On leaving the brick and mortar for the mobile restaurant

Courtesy of The French Twist

In the movie, Chef, Jon Favreau as Chef Carl Casper storms out of the brickand-mortar world after a scathing review and a public display of outrage at the reviewer. He eventually decides to “take it back to something simple,” finding his passion and joy again as he opens a food truck. The plot is a common one: jaded protagonist reinvents himself and discovers new meaning in life, but Chef touches on more than one man’s journey to regain vision. Chef also brings new focus to the food truck industry and some of the reasons behind the increasing number of gourmet chefs leaving birck-and-mortar fine dining to run a truck.

Food trucks have been around in some form or another in the States since the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 2008 in L.A. with the opening of Kogi BBQ by Chef Roy Choi that the scene truly exploded. Not only did food trucks allow chefs more freedom to explore their passion and be fully in charge of what they wanted to present to their customers. With the recession of that same year, opening a food truck became a cheaper alternative for chefs who had been considering establishing a brick-and-mortar restaurant. And with the simultaneous rise in smart phones and social media applications, it was the perfect storm. Food trucks have planted themselves firmly and successfully in the culinary world of cities across the nation.

For Michael DeBoer, chef and co-owner of The French Twist food truck, opening a truck was also his ticket to running a business in Boulder where he grew up, and where his parents still live.

“Boulder has a great restaurant and food culture, but I didn’t have the money to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. We barely had the money to do the food truck,” he says. Using locally sourced, fresh ingredients, The French Twist offers “mobile cuisine beyond the routine” with their French-influenced, made-from-scratch fine food. With items like frogs Provençal and escargot, along with salade Niçoise, duck confit and croque mademoiselle, DeBoer hopes to set the bar for the local food truck scene.

The financial reasons were not the only appeal to the DeBoers in opening a The French Twist. A truck is a smaller, more intimate environment and lends itself well to being a more family-friendly enterprise. With fewer concerns about maintaining and managing a large staff, Michael has been able to partner with his wife, Lori, and even allow their teenage son to work the truck and gain valuable hands-on experience in running a business. “It’s an exciting, innovative environment,” Michael notes, and “it’s also a great way to test a concept and build a following.”

With Lori’s food writing and editorial background, The French Twist has had little trouble building that following through their strong social media presence, a key component to the success of any food truck since people have to be able to find the truck.

But social media alone won’t win fans. The food has to be consistent and good. With over 25 years of experience working in high-end restaurants, combined with his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, DeBoer is confident in his ability to provide fresh, unique dishes with something for everyone. “Some of our guests are trying French food for the first time. In that way, truck fare is kind of like a ‘gateway’ food to high-end dining.”

Food trucks are not enjoyed by everyone, however. Brick-and-mortar establishments have expressed mounting fears and resentment toward what they feel are unfair advantages. And some say that certain cities, like Boulder, have created prohibitive rules that restrict food trucks in order to “protect” restaurants. But in many cities across the nation, those rules have been deemed unconstitutional.

“It’s not the responsibility of government to protect businesses from competition; we didn’t protect The Kitchen from Salt opening right next door. Plus, if a brick-and-mortar can’t compete against a food truck, they’ve got bigger issues to contend with,” DeBoer says.

Additionally, DeBoer feels there is no unfair competitive advantage of food trucks over brick and mortars.

“Certainly, the cost to entry is lower, but food trucks do not run the volume of business that brick-andmortar restaurants do; it’s not even close. We are highly weather and seasonal dependent and do not have the advantage of continuous operating hours.” Add to that the high turnover of owners with a lack of restaurant experience who get into the food truck business thinking life will be smooth and easy, not realizing the amount of work and energy it takes to operate.

A food truck can be more labor intensive than a restaurant. Everything shakes and bounces and requires regular maintenance. Chefs at restaurants are able to stay in one location for their 12-15 hour days. It is intense work, but different than the more gypsy lifestyle of food truck chefs.

“With a food truck, breakfast is at one location, then you go back to the commissary to clean and reload for lunch. Then you do the same routine for lunch and dinner. You are basically loading your kitchen before every service and unloading it afterwards.”

And food trucks don’t have the purchasing power a larger restaurant would have, forcing them to look for more creative ways to keep costs down. And without the storage space a restaurant enjoys, many food truck operators look to shared commissaries where several vendors rent space to store, prepare and receive food.

“We’re tired but having a blast,” Lori says.

And Boulder’s recent discussions regarding the diversity that food trucks can add to a community has the DeBoers, as well as other vendors, excited for the upcoming Boulder Food Park which will give trucks a location from which to operate year-round.

As more cities pave the way toward removing regulations, the food truck trend will continue its upward growth. And increasingly, brick and mortars are seeing the value toward adding a food truck to their operation. A truck gives chefs the ability to experiment with edgier dishes that may be too risqué for the restaurant; offers charity and catering opportunities for restaurants; and even gives brick and mortars a chance to research a new location.

The DeBoers are happy occupying the food truck niche for now, enjoying the invigorating and thrilling experience, as well as the ability to interact with their customers more than they would be able to in a restaurant. And the customers seem to love the DeBoers, demonstrated in their happy chatter across social media and their encouragement to friends and whomever will listen to go try The French Twist.

“You’d be surprised how many people ask me where our restaurant is,” DeBoer says. “And I tell them: ‘I’m standing in front of it.’”