Eats on the Street

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by Celestina Blok

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Dining a la truck is a contagious trend around these parts. We examine life on the road for some food truckers and the latest food truck park to open in Fort Worth.

On any given Friday, well after midnight, the Tank, Salsa Limón’s 1975 Waymatic food trailer located on West Berry Street near Texas Christian University, can be found crowded with hungry TCU students, many who make the mobile kitchen their last stop after a late night out. Sometimes customers funnel through clear until 2 a.m. When the rush is over, third shift staffers then scrub the blistering griddle they’ve stood inches from since 8 o’clock the night before, clean the stainless counter tops, walls and even the ceilings before calling it a night.

When it’s time to take the Tank to the commissary, a service station for area food trucks where used water is exchanged for fresh potable water, it might be as late as 4 or 5 a.m. or even the next day, as hitching a trailer and maneuvering it requires a special skillset not all staffers possess. Also on the to-do list: Replace propane tanks if needed, check the air in the tires, check electrical wiring to all lights and examine screws to ensure none came loose in the last 24 hours. Now the Tank can be reloaded with pounds of steak, spicy pork, chicken and chorizo by first shift staffers who’ll start the day all over again.

“We are very blessed to have a whole team behind us,” said Rosalia Ramirez, who co-founded Salsa Limón in 2006 along with her brother, Milo, the brainchild behind the brand. “We have three shifts -- morning, lunch and late. The late shift employees are night owls, and that’s why they like it.”

But many food truck owners don’t have the luxury, or the budget, of working with a full staff, much less with any help at all. In most cases, food truck owners are on their own, getting very little sleep and sometimes going into what Rosalie describes as zombie mode. These owners many times serve as not only the chef (the most alluring role in the business), but as cashier, dishwasher, driver and mechanic, not to mention marketer, promoter and social media maven.

“If you don’t have a team behind you, two months into it you hit a wall. You realize you have to do the same thing every single day,” Rosalia said. “I have seen the struggle, for sure. Fatigue is one of the biggest. There’s this idea that it’s so glamorous and that there will be a sea of customers. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s hard work. And sometimes it’s about simply putting one foot in front of the other and doing it all with a smile.”

Rosalia would know. There was a time Salsa Limón didn’t have the three-shift staff it does today, and she and Milo were “in the trenches,” she says. But whereas most local food truck owners bypass a brick-and-mortar location to take the “easier route” of hitting the streets, Salsa Limón started as a restaurant inside La Gran Plaza mall in south Fort Worth. The Tank wasn’t born until 2010, and Scooby, Salsa Limón’s 1997 GMC Workhorse food truck that currently rotates between food parks and private events, opened a year later. Rosalia and Milo, both natives of Oaxaca, Mexico, agree that having a home base for all prep work has allowed their mobile kitchen business to flourish. This was their plan all along.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s easy. You have to go from being a one-man show to an organization,” said Milo, a Southern Methodist University business grad. “It’s like a football team. At some point you realize you have to be the GM, owner or coach. You cannot also be the kicker and quarterback. You’re going to make less money, but if you want to be the only person, your growth is going to be stunted.”

Salsa Limón recently added two more trucks to their fleet and has plans to expand to Dallas and eventually Austin. But the brother-sister duo is just getting started. They’ve leased the former Quizno’s space at 929 S. University to open another Salsa Limón location this year. They’re also launching a new grilled cheese concept, Gorgonzilla, with plans to take it to Dallas, as well.

So how is Salsa Limón able to open truck after truck while 2012 saw some of Fort Worth’s most buzz-worthy trucks, including The Wiener Man, Drifting Bistro, The Bacon Wagon and Eat at Zombie’s, shutter their windows after just months in business? Fort Worth Food Park owner Chris Kruger says the practical time commitment alone can be tough.

“When you are truly in a truck all day by yourself, and a lot of them are, you don’t realize how much work that is,” said Kruger. “And it does take time for a truck to establish their name. There’s got to be a time period for people to figure out who you are, what you serve and the quality of what you serve.”

Many owners bring their families on the trucks with them, despite the high-pressure environment and cramped quarters. Rosalia says the numbers are against any restaurant, whether on wheels or not, to make it even just six months.

“It’s a matter of your menu and your business practices and how disciplined you are. It’s not just about showing up and selling food. There is so much more,” she said. “Are you saving the money? Are you investing intelligently? If something is not working, you have to change it.”

Kruger says many of the newer food trucks, like The Bento Box, whose offerings include sushi rolls and miso soup, are owned by chefs who came from high-profile restaurants, like Tokyo Café and Café Modern.

“I almost always hear them say working in these trucks is harder than any restaurant they’ve been in,” Kruger said. “It can be pretty tough, but extremely rewarding if you do well. That’s why you have so many people, despite warnings from other truck owners, who want to get out and test the waters.”

Rosalia says TV played a large role in the food truck craze, with shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race opening viewers’ eyes to the quality of food that can come from a vehicle.

“People then said, ‘Wow, I can actually get something pretty good from a truck,’ ” Rosalia said. “And then they think, ‘You know what? I can cook! My friends love the way I cook.’ It may have been their dream to open a little diner, and a truck makes it very approachable. Why not take that risk? They think they can get out of the rat race, be their own boss. I think it became contagious, and everybody went out and did it.”

Area food parks have made the appeal of opening a food truck more attractive and vice versa. The opening of the Fort Worth Food Park, which offers picnic tables shaded by large trees, a small stage, restrooms, a beer and wine bar and an overall cozy atmosphere, set a precedent that’s been hard to match since it opened in late 2011. New food park owners might envision a one-stop shop for continuous business, but opening a park requires more than simply leasing out land and hoping customers will show up.

Cowtown Chow Down, a highly anticipated food park that opened with much fanfare in a former auto lot on North Main Street last year, closed for the winter and much of the fall. Owner Charlie Flores says business slowed, and he plans to make some park improvements and reopen in the spring. He hopes the upcoming Coyote Drive-In movie theater, to be located near La Grave Field and planned for spring 2013, will drum up more customers.

“It takes a lot of time and patience, and collaboration with a lot of different people, to make a food park work,” said Kendall Carew, founder and co-owner of Fort Worth’s newest food park, Clearfork Food Park, which opened in December at 1541 Merrimac Circle. “We envisioned our park to be part of the fabric of Fort Worth. I think we accomplished that with our location along the Trinity River and being close to some of Fort Worth’s most important attractions like TCU and the zoo.”

Clearfork Food Park, named for the area of the Trinity River it sits on, aims to cater to folks who utilize the trails. Features include a bike rack, water fountains, a dog watering station, ample parking and a covered pavilion that’s heated. But one of the park’s most unique features is its on-site full bar, an extension of Fred’s Texas Café called Fred’s Bait Shack.

“We were so happy to partner with Fred’s,” Carew said. “We’re hoping this will be not only a food park and Fred’s Bait Shack, but an artery for getting on and off the trail, so folks can use our parking to enjoy a bike ride or a run.”

Carew added that maintaining consistent hours is important to growing business and not confusing customers. He learned this from Milo, he says, who parks the Tank every day on West Berry Street regardless of weather.

Food truck owners spend thousands to open for various reasons. Some may be chefs who cannot afford to lease space and open a restaurant, but hope to build a brand. Others may want to showcase a specific concept that they’re passionate about, be it waffles, grilled cheese, hot dogs or sliders. For Milo and Rosalia, Salsa Limón was born simply out of the duo’s desire for a taste of home.

“It was a desperate craving for the food we had growing up – the street food that we were raised on,” Milo said. “We wanted fantastic salsa and fresh lime with our tacos. We knew the Anglo market knew what salsa was. And ‘limón’ was close enough to ‘lemon,’ so Salsa Limón was born.”

Rosalia calls Milo a true visionary, seeing an empty parking lot by The Cellar bar as a diamond of a location years ago, before anyone attempted to sell tacos from a “roach coach” to TCU students.

“Thankfully, everybody just welcomed it. The support we’ve gotten from the TCU community in the sense of patronage has been fantastic,” Rosalia said. “I think Fort Worth is extremely lucky to have the food trucks and the parks that it does, and that’s why it’s been so successful. There’s just nothing like eating outside.”