Running a food truck seems like such an accessible arm of the industry. The startup costs are cheaper than those for a restaurant, and it takes fewer employees to keep a truck up and running.
But as Chris Viola and Jason Scott prepare to open their second actual restaurant, the creators of The Taco Truck have learned cheaper doesn't always mean easier. In fact, running a restaurant can be a walk in the park compared to the day-to-day grind of selling your food on four wheels.
"Just running a truck, it's grueling," said Viola, who has worked as a food and beverage manager at the Four Seasons and ran his own restaurant consulting business. "Six months into it, I was like, 'This is not what I expected.'"
Viola and Scott launched The Taco Truck in 2009 with a staff of about 10 employees, driving their truck around Hoboken and Jersey City, selling their version of authentic Mexican street food.
"Mexican food in America usually has a lot of cream and cheese, and is not what Mexican food should be," Viola said. "I was just like the rest of the gringos who thought it was, like, TexMex."
The truck offered a relatively inexpensive way to test a brand and a menu, costing an average of about $100,000 to $120,000 to get one up and rolling, Viola said.
But you have limited space in a truck, and you have to contend with special ordinances and parking regulations and the weather. Viola said he had days when the truck staff made a huge batch of food, but had to donate everything when police kicked them out of their parking space and they had no access to customers.
A restaurant, on the other hand, can cost up to six times that amount to start, Viola said. But you don't have to hunt down pockets of customers. You have plenty of room, and you don't have to contend with police and parking regulations just to open your business for the day.
So in 2010, Viola and Scott opened The Taco Truck's first restaurant location in Hoboken. Now, in Morristown, they are set to open what will become their flagship location in mid-August.
"We thought the truck really represented our food and our brand," Viola said. "For us, though, we always knew we wanted to do brick and mortar."
Several other restaurants in the state — such as Kraverie in Jersey City, which sells Korean tacos and crepes — have used a food truck as an entrée into bricks-and-mortar establishments. But Ruth Hladyk, director of professional development and internships for the International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said she doesn't see that transition as the new trend in the industry.
"I don't think that's how brick-and- mortar restaurants are going to get started," Hladyk said. Food trucks are "a niche, and it's got its place, just like everything else."
Hladyk agreed that running a food truck presents unique challenges, compared to operating a restaurant, but she wasn't necessarily convinced that food trucks are an easier way to go when you take into account startup costs and the ability to bring your food straight to your customers.
"I'm not saying there's not work involved and you're not out in the cold or out in the rain or in the heat," she said. "The hours you put into it are incalculable. And you either want to do it or you don't."
For The Taco Truck, Viola and Scott haven't completely abandoned their food truck roots. The truck still goes out five days a week, serving up tortas, tacos and salads from the Hamptons, in New York, to South Jersey.
The Morristown location — which will be nearly three times the size of the one in Hoboken — is being designed to resemble a truck. One wall is covered in aluminum. The windows where customers will place their orders are high off the ground, allowing diners to feel like they are still ordering off the side of a truck, Viola said. And strings of lights hang from extra high ceilings to give the feeling of dining al fresco.
By the end of this year, Viola said, the company is looking to open another Taco Truck location in New Jersey. They haven't yet selected a site, but Viola said they are eyeing towns from Ridgewood to Princeton. They are also finalizing the paperwork to begin franchising the Taco Truck concept and are gearing up to open another location in Boston, where they've had a truck operating since May of last year.
Despite all the work such growth entails, Viola remains firm that running a food truck is still a tougher way to go.
"If you can make it at that, you're good to go," he said.
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