Noemi Griffin, Ashley Elmore, Casey Todd
Meals on Wheels
Food truck industry develops
November 14, 2014
Metro center! The rain is clearing up and we are headed your way for lunch! Make this rainy day bright.”
Gabriela Febres, co-owner of restaurant Arepa Zone, hastily updates her company’s Twitter feed. The food is prepped and ready to serve, and now all that is left to do is to turn on the engine and enter D.C. traffic. Febres’s restaurant is not the typical brick and mortar, but a part of a growing industry that involves four wheels and a tank of gas.
According to IBISworld, the food truck industry now claims $1 billion in revenue with 32,381 businesses, and Arepa Zone is one of them.
Febres got the idea to open up a Venezuelan restaurant around Thanksgiving of 2012, and she immediately knew a food truck was the best option.
“There really is only one place to eat Venezuelan food [in D.C.] and not many people know about it, so we were worried that Arepa Zone wouldn’t be well-known enough to bring people to the potential restaurant,” she said. “We saw the food truck as a better vehicle to bring Venezuela to the people and to have people get to know us.”
Dylan Genova, employee of Atlanta’s King of Pops food truck, believes reaching a wide range of customers is the most valuable benefit of owning a food truck. He sees the food truck as a way of bringing culinary variety to neighborhoods.
“All of these mobile carts give a little more flavor and a little more outreach to parts of the city that may not get it,” he said. “It brings people outside of the city and into these communities, which is something we desperately need.”
Genova and Febres also enjoy the variety of customers food trucks attract.
“People that come to food trucks are more adventurous than your average person,” Febres said. “We get a lot of people that want to try new things, and they just ask for the best meal and don’t even bother asking what’s in it.”
While working at the King of Pops, Genova encounters a wide array of people, from mayors to TV actors from the show “The Walking Dead.”
For Lindsay Davis, worker at the Pho Sho food truck, getting to explore different areas of Atlanta is one of her favorite parts about working in a food truck, even though working in one “is a little more difficult sometimes because it’s a smaller space and a faster pace.”
After writing a business plan and securing investments, Febres struggled to find a truck that would fit D.C.’s requirements of being 8.5 feet long bumper to bumper. She searched all over the country until she encountered David Ford.
Ford owns Food Truck South in Marietta, Ga., a company committed to designing customized food trucks. The idea for Food Truck South started after Ford began planning to open his own food truck in Florida.
“I was looking to get a truck and a couple of young people to work for me so I could hang out at the beach,” Ford said. “One thing led to another, and I saw how these trucks were being built. I wasn’t happy with it, so I said ‘Heck with them, I’ll do a better job than this.’”
Food Truck South prides itself in building food trucks professionally and legally. Every state has its own requirements for the design of a food truck, so Ford spends time checking the various “idiosyncrasies” of health departments to make sure his designs are up to code.
“I always tell people, this [food truck] is not something that someone can just build in their backyard,” he said. “It’s a complicated process.”
Beyond the structure of the vehicle, food truck owners face frequent inspections and must have four to five permit documents posted on the window at all times.
“There are people out there that think food trucks are dirty, which is completely false,” Ferbes said. “In the past six months we have been inspected seven or eight times. The [inspectors] really crack down on us. I have seen some trucks get shut down in the middle of lunch.”
Food truck owners also have to plan where they can park, and every city has different methods for securing a permit. In D.C., Ferbes participates in a lottery for parking areas.
Arepa Zone is usually parked next to at least three or four other trucks, but Febres doesn’t feel a competitive environment.
“Everyone is really helpful,” she said. “It’s a general rule of thumb.”
Genova experiences a similar environment.
“In the food truck industry, we’re all actually friends,” he said. “We try to help each other out, and everything is a really healthy balance of competition. We are never at each other’s throats.”
Ferbes has encountered some hostility from owners of traditional restaurants who feel food trucks are stealing potential customers.
“I believe customers are earned, not owned,” Febres said. “If you have good food, people will come back. If a food truck parks in front of your restaurant for a few hours and you are not confident enough in your food, then clearly the problem isn’t the food truck, it’s the restaurant.”
Whether there is hostility or not, Ford believes the industry is expanding rapidly.
From beginning his company by only building trucks for independent entrepreneurs, Ford now builds for larger companies like
Waffle House as well. Business is even expanding internationally. Ford is in the process of building the first food truck ever for Nigeria.
Aside from the restaurant business, other industries are jumping on the mobile-truck trend.
Ford built a boutique truck and is currently building three mobile real estate showroom trucks for large real estate companies. The idea is to drive these trucks on college campuses to attract potential renters for nearby condos.
Wherever the industry goes, Genova is glad he works in it.
“I’ve worked in a lot of food industries,” he said. “This is something completely different. The environment I work in can be stressful at times – we’re always trying to get new stuff out and get stuff done – but it’s the most fun I’ve had.”
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