Food Trucks out on the Mean Streets

The pale yellow Van Leeuwen ice cream truck, nick-named “the Eagle,” sat parked across from the Apple Store in Soho with a vanilla cone painted on every side. A line quickly formed and a parade of ice cream cones hit the streets of Manhattan. Someone from Whole Foods approached the truck. “They were like, ‘This is really good! Do you sell packaged pints for stores?’” recalls co-founder Laura O’Neill. “And we were like, ‘We’ve been in business for an hour.’”

The truck was an instant hit. “To be able to know on that first day that it had been so well received and that people really liked it,” said O’Neill, “it was really exciting that we were going to be able to continue to do this and grow.”

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Credit: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream

O’Neill started the truck with Ben Van Leeuwen and his brother Pete in 2008. After a stint as a Good Humor truck driver in college, Ben Van Leeuwen noticed that there were food trucks everywhere but none of had really great quality ice cream. “At that point there were almost no artisanal ice cream companies in America. And none in New York whatsoever,” he said. They started making their own ice cream at home using natural and organic ingredients with no stabilizers, gums or fillers.

They bought an old postal truck and retrofitted it. Business went so well that they opened a second truck a few months later.

Van Leeuwen started out their trucks in the streets of SoHo, bunkering down in an area jam-packed with people. “One of our first truck locations was Prince and Green, which is real estate that we would never be able to afford as a brick and mortar,” said O’Neill. “And Soho is a neighborhood that really dies at night, so we move over to University and 12th.   You can’t move a store so I guess the trucks helped us kind of get to know the neighborhoods and figure out which areas would be good for brick and mortar locations.”

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They started selling pints to Whole Foods in their first year, and soon started thinking about opening a brick and mortar location as well. They weren’t able to secure a lease right away, so Van Leeuwen opened two more ice cream trucks in the meantime. “It’s quite difficult to get real estate agents to take you seriously when you’re a food truck business,” said O’Neill. “Even though we had four successful trucks, they were like, ‘If you don’t have any proof of success in a brick and mortar, we can’t really give you a lease.’”

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There are over 4,000 food trucks in the U.S., bringing in a total annual revenue of $1.2 billion last year alone. For many small business owners looking to break into the food industry, a truck acts as an incubator to test out the product and gauge the general response before committing to a storefront. It may seem easy to hop in a truck and hit the streets but running a restaurant on wheels can be a bumpy ride. As the gourmet food truck scene has grown, so have the problems.

When Luke’s Lobster rolled out their first truck in front of Bryant Park, the line stretched a whole city block. They already had three restaurants and a few more in the works and decided to go the food truck route as well, selling buttery lobster, crab, and shrimp rolls around Manhattan. “We were ridiculously excited and we thought that all of our hopes for this truck were coming true,” said Ben Conniff, co-founder and vice president. “But then two weeks in, things kind of went a little haywire.”

Luke
Credit: Luke’s Lobster

It was at that point that the government reinterpreted an old law that said vendors cannot sell from metered parking spots. “So that meant every metered parking space in New York is technically off limits to food trucks,” Conniff said. “Now, if you’ve ever been to a food truck, they usually operate from a metered parking space. It’s the only way you can survive in Manhattan.”

The only option was to park there anyway and pray a police officer didn’t see you. “What we found,” said Conniff, “was that if we have a line of 50 people and then a police officer shuts us down and those people have been counting on us for their lunch and waiting for quite a while, they would then be disappointed and of course we would lose all our revenue for that day and be ticketed or get towed.”

Luke’s Lobster tried to keep a somewhat regular schedule of where they went, with a different location for every day of the week to give their customers some regularity. “With the new regulations, that reliability went away a bit and with that, the guests’ experience suffered. Their plans for lunch just evaporated,” said Conniff. Still, there were loyalists.

“Anytime I see a lobster roll truck, I stop what I’m doing and go,” said Boston native Zack Ward as he waits for his order in the East Village. “It reminds me of being home so I love that I can get it here on my lunch break.”

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In Union Square, Sarah Lewis carefully balances her plate of kimchi fried rice with neon purple slaw in the air as she snaps photo after photo on her iPhone, attempting to frame the tiger-striped Korilla truck as a backdrop for her Instagram post. “I love trying different food trucks when it’s warm outside. It’s so much better than being stuck inside,” Lewis said as she reached for a fork. “I’ve never eaten here before but I’ve seen people post pictures online.”

Korilla
Credit: Korilla BBQ

Korilla BBQ started off as a food truck in October 2010. Co-founder Eddie Song’s initial plan, after graduating from Columbia with an economics degree, was to open a fro-yo shop with his college roommate, John Kirk Goza, inspired by their frozen yogurt addiction. Anything but a food truck. “At that time, nobody wanted to do a food truck,” said Song. “Food trucks were just roach coaches. There was nothing cool about it.”

“By the time we became serious with our business plan, there was a fro-yo shop almost everywhere,” said Song. “We had to switch strategies.” Plan B was a Korean Mexican fusion restaurant but he wasn’t able to get a lease, never having owned a business before. He had to come up with plan C: a food truck.

“Economically speaking, it’s a lot easier, more viable and feasible to start a food truck,” Song said. “A food truck is a really good business model with the ability to sell a product with a 400-500% markup and with very little overhead, unlike a restaurant. The food truck is a good business model but not a good business.” Four years later, he opened the Korilla brick and mortar location in the East Village.

“I never ever believed it would be just the truck as the franchise,” said Song, as he sat inside the flamboyant orange and black striped Korilla building that protrudes above a smoke shop and McDonalds on a corner in the East Village. People step inside, past the orange and black van parked out front with a painted tiger scaling the side, past the twinkle of the tiger head wind chime at the front door and the wire sculptures of saber tooth tigers that jut out from the walls as “Hey Ma” by Cam’Ron bumps from the ceiling speakers.

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“In 2016 a food truck is not a great business to be in because of all the irrational regulations that make it hard for you to have a stable business whereas with the brick and mortar, you’re not going anywhere. It’s literally static. It’s more predictable,” he said. “Imagine our truck breaks down in the middle of the road. We have to tow it to a body shop and you’re losing out on one, two, three, however many days it takes them to fix it.”

But brick and mortar restaurants have their own challenges.

“What ended up happening was, the expectations for a brick and mortar restaurant are a lot higher than a food truck,” said Song. “We had to up our game. We redid the menu and the concept.” The concept shifted from Korean Mexican fusion to Korean BBQ in a Mexican vehicle (bulgogi, BBQ pork with kimchi, braised tofu with gochujang in your choice of burrito, rice bowl, tacos). “When we made that transition, we decided to position ourselves as something that focused more on a Korean culinary identity.”

Song plays social media to his advantage, utilizing Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to promote the Korilla brand.

A bonus of the bright and colorful Korean food and the tiger decor is that customers tend to snap photos to share with their online followers. As for the orange and black tiger stripes adorning the outside of the building? “The landlord didn’t like it but I did.”

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”I think people start food trucks with an assumption that they’re cheaper and easier to run than they actually are,” said Conniff. Instead of struggling to stay afloat in Manhattan, Luke’s Lobster Truck started to focus more on events like Governors Ball, the New Jersey food truck rally and Pier 13 in Hoboken. “All of these are very predictable locations where we can legally sell our food and not have to worry about the extra hassle and not have to worry about letting down guest who were planning on us being there,” said Conniff. “So the focus really became let’s get away from being on the streets.”

They ditched the NYC permits altogether, opened another restaurant in Hoboken and ran the truck out of their Hoboken restaurant, with a regular presence on the pier every weekend and a focus on events like the food truck rally. They also plan to roll out a second truck for the first time next month. “I would say before we made the switch to New Jersey, we never would have considered two trucks,” said Conniff. “It was a nightmare trying to manage that business as much as it is a great marketing tool for us, it just wasn’t profitable enough to be worth all the difficulty in New York.”

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At 11:15 on a Wednesday morning, Van Leeuwen arrives at the company’s 5,000 square foot warehouse in Greenpoint, changes into his crisp white short sleeved button down and enters the baking room, surrounded by sterile white walls, silver machinery and large clear windowpanes. Containers holding various sugars and flours and powders line the room like babies lined up in a hospital nursery. Sheets of cake lay out on the metal table – Mexican chocolate birthday cake topped with rich chocolate fudge, organic sprinkles, spicy chilis, and cinnamon, in the stages before it will be chopped up by hand and mixed into milk chocolate ice cream to be served as one of the spring specials. Buttery, flaky pie crusts sit in the nude, waiting to be coated in chocolate fudge, broken into chunks and mixed into roasted banana ice cream with caramelized bananas, brown sugar, salt, and butter folded in.

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Six years after they started and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream now has five brick and mortar shops in New York City, three shops in Los Angeles, and food trucks on both coasts. For the first time in eight years, they finally have all their east coast operations under one roof with their new ice cream factory.

“My favorite flavor is fluffernutter with a peanut butter brittle,” said Van Leeuwen. “It’s a slightly salty peanut butter ice cream with a peanut and cocoa-nib brittle that we roast in-house and crumble, folded in with the Swiss-style meringue, which is basically like a really fancy vegetarian marshmallow fluff.”

But it hasn’t been all marshmallows and rainbows. Van Leeuwen speaks over the roar of chainsaws and construction in the factory down below. “The drilling you’re hearing right now is us having to spend about $25,000 building a separate room to wash the trucks in,” said O’Neill. “Which is completely unnecessary but required.” There are strict regulations for food trucks, including a permitting system with long wait periods and hefty fines if employees are on the truck without their permits.

“My first advice is, if it doesn’t have to be a truck, just do a store because there’s so much that can go wrong with trucks, they’re more volatile,” said O’Neill. “In my experience, a lot of people who I gave advice to, they came back very quickly, they’re like, ‘I wish that truck would just roll off the Williamsburg Bridge.’”

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