File The Thursday afternoon Lunch on the Square at Freimann Square is a popular downtown destination for food trucks and patrons.
File Dan Campbell prepares a meal in the Affine food truck.
Sunday, June 10, 2018 1:00 am
Food trucks keep rolling
When it's about community, everyone profits
Kimberly Dupps Truesdell | For The Journal Gazette
When Samuel and Flora Barron were preparing for the inaugural season of their food truck, Flora & Lily's Mexican Kitchen, they were in need of advice.
So the couple turned to Jerry Perez, owner and operator of Sol Kitchen. Perez has been a staple in the food truck community in Fort Wayne, beginning when the mobile scene was just catching on in 2012.
“I let them know they could always call on me with any questions they may have,” he says. “It's been a very positive relationship.”
A business owner in a different industry might have been reluctant to assist a newcomer – especially as Perez made a name for himself serving Mexican staples such as tacos, quesadillas and nachos.
However, for food truck operators, the business is about community – not competition.
John Maxwell is the culinary mind behind Ragin' Cajun. The New Orleans export has been in the restaurant business more than 45 years – doing everything from mopping floors to scrubbing pots, to managing fine dining establishments and owning restaurants and jazz clubs.
It's been his experience that “people kind of look out for each other” in the restaurant industry. And the local food truck community is no different.
If a chef is in need of tomatoes, he says, you share what you can. “You know you'll be in that jam yourself one day, too,” he says.
Maxwell, who serves up dishes such as jambalaya, po boys and bread pudding, is one of the charter members of the local food truck association.
Members, he says, are able to combine their experiences so they can share successes and lessons with other operators.
It also gives them combined buying power that the operators might not otherwise have. Maxwell says that they are able to purchase everything from tires, insurance and food as a group to get better rates.
“Absolutely, we do work together,” Maxwell says.
It's an affable community, says Dan Campbell, one of the operators of Affine. The farm-to-fork concept was part of the first wave of food trucks to hit the scene.
He says the owners of the trucks advocate for each other, as well as coordinate with each other – despite being in direct competition.
“The first of us truck operators learned, early on, that in general, the more of us that there are at a location, the better we all do,” Campbell says. “When there are one or two trucks setup in a public spot, most people will drive right on by. When there are 10 or 20, it seems like a event, and more people tend to get curious enough to stop and see what is going on. Crowds tend to draw more crowds.”
Working with other businesses and organizations, the food truck operators have been able to establish regular meet-ups where they can park in the same place each week. It not only gives the operators regular gigs but makes it easier for customers to find the trucks.
There's the rally Wednesday nights at Redeemer Lutheran Church on Rudisill Boulevard, Perez says, and all trucks are welcome at no charge. Lunch on the Square, which is on Thursday afternoons in June, July and August, brings together the downtown lunch crowd and truck operators.
Peace Lutheran Church at Pettit and Fairfield avenues hosts trucks on Thursday nights, and wineries have also become a popular spot for operators and customers.
At teds market, 12628 Coldwater Road, owner Brian Hench says hosting food trucks has been a way to bring people together and build the neighborhood atmosphere he had in mind when it opened in 2015.
“We want neighbors to hang out with each other and have fun, and to be that place that brings the community together,” Hench says. “ ... We work hard to add new music acts, increase seating, add more parking, and generally operate a smoother event for our customers. We want to build our community.”
Food Truck Thursdays at teds market began in 2016 with a six-week trial. Hench says that it was an immediate success with the community, and it was extended to 14 weeks. Now, the market hosts the trucks 21 to 22 weeks each year.
It was initially a challenge, though, Hench says. The events were popular but took a lot of business from the market – it slowed down the wine bar and effectively shut off sales in the grocery store.
However, last year, teds reconfigured how the trucks were parked, fenced in part of the yard and closed the store on Thursday nights.
“We still put a lot of time and effort into planning each week, but it is much easier and more fun each week (and it is no longer a money-losing venture), and it only seems to be growing in popularity,” Hench says. “Our new stress is finding enough parking!”
In the two years since he's hosted the trucks, Hench has built a positive relationship with the truck owners. While they are not a direct competitor, they are still in the food business and have similar goals and pressures.
“We even partner with some of the trucks, by providing bread to them and even sharing some staff,” Hench says.
But as the food truck scene becomes more competitive, making it harder and harder for operators to stand out, sites such as teds market are looking at limiting the number of food trucks per event. Hench says customers request their favorite trucks, and teds wants to cater to the various fan bases.
“The food trucks have some of the most loyal and passionate customers,” Hench says.
For longtime operators such as Campbell, Maxwell and Perez, it's been years of connecting with the customers who come to the window.
Unfamiliar with Cajun fare, potential customers were skeptical of the offerings, he says.
“They thought my food was going to be spicy. They thought it was going to be a YouTube challenge,” he says. “I gave away a lot of jambalaya that first year. One spoonful at a time, we had to build a lot of trust.”
Maxwell says he had to get off the truck, stand on the sidewalk and introduce people to his food.
It was not just about selling a bowl of jambalaya but connecting with the customer. It's how he got to meet so many people – “and it's not something you can do in a restaurant,” Maxwell says.
Compared with working in a restaurant, Maxwell says, the ability to connect with the customer at the window or on the sidewalk makes it more fun and personable.
“The food truck strikes the perfect balance between the back-of-house aspects of creating food and the front-of-house interactions with the customers,” says Campbell of Affine. “My favorite food truck moments are when we hand a customer their food. They turn around take a few steps and a bite, and immediately turn back around and feel compelled to interrupt whatever is going on to tell us how amazing that bite was.
“There is nothing quite like that feeling of pure and genuine appreciation, and it is something that I almost never experienced as a cook, even in open-concept kitchen.”
Social media, too, has been vital for Affne and other trucks to connect with customers. It does not just serve as a way to alert customers to where trucks will be parked but to talk, joke and educate.
“We understand that without our customer, we have no business,” Campbell says. “We believe, and preach to our employees, that truly acknowledging that, is the cornerstone of hospitality.”