By Tom Grim and Kim Rizk
Food trucks are all the rage in some of the busier college towns these days. Austin, Texas, has a lot of them. Portland, Oregon, also has a lot.
Princeton’s a little different. We definitely have more food trucks in town today than we did a decade ago, when Nomad Pizza first hit the streets. But Princeton doesn’t allow food trucks to operate all the time. We can’t just park on the street, there has to be an event like Communiversity or JazzFeast. So if you’re wondering why you don’t see more of Nomad Pizza or Jammin’ Crepes around Princeton, that’s why.
But looking to have a permanent parking spot for a food truck is only looking at part of the story. The truth is, a food truck is a great ambassador for a storefront restaurant, whether you roll out the truck first, as Nomad Pizza did, or as a complement to an existing restaurant, as it happened with Jammin’ Crepes.
When Jammin’ Crepes started bringing its menu to the public about five years ago, it was a small operation at the Princeton Farmers’ Market. And to say it was labor-intensive is an understatement. Every setup involved unloading and reloading different vehicles with a whole lot of hardware. Having a truck to store everything in and operate directly out of has certainly made it easier — and not just in the setup and takedown, but in building name recognition. A nice, colorful truck does a lot more that a few cars and tables to build a brand in customers’ minds.
A good food truck can win a restaurant some devoted fans right away. Why else would they be booming in college towns across the country?
Because of our trucks, people who might never have heard of our restaurants, or maybe would never have had much reason to try them, get to taste our food. Believe us when we say we each have lots of customers we otherwise wouldn’t have if they hadn’t found our trucks. It’s a low-risk way to try a restaurant without having to worry about finding the place, getting drinks and desserts, etc.
We know that other restaurants in town have the same story. It’s hardly a secret that a good food truck can win a restaurant some devoted fans right away. Why else would they be booming in college towns across the country?
It’s also a lot easier to start out as a restaurateur with a food truck. Trucks face a much lower barrier to entry than a brick-and-mortar storefront. You don’t have to renovate a whole building. You don’t have to decorate for ambience. You don’t need to hire waitstaff and a team of chefs. And you don’t have to commit to the long hours in just one place.
But all this doesn’t mean that operating a food truck is easy. For one thing, there’s the old stigma of what a food truck is. Not long ago, “grease wagons” were exactly that — rolling greasy spoons that served terrible coffee, stale sandwiches, and more oil-dripping fried food than anyone could (or should) ever eat.
Younger people don’t tend to associate food trucks with food like that because those of us who operate them these days take a lot of pride in making restaurant-quality meals. Remember, for us, our food trucks are our restaurants. They’re an additional location, not a separate entity.
But another reason food trucks are so much better than they used to be is the rules. There are lots of rules in place that make sure what you’re buying from a food truck is up to the same standards as what you would buy if you were to sit down in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. But you still need access to a commercial kitchen (as opposed to the kitchen at your house). That’s a big barrier for a lot of people who would like to operate a food truck.
Nomad Pizza started out by making a deal with Small World Coffee to use its kitchen. And this is something else potential food truck owners should know before taking the plunge — you need to develop partnerships with other businesses in the places you want to operate. Nomad’s arrangement with Small World helped get the restaurant off the ground.
Jammin’ Crepes still has a deal with a Princeton nonprofit. It’s where the restaurant parks the truck when it’s not whipping up meals at events. That’s another thing to keep in mind — parking is a real issue in Princeton. You can’t just leave a food truck on the street, and neighbors won’t usually be happy if you’re taking up a lot of space with a big truck. The nonprofit allows Jammin’ Crepes to park the truck, and in return the restaurant caters the organization’s events. It’s another example of how different businesses in Princeton, with almost nothing in common, work together.
One more thing to know is that buying a food truck is not inexpensive. It’s less than buying and renovating a building, but food trucks generally start around $150,000. And there will — will — be maintenance and repair costs.
But we wouldn’t trade our trucks, nor our presence at Princeton events, nor our catering jobs. Most of our food truck revenues come from catering, and both of us like to keep our trucks as local as we can. What’s encouraging is, business is good enough that we often have to turn away weekend catering jobs because we’re already committed. But the events we do attend are usually a lot of fun. It’s one of the perks of owning a food truck — we get invited to a lot of parties we’d otherwise never get into.