Meals on wheels

Meals on wheels

2015 could be regarded as the Year of the Food Truck in Champaign-Urbana. Public awareness of the mobile eateries has grown rapidly thanks in part to vendors' participation in local festivals and Urbana's organization of a monthly food truck rally. Yet the inner workings of these roaming purveyors of gourmet grub are a mystery to many.

In the beginning

For most local food truck operators, the action begins in a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen, not inside the vehicle.

According to Caribbean Grill executive chef and owner Mike Harden, "Our food truck concept is a bit different in that we don't cook anything on board. We prepare Caribbean Grill's menu in our commercial kitchen, and only serve from our food truck."

For Cracked: The Egg Came First, "all the prep is done in the warehouse," owner Daniel Krause said, speaking about his company's home base. That includes cutting bread, making guacamole and brewing coffee. "Nothing is really done on the truck" except for the final steps of cooking eggs to order and making sandwiches.

At Dragon Fire Pizza, on the other hand, "we do everything except for the dough on the truck. The dough we prep at a commissary kitchen," said Dave Saam, who opened the truck with his wife, Christy. "Otherwise, all the fresh veggies and stuff like that we chop by hand, usually the morning of."

An early start

Work for the day begins long before a truck parks and opens to customers.

By the time Cracked's crew comes in at 7 a.m. to grab the truck, hopefully to open by 8 a.m., the prep person has already been long at work, Krause said.

Harden said, "It takes us about four to five hours every morning to get set to go. We start as early as 6 a.m. on most days, and even earlier if we also have other catering orders to fill."

"Typically for lunches, we're open from about 11 to 2 and we actually start our prep around 9 o'clock in morning for that to happen," Saam said. Dragon Fire's crew starts by checking they've got enough wood and fuel before going to the day's location, lighting the oven and preparing their ingredients.

Not that cramped

From the outside, the interior of a food truck may look a little small.

But according to Krause, "It's actually fairly spacious, more so than you would think. Three people are comfortable; four people gets a little bit crowded; and then five people is a pretty tight squeeze. But depending on the shift and how busy we're going to be, like a farmers' market for example, it's not uncommon for us to have six people on the truck. It gets a little tight, but you kind of stay in one spot."

Finding a spot

What goes into picking out a location? "A little bit of planning, a little bit of hope, and a little bit of luck, I suppose," Saam said.

At first, it was trial and error, he said, but things changed as Dragon Fire began to develop a following.

"Now we go by kind the history of what we've experienced there," he said. "Why do we go downtown on Tuesdays? Because one of the first days we went there was a Tuesday and just happened to be the day that was available and now it's kind of turned into routine, so people kind of know that Tuesday is pizza day downtown."

Repetition is key, Saam said, as it takes a few visits to determine if a site will be worth returning to in the long run.

"Cheap" eats?

Many regard food trucks as less expensive to operate than a normal restaurant, and in many ways that's true. But mobile proprietors say it doesn't mean their business is a cheap one to get into.

"Operating a food truck is definitely not as inexpensive as it might seem," Harden said. "Even though you have the food truck, you still have to also have a commercial kitchen space to operate out of, which has to be permitted and insured separately.

"You've got labor, taxes, marketing, unforeseen expenses, and not to mention, we take a gamble each day that we set up shop, in terms of the number of customers we might have. Just like any other business, there are definitely risks and challenges, so its really not as simple as it might look."

End of service

When the business day is done, it's not as easy as driving off into the sunset. First, equipment must be shut off, surfaces cleaned and items packed.

"We have to break down our cash register system, store utensils and other small wares, clean equipment and surfaces, sweep, mop, discard the trash, and secure any moving parts inside before we head back to the kitchen," Harden said. "We've also got to load our 400-pound generator, hitch the trailer up, lock all the windows and door, then we are ready to hit the road."

"This is one of the fun parts of a food truck that a brick-and-mortar doesn't get ... Every time you go somewhere, you've got to strap everything down," Saam said. "We've got a place for everything, where it sits and gets latched in or bungeed in or what have you, so hopefully nothing moves. Every now and then things surprise us, but that hasn't been for a while yet."

Where the magic happens

Space is at a premium inside a food truck, necessitating a thoughtful layout tailored to the foods being served and an efficient workflow for the employees creating them. Thus, the equipment one finds inside often varies from truck to truck. For instance, a roving kitchen specializing in burgers and fries will devote much of its space to a flattop griddle and deep fryers, while a pizza mobile will focus on prep tables and ovens. A 16-foot-by-8-foot truck devoted to paninis, a type of pressed sandwich, might contain this:

1. Large propane tank, for fueling gas-powered cooking equipment.

2. Wastewater tank, for sanitation.

3. Cabinet housing an electrical generator, linked to the truck's fuel tank, with shelving or cabinets above for storage.

4. Gas-fueled two-burner stove.

5. Flattop griddle, suitable for frying. An oven may be built-in underneath.

6. Radiant charbroiler, for grilling.

7. Sandwich prep station, with refrigerated cabinets underneath.

8. Double-lidded panini press.

9. Non-slip floor mats, for safety.

10. Triple-pedestal sink, for dishwashing.** A freshwater tank, electric water heater and water pump are integrated beneath.

11. Hand-washing station.

12. Under-counter refrigerator, for storing uncooked meats.

13. Drink cooler.

14. Storage shelves, or maybe a potato-chip rack.

15. Service window and foldable exterior shelf, for customers' use.

Who's out there?

Many food trucks operate regularly in the Champaign-Urbana area, including:

Cracked: The Egg Came First

Dragon Fire Pizza

Hendrick House

Caribbean Grill

Burrito King

Pandamonium Donuts

Chester's BBQ

Fusilli Tony's

Taco Motorizado

Derald's Cafe

Empanadas House

Cool Bliss Popped Bliss

Kona Ice of Champaign

Piato-To-Go

Good 2 Go

Tang Dynasty

Pop Stop

Where are they?

While the best bet for tracking down particular vendors is to follow them on Twitter or Facebook, the cities have established spots where you're most likely to stumble upon them:

Permitted food vending locations in Champaign, as of February 2015:

Neil Street loading zone, just north of University Avenue.

Main Street, west of Walnut.

Walnut Street loading zone, just north of Main Street, restricted from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily.

Neil Street/Washington parking lot, in the north section of the lot.

Wright Street loading zone, just south of Green Street.

Fifth Street loading zone, south of Green Street.

Sixth Street loading zone, south of Healey, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily.

Public parking lots and any private property willing to allow them to set up.

Urbana allows food trucks to park in any metered space not defined as a "short-term" (two hours or less) space, as long as the truck doesn't obstruct traffic or bicycle lanes or park directly in front of an existing business. They are also allowed in public lots and, with the owner's permission, on private property.

One of the most established spots in Urbana is Matthews Avenue, just south of Springfield Avenue.

Trucks also sometimes congregate in the Urbana Civic Center parking lot, site of the monthly Urbana Food Truck Rally.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Food, Restaurants

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