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October 29, 2013

The Wheels on the (Food) Truck Go Round and Round Part II

Josh Wolkon
Josh Wolkon / denverpost.com

In our last blog, we talked about the food truck and how it’s opening new markets in the foodservice industry. This time we look at why a well-established restaurateur with three brick-and-mortar restaurants would want to take to the streets. We e-chatted with Josh Wolkon, who has three vastly different food concepts at his three highly successful restaurants in Denver: Steuben’s (comfort food), Ace (Asian-inspired), and Vesta Dipping Grill (fine dining). Wolkon helped to launch the industry in Denver in a big way when he hopped on board the Steuben’s food truck.

 

1) Why would the owner of three well-respected restaurants decide to take on this risky business?

We were attracted to the idea of a food truck because we were working with the (Denver) Civic Center Park Conservancy to revitalize Civic Center Park. We wanted to do a permanent Shake Shack type concept (like the famous restaurant kiosk in Madison Square Park in New York City) that would be a branch of Steuben's. When we could not get that approved, we turned to the idea of a food truck. We liked the idea that we would be one of the first here and we saw many other possibilities to use the truck for our nonprofit and community work as well a great marketing - moving billboard - tool for Steuben's. The Steuben's Truck helped get Civic Center Eats, a summertime outdoor café with gourmet food trucks, off the ground, and we were one of the original founders of the Justice League of Street Food.

 

2) Is this a lasting trend? Why or why not?

It is a lasting trend, though the field in this market might thin out as it is a tough business. I believe it is here to stay because food trucks offer the ability to provide restaurant quality food in unique and original locations. It's really just an updated version of catering or vending. It can be cost effective and fun for guests.

 

3) How does the cost compare to running a restaurant?

It's a completely different model and varies greatly if you have an existing restaurant to serve as your commissary kitchen and labor pool. It also helps when you can bring back unsold or used food to sell at the restaurant. So when there is a brick and mortar, it really helps with costs. We rarely go out to a certain location and hope to sell our inventory. Our business model now sticks to pre-set events where we can stock exactly what we need and we know ahead of time what our sales will be. This really helps with cost control. It's basically a catering truck. There are certain events where we had a refrigerated trailer to support the truck and we did not know the volume level of business, but it turned out to be amazing. On this particular day the truck is serving food for free to the volunteers at the Red Cross camps and FEMA.

The Steuben's Truck originally ran on vegetable oil and solar power. This turned out to be a maintenance nightmare so our particular truck is susceptible to very high maintenance costs. Otherwise, in many ways, the costs of operating a truck are lower than running a restaurant, but you have to be able to do high sales to justify those costs. Just like in the restaurant business, if you can do high sales, most of your cost issues go away.

 

4) What are the downsides to food trucks?

It's a daily adventure. Our truck got stuck in the mud at (an event) so we had to have it towed out a day later. We had another occasion where we broke down on our way to a wedding and had to be towed to the wedding. Weather can be an issue and it's tough to have a back up plan when mechanical issues strike. In the Denver market it is really hard to do the sales necessary to make it a profitable business model. While the Steuben's truck is finally profitable, if it were not for the non-profit and marketing goals, I would not operate a food truck as a viable business model in this market. It's a lot of prep, cleaning, schlepping, and unknowns to deal with daily.

We are about to launch an Ace (restaurant) mobile bar with an old VW bus. We can't sell liquor off of it, but we can sell our services, pro bartenders, fresh juices and mixers, glassware, music, etc. It's pretty rad. Sometimes you just do things because they are fun and creative and as long as you are not losing money, some great occasion, memories, parties, and stories can come out of it.

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