CARS HOMES JOBS

Lunch crowd keeps on truckin’

Restaurants-on-wheels grow in popularity

Saturday, April 27, 2013
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Brandon Snooks owner and chef on the  Wandering Dago food truck prepares pesto for sandwiches.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Brandon Snooks owner and chef on the Wandering Dago food truck prepares pesto for sandwiches.

— If you happen to have a late-night hankering for a pulled pork, brisket, bacon and melted provolone sandwich, you can find one with no problem three nights a week in Schenectady.

From about 10:30 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. on varying nights, the big, blue Wandering Dago food truck serves up gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads at spots bordering the Union College campus.

The truck’s location is broadcast via social media, and once a Tweet goes out, customers start lining up.

Owners Andrea Loguidice and Brandon Snooks, who opened their restaurant-on-wheels last fall, are among a growing number of Capital Region entrepreneurs who are finding their niche in the food truck business.

Once found mainly at carnivals and around Albany’s Capitol Park, food trucks are taking on new local territory, and owners are finding that the recipe for success is a mix of excellent food and innovative marketing.

Loguidice and Snooks, self-proclaimed foodies with no prior experience in the restaurant business, peddle their gourmet fare from a retrofitted tool truck.

“We make everything in that truck — everything,” said Snooks. “The only thing we don’t make is the prosciutto, and we’re actually working on that.”

The couple, who often park their truck at lunchtime outside MVP Health Care on State Street, have taken the huge learning curve they’ve encountered on two wheels. Through a series of startup bumps in the road, they’ve learned a few lessons, including that parking a food truck in Schenectady is much different than it would be in a larger city like New York.

“We don’t have 5,000 people walking by,” Snooks explained. “Down in the city, the restaurants and the food trucks don’t even target the same people.”

In an effort to entice the sparser crowd of downtown Schenectady pedestrians, many of whom travel the same stretch of sidewalk day after day, the Dago menu changes frequently.

“I don’t want to eat at the same place two or three times per week; I don’t think anybody does. So we’re trying to find a happy mix,” Snooks said.

To further entice customers, the Dago’s owners text out electronic coupons and also have a smartphone-based rewards program.

Scott Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzy’s Fork in the Road food truck, based in Malta, is pondering ways to make it easier for customers to get at his food.

He and his wife, Kathleen, went into the food truck business last August. They serve breakfast sandwiches outside Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART facility in the morning and park on the property of the Beauty Society Salon on Dunning Street at lunchtime.

Their school-bus-yellow truck — a renovated delivery truck once used to sell hot dogs — gets great visibility on the busy road, which is free advertising, he said.

Fitzgerald, who has been working in restaurants for more than 30 years, uses Facebook to convince customers to try his fare, which includes sandwiches stuffed with everything from pastrami to portabella mushrooms.

He’s also working on setting up a delivery service, so customers can patronize his truck without ever leaving work.

John Travis, who has run the Eat Good Food truck since last May, spent all of last season parked at Minogue’s Beverage Center on West Avenue in Saratoga Springs. This year, he’s making some changes.

“Being parked in one location, as we were last year, what we found was we were a restaurant that had wheels on it, because people came looking for the same things day-in and day-out,” he said.

Longing for the freedom to mix it up a bit, Travis, who has been in the food business for more than 40 years, decided to bring his truck to different venues all season long. He’s got much of this summer’s calendar booked with weddings, graduations and festivals, and his menu will change with each event.

“I do funky things like prime rib sandwiches served with horseradish and fresh thyme on a cheddar cheese waffle with a red pepper catsup and bleu cheese crumble,” he said.

Set gigs, like weddings and graduation parties, provide a safety net for the Fast Trax Food Co. food truck based in Ballston Spa, since they guarantee a customer base, said Kelly Mapes, who owns the truck with Jeff Knox.

Their 50-foot-long Winnebago-turned-food-truck, which has been on the road for about a year and a half, sells favorites like chicken tenders, taco salads, quesadillas and hot dogs. Knox and Mapes use it as a marketing tool for their restaurant in Ballston Spa.

Revving up their restaurant-on-wheels for a day of selling on the street costs quite a bit of cash, and there are no guarantees, Mapes noted.

“You have the big generator. ... If it rains, nobody shows up; there’s your time and all the food and all the preparation that is required, and the buying of the product. But it’s fun,” she said.

Simply getting set up in the food truck business requires a large investment. Travis’ used Eat Good Food truck cost $25,000. Last year, he said he sunk about $20,000 into maintenance and repairs, and this year, $5,000 and counting.

But dealing with expensive repairs isn’t the biggest challenge to being a local food truck owner, according to Travis.

“The largest one right now in this area is the fact that we’re kind of viewed as being pariahs,” he said. “In communities, among other business people, it’s not an accepted practice in this region.”

Some food truck owners have reported having trouble navigating local cities’ vending codes.

“Most of the laws were written back in the ’70s, when there wasn’t a food truck trend,” said Tim Taney, owner of the Slidin’ Dirty food truck, which offers gourmet mini-burgers, mainly in Troy. “Most of the vendors before us were just sidewalk carts.”

Taney, who has been in business for about a year, also lamented the fact that food truck owners need to get separate vending and health department licences in each county where they park their truck.

But local cities and towns are becoming more food truck-friendly, vendors report. The Wandering Dago’s owners said Schenectady has been very accommodating.

Troy has also been very receptive to welcoming food trucks, Taney noted. For the first time, the city this year is reserving four spots for food truck parking in Riverfront Park.

The park will also be the site of the first local Food Truck Festival, slated for noon to 7 p.m. Saturday. The free event will feature 12 food trucks, three local bands and a beer garden, according to organizer Garth Ellms, managing director of Townsquare Lifestyle Events.

David Britton, owner of the Pies on Wheels food truck, which operates out of Glens Falls, said he is working to form a local coalition that will bring a convoy of food trucks together on a regular basis.

“There’s power in numbers, and we’d like to have a place that the trucks can all schedule to be together on a Thursday night on a summer evening, with the message that you can come enjoy a food truck carnival,” he said, noting similar events are held in many places across the country.

Britton, who has run his food truck for five years, said demand is so high, he is expanding his gourmet, mobile, wood-fired pizza business to include a second truck and a portable chicken wing wagon.

 
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