The number of food trucks in the state is on the rise. As is the quality of food they are serving.
It's a trend in the food industry that is showing no signs of slowing down.
You can talk about how the food truck industry has transformed from the traditional trucks serving (bitter) coffee, (old) doughnuts and (bland) sandwiches in the parking lot of industrial sites or urban offices to ones whose food is as good as any you would find in most restaurants.
Or how they have transformed from being at weekend festivals to having festivals built around them.
Or even how the industry has grown so much — and so quickly — that it needed to form an association to advocate for it with lawmakers in Trenton.
If you really want to get a sense of how this industry has arrived in New Jersey, consider this: Food trucks are now in great demand for weddings.
That’s right: weddings.
Just ask Mike Barlettano, the co-owner and general manager of Surf and Turf Truck in Hamilton.
“Four years ago, you never would have heard of a food truck at a wedding,” he said. “Now, it’s what everyone wants.”
F. Scott Belgard, owner of Pompier Catering and Cuisine in Hightstown, agreed.
By the end of this year, Belgard expects to have catered 12 weddings and wedding-related events taking place from backyards to the Atlantic City Aquarium to Mercer County Park.
Weddings, he said, will soon represent nearly 25 percent of his business.
And if you think couples only want the trucks for the food, you’d be mistaken. It appears they don’t mind sharing the spotlight on their big day, either.
“We use our food truck as a mobile kitchen in which to prepare and serve the main food for the event,” Belgard said. “Our customers specifically want a visible, on-site food truck.”
It seems food trucks are, in fact, everywhere in New Jersey these days.
As gourmet food becomes more accessible to consumers, food trucks continue to pop up in the most unexpected of places and stay there, said Jon Hepner, owner and operator of Aroy-D, The Thai Elephant.
From West to East
Gourmet food trucks took off in California in the early 2000s, according to Jon Hepner, president of the New Jersey Food Truck Association and owner and operator of Aroy-D, The Thai Elephant.
“Like things often do, the trend jumped coasts and took off in New York,” he said. “Unfortunately, it took off on the wrong foot there.”
Many trucks, Hepner said, operate illegally without permits or by transferring permits from one operator to another.
“There is a 10-year wait for proper permits because they were all bought up in the 1980s and sold to the highest bidders,” he said. “Plus, there is no place for these trucks to park, so, as they operate and park illegally, they simply factor tickets into their budgets.”
It’s too late and too far down the road to fix the situation in New York, Hepner said, but that gives New Jersey an opportunity to provide better industry standards.
It will take some doing to get everyone to agree on how.
“Rutgers University, for example, used to have ‘grease trucks’ on College Avenue, which was a great spot to park and vend at the time,” Hepner said. “However, the university disbanded that and scattered the trucks for a number of reasons.
“Keeping trucks in a static location promotes ‘roach coaches’ — tires go flat, trucks are not kept up and they become eyesores and a blight on the industry.
“I am an advocate for mobile trucks to remain mobile in order to maintain the dynamics of the industry.”
“When I first opened my truck in 2011, there were just over a dozen gourmet food trucks in New Jersey,” he said. “Today, there are over 350.
“We are tremendously revitalizing the economy in New Jersey.”
In 2013, Hepner and other food truck owners and operators recognized the rapid growth of the industry in the state and took it upon themselves to organize the New Jersey Food Truck Association, of which Hepner is president, to collectively regulate and support mobile dining experiences in the state.
Though the association began collecting members only last year, it has nearly 60 members thus far.
It’s easy to see why, with low startup costs around $90,000 and average annual revenue over $250,000, according to Mobile Cuisine online magazine.
But New Jersey — as dense and diverse a population as it has — presents unique challenges to a seemingly laid back industry.
“It is cold five months of the year here,” Hepner said. “And events are often canceled due to weather concerns. But we still have expenses to pay.”
Food trucks are also not immune to New Jersey’s infamous red tape.
For example, the New Jersey Food Truck Association mostly spends its time advocating for the statewide standardization of food and health codes, permits and inspections.
“We have to deal with different inspectors and departments every single time we move to a different event, festival, office park, birthday party,” Hepner said. “And we’re not official kitchens, so most inspectors do not even know what they’re looking for on a food truck.”
Yet, somehow, despite the fact that most towns in New Jersey still do not allow food trucks to operate, the high market demand for food trucks has created its own headaches.
“Many towns have put a cap on how many trucks they issue permits to in a given year,” Hepner said. “Hoboken, for example, only issues 25 permits — making it seem a lot like a liquor license in that way.”
Finding spaces in which to create the product can also prove difficult.
“There is not enough commissary kitchen space in New Jersey to accommodate the food trucks that are here,” Hepner said. “And renting kitchen space is almost as expensive as renting a restaurant.”
Food trucks are not necessarily meant to replace restaurants.
In fact, many operators find it’s worthwhile to move into brick-and-mortar restaurants to increase their kitchen space and production volume.
Jersey food truck events
According to Jon Hepner, president of the New Jersey Food Truck Association, there are now more than 1,000 food truck festivals in the state.
But if you missed the two largest events over the past few weeks — The Jersey Shore Food Truck Festival at Monmouth Park in Oceanport and the Jerseyfest Food Truck Mash-Up at The Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford — you can still catch Food Trucktoberfest on Sept. 17 at Monmouth Park.
Take Carlos Serrano, founder and CEO of Empanada Guy — one of the fastest growing food truck businesses on the East Coast.
“I get nearly 50 emails a day from companies wanting to hire us for corporate lunches or from building owners whose employees are tired of the local cafeteria or fast food,” he said. “It’s so demanding right now. I have the most food trucks in the Northeast and I cannot keep up.”
Serrano began his career in food 15 years ago by cooking empanadas in his garage and selling them to delis and restaurants.
Now, he owns nine trucks and a restaurant in Freehold as of 2014, selling an average of 150,000 empanadas per month at around $4 each.
“It can be done,” Serrano said.
Exactly how his business model works is a secret Serrano is proud of.
“We make more money at festivals within five or six hours of operation, but long-term, we are still making more money at our permanent locations,” Serrano said.
Trucks at such locations — in Port Reading, Old Bridge, Morris Plains, Iselin, South River and Brick — typically spend hours parked in the same spot before packing up and heading home.
That’s not a model many other food trucks in New Jersey have been able to emulate, due to unsurprisingly antiquated laws regulating the consistent movement of food trucks.
“The politicians in New Jersey need to take the time to revise all of their bylaws from the 1960s, when most food trucks were nowhere near what they are today,” Serrano said. “The problem is that they are comparing our food trucks today to the ice cream trucks of yesterday.”
Barlettano’s Surf and Turf Truck will never be confused for the Good Humor man.
Surf and Turf Truck prides itself on fresh, sustainable, premium ingredients for its famous lobster rolls.
And though the beach-themed truck’s busy season is April through October, Surf and Turf Truck finds ways to stay in demand year-round.
“In the winter of last year, we worked Monday through Friday at office parks while also catering here and there for private parties,” Barlettano said.
The Polkadot Cupcake Shop in Nutley also is popular for high-end functions all year.
Polkadot, rated one of the Top 13 Food Trucks for Weddings by NJ Bride magazine for its notorious cocktail cupcakes, was hired for Wendy Williams’ book signing and the celebrity wedding of Jennifer Lynn “JWoww” Farley.
That validates all the work she’s put into it, owner Arlene M. Altschuler said.
“Not only are your regular customers loving it, but somebody, somehow, got your name out there,” she said.
It could’ve been any one of the nearly 2,000 customers she is able to serve from her truck in a day.
Thank goodness there are usually only a few hundred wedding guests who leave with party favors ranging from decadent cupcakes to mini pies to candy apples.
“People are always looking to add something new and exciting to their wedding and, with the food truck craze, more and more clients started reaching out about creating sweet treats for the guests on their way out,” Altschuler said.
The cuisine and unique business ideas gourmet food trucks have been able to present have opened up profitable markets for what should be a seasonal business.
“I’m booked now into October with public events,” Altschuler said. “That’s typical of private events to be booked that far in advance, but public — that shows growth for food trucks in New Jersey.”
The food truck industry is not filled with a bunch of line cooks taking their efforts on the road.
Business in the state is attracting culinary veterans, such as F. Scott Belgard.
Classically trained in France and having worked in restaurants in New York City and the Caribbean for over 25 years, Belgard’s original goal was to open various themed restaurants in the state to promote his brands under Pompier Catering and Cuisine: Pompier Street, Pierogi Flats and Carib.
However, he said, with what’s now happening with the industry, it makes sense to expand each of his brands by concentrating on trucks.
“This year alone, we are projecting to grow 60 percent,” he said.
He feels it could be more.
“We are just being bogged down by a lot of red tape and bureaucracy,” Belgard said. “Once that red tape is cut, the industry will grow even more.”
You want to start a food truck?
F. Scott Belgard, owner of Pompier Catering and Cuisine, knows just how many people join his industry every day.
He’s not concerned that the New Jersey market will become overly saturated.
“It is not as easy as anyone thinks to make it in this business — it is very laborious,” he said. “The market has a way of washing out. There are so many people entering the industry who do not have the background experience and do not realize what it takes to make this work.
“You have to know what to do for the business and then you have to know what you’re doing with food.”
To be successful, he said, you must know what people want, what the gaps are and how to execute it correctly.
It might help to be familiar with what the National Restaurant Association said are the top food truck trends for this year: hyper-locally sourced meats, seafood and produce; environmental sustainability; healthy kids’ meals; authentic ethnic cuisine; and cooking dishes using ingredients from scratch.
Product quality is everything, said Carlos Serrano, founder and CEO of Empanada Guy.
“You need an excellent product with great branding that the market is screaming for,” he said. “Why would someone stand on line to eat your product?”
Serrano also advises having a large amount of capital with which to start.
“You need to have money to make money,” he said. “For example, you are not allowed to prep food in your home. Trucks just starting out often have to do everything in their truck. So, you need a day just to prep with limited refrigeration and storage.”
That’s why it’s imperative to know where to go on the days in which one is available to make income, Jon Hepner, owner of Aroy-D, The Thai Elephant, said.
“Trucks have to be smart which events they choose because, sometimes, there are events in which no one shows up,” he said.
According to Mobile Cuisine, the top food truck location market segment last year was on the street (55 percent). Other successful locations included venues and events (18 percent), construction sites (15 percent) and shopping malls (12 percent).
It might not only be time for New Jersey to open its law books, but also to look to what other states are doing to capitalize on the opportunities food trucks present.
“In Portland, Oregon, for example, they have around 30 food truck pods,” Hepner said. “These are usually city blocks with about eight to 10 trucks each, with tables and chairs, in which people working in Portland come together at and have lunch.
“I wish we could do something like that here in Jersey.”
The closest and perhaps most perfect, according to Hepner, representation of what revising statewide food truck laws could do for the economy is most visible in Hoboken.
“Hoboken, in my opinion, promotes one of the best food truck models in the country,” Hepner said. “At the biergarten on Pier 13, food trucks line up seven days a week. All trucks park and plug in to electricity where they are supposed to, set up shop and vend.”
This creates a rotation of trucks that can provide a variety of food and an incentive for customers to keep returning each day.
“Our industry can therefore offer something to the public that nobody else can,” Hepner said.
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