Food truck a launchpad for merchants on the move

The owners of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, Ben Van Leeuwen (left), Laura O'Neill and Pete Van Leeuwen, in front of one of their trucks in the hipster-oriented Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Their trucks have led to the opening of three stores.
The owners of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, Ben Van Leeuwen (left), Laura O'Neill and Pete Van Leeuwen, in front of one of their trucks in the hipster-oriented Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Their trucks have led to the opening of three stores. (JEFFREY FURTICELLA / Associated Press)
Posted: August 07, 2012

NEW YORK - Putting the cart before the store was the right recipe for ice cream maker Buck Buchanan.

Back in 2001, Buchanan was a stay-at-home father using his training as a chef to give cooking lessons to supplement his wife's income. Boredom set in and he decided to start a gourmet ice cream cart. Later, he added a truck - and drove to concerts and sporting events to sell his treats. In March, he opened his first Lumpy's Ice Cream shop in downtown Wake Forest, N.C.

"My thought was to build a clientele, build a customer base, so when I actually opened the store, people would flock to it," Buchanan said. After about five years, "people started hollering and screaming on Facebook: 'I love your ice cream, but I can't get it anywhere.' "

Buchanan waited until he was sure he had enough customers to support a store. His found a spot downtown, which is being revitalized. The location also has parking.

"The goal is to be the ice cream king of North America," Buchanan said. But he wants first to be sure that there'll be even more demand for Lumpy's chocolate, vanilla and specialty flavors such as Jamaican Joy, which includes pineapple and raisins soaked in rum. In addition to the cart, truck and store, Lumpy's sells ice cream at parties and special events and to restaurants and stores such as Whole Foods.

Lumpy's is part of a trend spawned by the proliferation of food trucks and carts in cities and suburbs across the country. Entrepreneurs who thought it would be cool and lucrative to sell gourmet tacos, barbecue, ice cream and other food from trucks are opening stores and restaurants to build on their success. They're proving that taking an idea and trying it out on a small scale - and in this case, putting on training wheels - is a prudent way to start a company.

Running the cart and truck also taught him a lot about how to run a business, Buchanan said. "We'd get a new contract and we'd figure out how we'd work the contract. We wouldn't grow any further until we figured it out. You never want to promise something and not be able to deliver."

Food trucks and carts have been around for generations. Most sell hot dogs, Popsicles and ice cream bars or are canteens on wheels that bring staple breakfast and lunch items to factories, auto repair shops and other businesses.

What's different about the mobile food vehicles that have cropped up in cities and suburbs in the last few years is that they serve trendy fare like Korean barbecue, Jamaican jerk chicken and cupcakes. They travel from one spot to another, often congregating in high-traffic areas. Some have websites or Facebook pages so fans can find out when they'll show up.

For entrepreneurs who dream of opening a restaurant, it's a cheaper, less risky way to get into business. If a cart or truck is at a location where it's not doing well, it's easily driven elsewhere. But an owner with a store in a bad location is stuck, usually with a lease. Restaurant failure rates are high - studies generally put it around 30 percent in the first year of operation. The trucks themselves are great advertising for mobile or fixed locations.

Most of this new generation of street food purveyors want to open a restaurant someday, said Jim Ellison, a food-court coordinator with the Economic Community Development Institute of Columbus, Ohio, who helps truck operators set up their businesses.

Flirty Cupcakes started its first truck in May 2010 and added a second one that December. The $60,000 start-up cost for each was significantly less than the $150,000 it took to open a bakery and restaurant in February. The low cost of operating the truck allowed owner Tiffany Kurtz to use the money she made to save up to open the store.

Having the store solved another problem. Cart and truck operators often must rent space in commercial kitchens to prepare the food they sell. But the popularity of carts and food trucks has resulted in big demand for kitchen space. And as their sales grow, owners need to rent more time. Kurtz found that she couldn't get all the time she needed to make her Devil in Disguise, Paradise Island, For the Love of Chocolate and other cupcakes. Having a bakery as part of the Flirty Cupcakes restaurant has eliminated that challenge. The space also is big enough to house her two trucks, which still hit the streets.


Find out more on Philadelphia's food truck scene - including winners of a local competition - at philly.com/vendys

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