Several new gourmet food trucks have begun frequenting Providence's East Side. Looking to the success of mobile restaurants in major cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, Providence food enthusiasts are following suit.
"I spent most of 2008 living in San Francisco," said Kristin Amico, co-owner of Sugarush, a cupcake and dessert truck. "I was amazed by all the small-scale, petite business going on," she said. In particular, Amico noticed an abundance of food trucks on San Francisco's streets selling "fresh and delicious food." Amico, an avid baker, then left her job in public relations and started a new food truck with partner Erica Saladino back in Rhode Island. Her most popular cupcakes include chocolate with salted caramel frosting, classic coconut, lemon with lemon goat cheese frosting and vegan chocolate peanut butter.
Alan Masterson, owner of the taco truck Poco Loco and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University, also received his inspiration outside of Providence. "I used to live in California, and there's tons of taco and food trucks out there, so we wanted to start something similar over here," he said.
Despite the lower start-up costs being lower than those of a traditional business, opening a mobile food truck can be a challenging and time-consuming endeavor.
"I spent about three years researching," said Karen Krinsky, owner of the vegan soft-serve truck she calls Like No Udder. "I spent a lot of time looking for the right truck, figuring out what licenses I needed to get, finding out what products and ingredients would be the best," she said.
Trucks designed for culinary use are available but extremely expensive. For his business, Masterson bought an old DHL truck and gutted the interior, he said. After stripping down his truck, he found much of his cooking equipment through Craigslist. In spite of the extra work, "this way we got to design it exactly the way we wanted," he said.
Amico and Saladino had a similar experience. "It took us a while to find the perfect truck," said Amico. "We found an antique van, then we had to completely rehab it."
Through purchase of a former sandwich truck, Josie Morway and co-owner of Providence Juice Company Jay Nutini saved time on conversion and also received advice from the seller on getting health permits and other concerns about starting their business.
"When you consider a food truck," said Amico, "you also consider space considerations. Everything has to fit. You have to drive the truck. If it's raining, you can't go out."
Other worries include running out of gas, having enough power to work appliances and the occasional flat tire or breakdown. "I would guess that a lot of food truck owners are not mechanics, so you have to feel comfortable and have the right connections so you can get it working again," said Krinsky.
Weather is an important consideration when operating a food vehicle, especially outside of a mild region like California. On top of not being able to operate in the rain, many trucks are forced off the streets by the severity of New England winters. Like No Udder, because it serves ice cream, will take a four to five month hiatus this winter. Some trucks, like Providence Juice Company, are planning to wait it out and adjust to the winter months, possibly by offering new menu items like apple cider and organic hot chocolate.
Despite the newness of the trucks — most having only been in business for a few weeks — many have already gained customer loyalty through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. "We pretty much rely on Twitter because our schedule changes every week," said Morway. Others, such as Poco Loco and Like No Udder, have Facebook pages where customers can "friend" the trucks and receive status updates about their locations. Customers often find the trucks parked on Hope Street, at various farmers' markets and occasionally at festivals and concerts.
Keeping customers informed about their whereabouts is especially important for trucks that cater to a specific clientele. Although many of Like No Udder's customers have no dietary restrictions, Krinsky's truck is especially accommodating to vegan and lactose-intolerant individuals. "I try to accommodate as many allergy sensitivities as possible, but it's difficult. I go low on soy because I know people have sensitivities. I don't use hydrogenated fats, and by nature everything is cholesterol free," said Krinsky.
Other trucks, like Poco Loco, try to offer healthy alternatives to greasy late night fare. A customer favorite is the vegetarian Green Monstah burrito. "We're not just another Broad Street chimi-truck," he said.
Sugarush and Providence Juice Company combine the trend of mobile food with growing customer demand for sustainable and organic cuisine. Both trucks order many of their ingredients from Farm Fresh Rhode Island, which collects ingredients from local farms and delivers them to food vendors. "Supporting local farms is our main mission," said Morway.
"It's just now hitting Providence," Amico said of the food truck trend. "We're obviously a little behind New York City, and we're a small city. But because of Johnson and Wales and local farms, I feel like the city and the people who live here have a fond appreciation for food."