blue-collar workers.
Bob Kramer, supervisor at Food Protection Program for Columbus, Ohio, believes there’s a reason you see mostly young people patronizing food trucks across the country nowadays.
“It’s an age thing. Older people still think of them as ‘roach coaches,’” said Kramer.
Many industry experts and food truck owners see the modern food truck era as a product of the Great Recession.
At the time, Americans had cut back on extravagances such as eating out. As a result, restaurants’ revenues plummeted, and there were 251,000 fewer jobs nationally in 2010, due to downsizing or closures, than before the recession started in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This period of high unemployment, stagnant wages and poor job growth forced many trained and talented chefs out of their traditional restaurants and into the trucks.
Food trucks saw their national resurgence in 2008 when Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin and Chef Roy Choi garnered national attention for their food truck, Kogi BBQ. They combined Korean BBQ and Mexican tacos to make inexpensive entrees served out of the back of a truck.
The rise of the smartphone, social media and mobile apps allowed owners of food trucks to reach customers, market their brands and be accessible to many communities.
It was the perfect storm.
Restaurant employees, chefs and foodies took note, and the idea spread rapidly across the country. Food trucks were, and still are, a way for chefs and entrepreneurs to bring new food concepts to the public without incurring the traditional expenses and overhead that come with opening a traditional sit-down restaurant.
The Hackers are one example of this. They were among the early local pioneers of the food truck movement that has spread rapidly across the country, onto American streets and into the stomachs of millions.
When Pie Pushers came onto the local food truck scene in 2010, there were just 12 trucks in the Triangle, Becky Hacker said.
Now, there are more than 120 that criss-cross the Triangle everyday, driving from downtowns to suburban business parks in search of hungry customers.
Kramer feels that food trucks — forecast by Intuit to reach $2.7 billion in revenue by 2017 — are one of many ways people can now order food in the Internet age. “It’s not really a new idea, but it’s a great way to serve people at where they work or play,” he said. “It’s an ever changing industry.”
Regulation and growing pains
From the exterior, restaurants on wheels are reveling in unprecedented publicity and are increasingly seen as a glamorous new way of eating.
An expectation of food trucks is that they're inexpensive to set up and run, when compared to traditional brick and mortar restaurants. However, there are a plethora of costs that tend to be overlooked.
Food is usually the largest cost, closely followed by gas, especially if the truck uses a gas cooker.
“Mainly because we’re traveling and pulling that trailer, we fill up every couple of days on propane,” Becky Hacker said.
“It was more work than I thought it would be. It was all we did all the time for the first couple of months,” she said. Many industry insiders, including Kramer, believe that some 60 percent of food trucks fail within the first three years.
“It’s not just the part where we feed you, there’s so much more that goes into it,” she said.
“I’ve seen [food trucks operated by] either younger people or older people with families that think it will be easy … and then it takes up so much time and resources that they are like, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t what I wanted from it.’”
In addition, Hacker believes some Triangle cities are more hospitable to them than others. That has made operating in the area “very challenging,” she said.
“Durham and Carrboro welcomed [food trucks] with open arms,” she said.
Laws governing food trucks vary from city to city across the country. Becky Hacker says that the Triangle’s two most populous cities -- Raleigh and Durham – have, in her opinion, opposing views on food trucks, with Durham being the “friendliest” and Raleigh being “the most difficult” to work with.
Both cities require mandatory permits in order to operate a food truck within city lines. Durham is the less expensive at $25, while Raleigh is the most costly at $150. If truck owners wish to do business in different Triangle cities, they must purchase a permit from each one.
For a food truck, serving food in the Triangle isn’t as simple as driving up to a parking space and waiting for customers to arrive.
They’re heavily regulated as to where they can park and how long they can operate.
In Raleigh, food trucks are allowed only on private property. Durham, on the other hand, allows trucks to locate on the streets and on private property. Unlike Raleigh, trucks in Durham also may serve customers at all hours of the day.
Hacker claims this regulation keeps parking spaces free for diners and prevents customer poaching. Many restaurant owners believe that food trucks, often with quicker service and lower costs, are taking their business.
In Raleigh and Chapel Hill, Hacker feels the restaurant scene is predominant, and restaurants associations in these cities said “no” before the new movement started.
“That voice already had a presence and was able to influence a decision,” she said.
In her view, the two industries provide “very different services” and target different audiences. She feels that food trucks and traditional restaurants can, and often do, live in harmony.
“If you wanna go sit in a restaurant, you’re not gonna go and get a piece of pizza from the window,” she said.
“It’s competition, but it’s not necessarily bad.”
The food truck’s greatest asset — it’s mobility — has also become one of its biggest liabilities. The fact that food trucks are always on the go poses significant risks for the quality of food consumed by an increasing number of Triangle residents.
“When we started it wasn’t a business model yet and there were less things we were inspected on,” Hacker said.
In 2014 alone, Raleigh and Durham had a combined 300 food truck applications submitted to their health departments. This gives Mark Meyer, general inspections supervisor with the Durham County Public Health Department, cause for concern.
“[Food trucks] have special health challenges,” Meyer said. “They’re mobile and disconnected from reliable water, power and food sources.”
Traditional restaurants, by law, must have kitchens and industrial-grade equipment to help prepare food and keep areas occupied by employees and customers clean. Food trucks aren’t exempt from this.
The average food truck kitchen measures 14’ long by 6’ wide. Due to these rather small confines, food trucks can’t fit all the necessary equipment in their mobile kitchens.
It is, therefore, legally necessary for them to prepare and store their food in a commissary.
Most cities — including all Triangle municipalities — won’t allow individuals to prepare food in their homes before selling it to the general public. Health departments, Meyer stated, can’t go into homes to inspect them, and they almost never have the right equipment or supplies to meet the health code.
A commissary serves as a home base for food trucks and allows vendors to obey the law while cutting costs.
Often times, these special areas are kitchens owned by brick-and-mortar restaurants that food trucks pay to use, in order to avoid building expensive kitchens of their own. Here, owners of food trucks prepare and store their food in a sterile environment that meets health code ordinances. Commissaries also allow a place for food trucks to park their vehicles and safely dispose of grease, used water and solid waste.
Meyer said food truck owners have the option to create their own kitchens that comply with health laws, if they don’t want to pay rent for a commissary. However, doing so would result in thousands of dollars of extra expenses that many “just wouldn’t be able to afford.”
North Carolina was the last state to adopt the FDA’s 2009 Food Code in September 2012. The new food code, Meyer said, is the most far-reaching change ever to North Carolina’s food preparation standards. He said it has taken the General Assembly “almost 20 years” to adopt a newer version of the FDA’s Food Code.
For the first time, the new food code lists specific rules for “mobile food units,” better known as food trucks. It now requires all food trucks to post sanitation-rating cards that are commonly displayed in all restaurants.
“If they don’t have a grade, the public should ask,” Meyer said.
What the new law doesn’t address, however, is the shared commissaries food trucks and restaurants are utilizing. Meyer says the standards should be updated, because “coordinating menus becomes a challenge.” This, according to Meyer, is “unlikely to happen anytime soon” because of the “tense” political climate present at the General Assembly.
However, he believes food trucks can be “just as safe and clean” as restaurants if they’re well run.
“You want to get a sense if they’re clean,” he said.
Where do we go from here?
With the explosive food truck growth the Triangle has witnessed, the trucks are no longer considered unique.
“It is harder for the sake of [people] now have more options. The biggest challenge is getting people to know [new food trucks] exist,” Hacker said. “How do you stand out from 100 people if you're new?”
Industry experts, in addition to Hacker and Kramer, believe the answer is developing menus around signature gourmet dishes and employing unique marketing techniques that will help set them a part from their peers.
Pie Pushers has more than 9,000 followers on Twitter, close to 2,000 likes on Facebook, and a 4-star rating on Yelp. The outlet is established enough that the Hackers no longer have to travel from event to event across the Triangle in hopes of attracting customers.
Their frequent updates on social media allow their current – and future -- customers to find out where they’re located on any given day. They also try to be consistent with locations during the week.
“We don’t just pull up on a street,” Hacker said.
She wants the industry to continue growing. She encourages her truck’s customers to visit other food trucks in the Triangle.
“The food trucks get along more than you think,” she said. “In general it’s a very welcoming industry, and we’re all helpful even though we’re competing. Everybody is pretty supportive.”
Kramer added, “It’s not going to go away.”
Carys Edwards is a study-abroad student from the U.K. studying at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Evan Semones is a senior broadcast journalism major also in the school. The students produced this story as part of UNC Media Hub. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos for this story were taken by Tegan Johnston, a senior photojournalism major at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com.