For Adrian Santiago, a food truck could be a means to eventually owning a restaurant.
Santiago owns El Pollo Dorado, which often can be found at the corner of 21st and Wellington Place. It specializes in chicken, ribs and tacos.
“The reason I started the food truck was because I didn’t see much competition, especially with the chicken,” Santiago said through a translator. “I wanted to do some market research to see how it works before actually investing in a restaurant.”
Santiago has had El Pollo Dorado for about a year. He was previously a restaurant manager in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and saw a lot of food trucks there.
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“It’s a better way to create revenue right away and get a faster return on investment,” he said of the truck. But eventually, he’d like to have his own bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
Over the past few years, Santiago said the number of Mexican food trucks on the north side has actually decreased because of the economic downturn. He thinks they’ve gone from about 15 to about six in the last year or so.
But overall Wichita’s fleet of food trucks has been growing, and many operators see the trucks as a way to get into the business with lower overhead and startup costs. The trend is also evident across the country, as most cities have seen growing numbers of food trucks parked along their streets.
Specific numbers are hard to come by for Kansas, but according to state officials, the number of “mobile food unit” licenses issued grew from 48 in 2009 to 194 in 2012. So far this year, the state Department of Agriculture, which handles the licenses, has issued 115 of the licenses.
“We pray for brick and mortar,” said Summer Schoenhals, who owns Cake Face Bake Shop with her husband, David.
The couple recently had plans for a shop, but they fell through. They started their food truck in July 2012 after David lost his job in property management.
Despite the lower overhead and startup costs, owning a food truck isn’t easy work – and it certainly isn’t part-time, Summer Schoenhals says, since you’re doing all of the things a restaurant would do “within the confines of a 6-by-14-foot truck.”
“We didn’t make money for the first five or six months,” she said.
She said many people who watch “The Great Food Truck Race” on Food Network see their business and think they, too, are pulling in $8,000 a day in sales. That’s simply not the case, she said.
Manuela English opened a food truck in June after about a year of planning. She owns Let'm Eat Brats, a German food truck that takes its name from the famous Marie Antoinette quote about letting her subjects “eat cake.”
“At a restaurant you have to have a lot of employees, more insurance, the right location. It’s a bigger risk,” said English, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1987.
“I would love to have a little restaurant or a beer garden down the road. By then I would have more experience on how to run it.”
Although the startup costs are lower, it’s not pocket change. The trucks can cost as much as a house, she said.
“I’m sure you can get some limited ones with the basics like a sink, grill and fridge for maybe $25,000, but the bigger ones that are decked out can be up to $80,000 or $90,000. If you buy a used one, you can get it cheaper, but then you don’t get a warranty.”
Among the more popular food trucks to hit Wichita’s streets is the Flying Stove, which opened in 2011. Co-owner Jeff Schauf says his biggest piece of advice for people interested in starting a food truck is to love what they do.
“We never set out to do a restaurant brick and mortar because of the overwhelming capital, and we liked the idea of being able to go and make whatever we wanted and to have more freedom,” he said.
Flying Stove doesn’t currently have plans for a restaurant building. It’s focusing on improving day-to-day operations, Schauf said.
Across the state, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, counts 538 mobile food units – from hot dog stands to food trucks. Of those, 85 are in Sedgwick County and 67 of those are in Wichita. The count is different from the licenses issued because licenses aren’t renewed every year.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 national household survey, 43 percent of adults have purchased food from a food truck. It’s the most common among those from the Northeast (51 percent) and West (47 percent). Southerners (42 percent) and Midwesterners (32 percent) are less likely to patronize food trucks.
Getting a storefront
Espresso to Go Go owners Ann and Warren Tandoc planned to stay in their food truck for about two years when they started their business in August 2012.
But in June, they made the leap to a store at 102 N. St. Francis.
With the storefront, Ann Tandoc said they are able to expand their hours, which means more business.
“That was one of our biggest downfalls, that we could only run (the truck) three or four hours a day because of the cost of running the generator ... In a truck, there are things that put you out of commission. You can’t go anywhere if your truck is down and you’re just stuck. If your generator dies, you’re done.”
Starting with a truck allowed them to refine their product before taking the leap to a store.
“There was no experimentation,” Tandoc said. “Our drinks were established, and that made that part really easy. ... We have a lot of really great regular supporters, and they followed us right here, and they’re pleased as punch because they know where to find us and we have more regular hours.”
Tandoc said one advantage of having a storefront is not having to deal with the city’s regulations on transient merchants.
“It turned out to be a bit of a hassle,” she said. “A lot of people at first just tried to skirt the law and fly under the radar, but the more food trucks that come out, the more they get noticed.”
Just because they’re mobile, doesn’t mean food trucks aren’t subject to the same inspection regulations that brick-and-mortar restaurants must meet.
“The food trucks have the same type of license that a restaurant does and they have the same inspection requirements in that they get one annual inspection, plus any time we get a complaint they get another inspection and we will do follow ups as needed,” said Laura Quick, interim environmental compliance manager for the City of Wichita.
The city contracts with the Kansas Department of Agriculture to do the inspections, Quick said. Because vendors also must be inspected at festivals and community events, they are often inspected more than regular restaurants, she said.
There are also specific regulations for where the food trucks can park, said John Cox, interim zoning, sign and license inspection supervisor.
“They are supposed to be licensed as a transient merchant, same as you would find a corn stand or a sunglasses stand or someone selling purses for private property and there are regulations attached to that based on location on the property and state sales tax certificate,” Cox said.
“If they are on the streets or sidewalks, they have to be a street and sidewalk vendor, and there is a section of the city code that deals with their operations on the sidewalks.”
According to the city code, street vending is not allowed within the central business district downtown, so many of the trucks will park adjacent to Old Town.
City officials said they’ve had some complaints from brick-and-mortar restaurants worried about the competition for business.
“We have status quo set of rules out there (for downtown) but there has been a proliferation of food trucks creating a new dynamic,” said Tom Stolz, director of the city-county inspection and code enforcement department. “Less government is better so we want to govern as little as we can, but we have to be responsive to citizens who are complaining.”
Ultimately, Stolz expects there will be more discussion about the rules.
“We’ll have to bring all the stakeholders, the food trucks, the brick and mortars and downtown development people to the table to have the discussion, then it would be crafted into an ordinance for the city council to make a decision,” he said.
Food truck owners have formed a loose coalition, said Schauf of the Flying Stove.
“I think that for growth of Old Town, this is just another way to get people to come there,” Schauf said. “I know it’s an obvious question of competition with restaurants. It has never been our intention to target restaurant patrons. When we park near Old Town it has to do with the fact that it’s a place where you get an urban feel, there are benches, it’s nice.”
“We have plenty of challenges with parking down here. I really believe that people who want to go to a restaurant and be served on in a climate controlled area are going to do that, and I think they do.”