Mobile food business keeps truckin’
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • June 11, 2011 @ 3:17pm
Acquiring a food truck isn’t as simple as bopping over to a dealership and dropping a down payment. The glory of the local mobile food business—selling exceptional, affordable cuisine at various outdoor locations throughout Buffalo—is impossible without a reliable vehicle. If a food truck advertises that it will be at a specific location and it’s not for whatever reason, customer loyalty will waver. While food trucks like The Whole Hog and Lloyd Taco Truck don’t pay rent like a stationary restaurant, their expenses are higher—and a lot less predictable—than you’d think. Food trucks aren’t a carefree business.
These food-mobiles don’t come cheap; Kathleen Haggerty, current owner of The Whole Hog, purchased a former Wonderbread truck, a 1981 Ford, from San Antonio-based Cruising Kitchens for $45,000, while Lloyd Taco Truck picked a truck off Craigslist in Texas for an undisclosed amount. According to Craigslist’s Texas page, though, food truck prices range from $12,000 to $20,000, and we suspect Lloyd paid at the high end, if not higher.
One of the biggest regrets for Lloyd Taco Truck founder Peter Cimino and chef/co-owner Chris Dorsaneo is not traveling to Texas to examine the truck before purchase.
“That’s the risk with buying out of town trucks,” Cimino explained. “You have no idea what condition they’re in from a mechanical, diagnostic or equipment standpoint.”
Despite actually traveling to San Antonio to examine the truck before buying, Haggerty quickly became unnerved by dubious promises from the dealer and a close bout with disaster. As she prepared to drive the truck from San Antonio to New York with her nephew, another passenger pointed out that the bolt to tie in the power steering column had never been tightened, and it was one thread away from losing control. Because of the Cruising Kitchen mechanic’s negligence, The Whole Hog easily could have ended before it started.
Lloyd was testy within its first few days as well; as Cimino drove toward a lunch location, Lloyd’s engine seized up—a terrifying moment for any driver, but particularly so when both business and life are at stake. Fortunately for Cimino (and local taco lovers), he didn’t get into an accident.
“It was pretty wild,” Cimino said in hindsight. “We were only 500, 600 feet from a towing company though, so we were a little lucky.”
Although both survived close calls, the two owners spent several thousand dollars on repairs just weeks after purchase. While Haggerty was pleased with the engine she received from Cruising Kitchens, she quickly needed a new clutch master cylinder and starter after two days. On her first day selling, she had to tow The Whole Hog to and from Allen Street. For a New York State inspection and a new windshield, Lloyd’s Cimino paid a similar amount, aided by a cool, if necessary, fundraiser.
Finding efficient and affordable truck repair shops has been a burden for each business, particularly when the hours don’t match up. Since The Whole Hog and Lloyd focus their efforts on prep and service during lunch hours (closer to a 9 to 5 process than you think), little time remains to take the vehicle to a repair shop or welder; postponing food service for a few days is the very last resort. Haggerty, well aware that parts for a 1981 Ford aren’t always readily available, remained patient yet winced when The Whole Hog shut down for two days early this past week. Lloyd’s Cimino would love to see truck repair businesses expand their hours to accommodate the mobile food business as it continues to boom.
Cimino is optimistic that a new and improved version of Lloyd will be purchased if the city council rules favorably in its first food truck law (due in 3-4 weeks), and business continues to thrive. Despite the cooks and servers’ efforts to satisfy customers quickly, it’s not uncommon for 30-40 minute waits at busy locations—like HSBC Tower three weeks ago—a sign that Lloyd’s popularity is still surging after 11 months in business.
At the same time, The Whole Hog continues to put out fires one at a time—literally. A poor hood system over the fryer not only seared the Hog’s ceiling but also started two mini-fires. While damage was minimal, The Whole Hog has temporarily stopped serving french fries. With the amount of trouble Haggerty has suffered through in her first two weeks owning a food truck, it’s not surprising that she’s requested the Cruising Kitchens owner to travel to Buffalo to address some of the issues.
Cimino, knowing the equipment troubles that Lloyd has battled, sympathizes with Haggerty’s plight. “Keep your head up,” Cimino advises. “View it as an obstacle in a bigger journey; it’s humbling and builds character. These difficult times add to your story.”
It’s admirable that Lloyd, despite its current popularity, is an advocate of seeing more food trucks succeed in the Buffalo area, and even more heartening that there’s a sense of “we’re all in this together.” More evidence? Christopher Taylor, owner of the truck Roaming Buffalo that will open in July, has pitched in regularly to help The Whole Hog. With more hurdles than the public realizes, the resilient local food truck business is doing more than spinning its wheels.