On Thayer Street at dinner time, a veritable United Nations of aromas wafts through the air as Korean spices from Mama Kim’s mix with the savory aura of Plouf Plouf’s truffle frites. Behind the mobile walls of the trucks offering this variety of cuisines lie back stories as unique as the food served.
Many food truck owners said they decided to pursue their culinary dreams by opening food trucks due to the comparatively lower startup costs of trucks over other food businesses.
“You don’t have too much overhead at first, so I think it’s a great way to get your feet wet in the food industry if you want to own a business,” said Jason Vargas, co-owner of Fusion Gourmet, or Fugo, a Latin-and-Asian fusion truck.
Mario Molliere, owner of Plouf Plouf Gastronomie, said he opted for a food truck because it made business sense given the “bad economy.”
“I decided to do something different,” he added.
“The operating costs are cheaper than a restaurant,” said Molliere, who previously owned two French restaurants in Connecticut.
Owning a food truck “was a cheaper start for us, so that was much better than getting a full restaurant,” said Talita Luna-Stackpole, who co-owns the Brazilian truck Lady Copacabana with her husband, Chris Stackpole.
The increased flexibility of location offers another benefit, owners said.
With a food truck, “you can go anywhere,” Luna-Stackpole said. “You go to people — you don’t have to wait for people to come to you.”
“You have to choose your location if you have a restaurant, and it’s too much of a risk,” she added. “You can do a lot, actually, in a food truck. You can go places, you can go to fairs, and if you have a restaurant, you’re going to be just there.”
Owners also described gratifying interactions with customers who wholeheartedly support their mission.
“People really like coming, talking to you, because (food trucks are) mostly owner-operated,” said Rocket Fine Street Food’s co-owner Patricia Natter-Meneguzzo. Customers enjoy “seeing, meeting the person who’s cooking their food, just having that rapport, that relationship,” she added.
Hands in many pies
Though many food truck owners have dreams of opening brick-and-mortar restaurants someday, running the trucks is their primary full-time occupation. But like many independent business owners, they can play other roles on the side.
Sook Kim P’01 and her son, Hyun Kim ’01, co-own Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ, according to the truck’s website. But Hyun Kim is no longer as involved with the business due to an overseas job with the United Nations, his father said.
Lotus Pepper co-owner Thang Huynh, who also works as a hairdresser, said his two lines of work can and often do help each other, as he often refers customers from one business to the other.
Huynh added that working both jobs is a tricky but ultimately rewarding balance, and he schedules his haircuts around his food truck hours.
“(On) a weekday, I do like two haircuts, because I have to go back to the truck. On weekends I bulk up on my appointments,” he said. “I work seven days a week, pretty much.”
But Huynh said that after work, there is still time for some play. “I still have time for the gym,” he said. “I mean, hey, you’ve got to work hard.”
Brown students play a key consumer role for many of the local trucks.
“I wanted to come near the students here, because the students, during lunch time, they don’t have time to go to the restaurant,” said Asmerome Kidane, owner of the Abyssinia food cart associated with the Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant on Wickenden Street.
Brown students are a key part of Thayer’s constant, and usually culinarily curious, foot traffic, owners said.
“We have a lot of customers on Thayer Street, and we know a lot of people, and we feel like the Brown students are more open-minded compared to other college students,” Huynh said. “We did go to different schools, but it seemed like Thayer Street is the best location because we have all these different kinds of students from all over the place.”
Some trucks fare particularly well due to students’ curiosity, which merges the academic with the epicurean.
“We discovered that there is a really good Portuguese program here, so there are a lot of Brazilians and people who speak really good Portuguese,” Luna-Stackpole said. “I thought that would be good for us, because people already know (about the culture) and they’re excited.”
Food truck family
Though their shared format could incite competition, truck owners said the varying styles of food and common goal of trying to “make it” in a labor-intensive field create a sense of camaraderie. The truck owners often discuss and warn each other about impending parking changes, Huynh said.
The support system is even open to new truck owners.
“We did not know where to go at first” upon arriving in Providence, Stackpole said. “Then we found Jay, from Fugo, and he showed us, saying, ‘Let me show you where everybody parks.’”
Natter-Meneguzzo said non-local food trucks passing through Providence marvel at the local camaraderie, citing competitive atmospheres elsewhere.
“We care a lot about what we do,” Natter-Meneguzzo said.