Meals on wheels
by Larry Aylward
Chris Hodgson is a young, educated, hip chef in Cleveland. Every day he serves up fancy-food dishes like milk-braised pork bahn and whole-wheat cous cous with Szechuan beef and pickled peppers. You’d think Hodgson rules the kitchen at some swank downtown restaurant in the rock ‘n’ roll city, but he’s serving his gourmet cuisine out of a four-wheel truck known as Dim and Den Sum.
Hodgson, who attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz., caught a ride on the recent food-truck boom going on in the United States after realizing the widespread popularity of street food. Dim and Den Sum, which debuted last April, has been on a roll. Hodgson says his truck sells out of product daily in a matter of about 45 minutes.
“We show up at places and there are 60 or 70 people waiting for us,” says Hodgson, 24, who was a chef at The Spotted Pig, a top restaurant in New York City, before returning to his hometown of Cleveland to begin Dim and Den Sum. (In Chinese, “Dim” and “Sum” mean “small treasures of the heart,” Hodgson notes.)
Street food in the U.S. has been reinvented and reinterpreted the last two years to reflect the changing ways Americans eat, according to “Street Food: Culinary Trend Mapping Report” from the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) and Packaged Facts. “The economic downturn, consumers’ consequent need for more affordable food, the growing consumer snacking habit, a desire for global flavor adventure and interest in local, sustainable foods all come together in this emerging trend,” the report states.
High quality, low overhead
One early morning after a night on the town in New York City, the scruffy-bearded Hodgson hit up a taco truck for a late-night food fix. Hodgson convinced himself he could execute the concept better, so he went back to Cleveland and began formulating his plan. Hodgson bought a truck and began serving gourmet food creations like ground lamb burgers, braised short ribs, pig-ear tacos and chicken tostadas. Some of his servings are delicacies.
“I take pig heads, make head cheese out of them and then make fried head-cheese sandwiches,” he says. “I call it ‘face-it’ bacon. It’s solid.”
Gourmet food and high-quality cuisine is one major trend that’s driving street food, according to the CCD.
“Street foods provide another avenue for consumers to explore new flavor adventures at an accessible value,” says Kimberly Egan, the CEO of CCD.
The street-food revolution is sweeping the country and top chefs are leading the charge. In Portsmouth, N.H., Josh Lanahan, a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef, is making the rounds in a truck called Fresh Local. Lanahan works as the cook and his fiancée, Michelle Lozuaway, is the host.
Lozuaway says most people expect trained chefs to be preparing fancy evening meals at first-rate restaurants, not running food trucks. But Lanahan and Lozuaway are having a blast. They’re serving up some cool creations, including the perrito – for “perfect burrito” – a Lanahan invention. The perrito is reconstructed pita bread with a crispy flair. It’s stuffed with a variety of foods with meat and poultry often as the centerpiece.
“The perrito is a perfect carrier for any sandwich,” Lozuaway says, adding that one variety is a burger perrito, which features a ground-beef patty, mustard, onions, pickles and cheese.
Other popular products served by Fresh Local are porchetta, a slow-roasted Italian pork that’s as popular as a perrito and as a sandwich. Lozuaway says chicken bahn mi, a Vietnamese-style sandwich served on a French baguette, is also a favorite.
“It’s the hot new sandwich,” Lozuaway says of the chicken bahn mi. It contains chicken strips and vegetables, including onion and cilantro.
Not all food trucks are guided by formally trained chefs. In Austin, Texas, there’s a food truck traveling the streets known as Mmmpanadas, and it’s captained by Cody Fields, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from the Univ. of Texas. Fields built wastewater-treatment plants in Central America for about five years before returning to Texas to launch his business. The 31-year-old Fields might not be a traditional chef, but he is passionate about the food business.
While living in Costa Rica, Fields fell in love with empanadas, a Spanish- and Portuguese-stuffed bread that contains meat, poultry and other items. Back in Texas, he and his wife, Kristen, began making their own empanadas.
In 2007, Fields got the crazy idea of buying a truck to sell his empanadas. He found a Fed Ex-style truck on e-bay and bought it for $20,000. Three years later, the business is going well.
“We branded the truck for empanadas,” Fields says. “We’re a straight-up street food. It’s grab and go.”
Mmmpanadas sells 18 varieties of its hand-held pocket sandwiches. The green chili chicken empanada is the top seller. The Argentinian beef, seasoned ground beef with olives and hard boiled egg, is also popular.
“We take a lot of pride in our empanadas and the ingredients we use,” Fields says. “We developed our own recipes. We have a fantastic crust.”
Fields say empanadas weren’t well known in Austin prior to his arrival. Of course, he’s trying to change that.
“Sometimes we have to educate people what they are,” Fields says, noting that he often tells customers that empanadas are like meat pies.The empanadas are about 6-inches round, weigh 5 ozs. and sell for $3.50 each. He got the idea of selling empanadas from a truck after seeing how popular food trucks were in Central America.
“There are trucks there that try to duplicate restaurants with full menus,” he adds. “Street food is no big deal there.”
Thanks to Dim and Den Sum, street food is now a big deal in Cleveland. Hodgson has the media coverage to prove it, from being interviewed on TV several times to being featured in the city’s newspapers.
But Dim and Den Sum is a big deal mainly because of its food. Its biggest seller is the PBLT, a pulled pork, half-inch bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich that weighs a whopping 13 ozs. and costs a mere $6.50.
“It’s for pork lovers,” Hodgson says. “It’s always on the menu.”
Hodgson changes his menu weekly, with the exception of the PBLT. He also plans to introduce some rather exotic offerings, including lion burgers.
“We’ll have a line for the lion burgers,” he quips.
Whether it’s lion, beef or chicken, many food-truck operators buy only from suppliers they know and trust. Many of them are local.
Hodgson uses grass-fed beef from a local farmer. He pays $3.29 a lb. for the grass-fed beef, which is his highest food cost, but he says it’s worth it.
“I like the flavor more,” he says of the beef. “It’s more natural. It’s also leaner. I mix in a little ground pork to add a little fat.”
Fresh Local buys sausage from a local sausagemaker, who makes bratwurst, knockwurst, liverwurst and Italian sausage. Lanahan uses the sausage in perritos with peppers and onions.
“We try to buy meat locally as much as possible,” Lozuaway says. “We have a neighbor who raises cows in small herds, and we buy from him as much as possible. We like to know where [the meat and poultry] come from – how it’s raised and slaughtered.”
What roach coach?
Even though food trucks are ruling the streets nationwide, most all of them have had to deal with the “roach coach” stigma.
Hodgson had to deal with the negative perception, but it wasn’t difficult. Once people realized he was a schooled chef serving top-shelf food, the roach-coach label subsided.
“The word got out, and it kept spreading,” Hodgson says.
Fresh Local has had to deal with the roach-coach label as well.
“You just have to take the time to explain to people what you’re doing,” Lozuaway says. “We tell people we’re not a roach coach, and that we’re a full restaurant on wheels.”
Fields says the stereotype has rarely surfaced with Mmmpanadas.
“People have mentioned it, but the whole food-truck scene has changed the perception of that,” he says. “We’re not selling pre-made dollar tacos.”
Regarding the trucks, they’re often as much a part of the show as the food. They’re painted with sometimes loud and colorful designs and serve as a mobile-marketing tool. Hodgson’s truck features a red octopus-like looking creature.
But everyone agrees a cool-looking truck will only get you so far. The food has to be good. “The thing that speaks the loudest about your business is your food,” Lozuaway says. “That’s your best advertisement.”
Of course, the trucks are as practical as much as they are pretty. They have to be. Some foods, like burgers, must be cooked on the trucks. Other foods need to be reheated and kept warm.
Lanahan and Lozuaway grind their own beef for their burgers. Most of the food sold on the truck is made in their restaurant of the same name.
“We cook on the truck, but it’s not as extensive,” Lozuaway says.
Hodgson and his crew prepare food in the morning, load up the truck and head for the streets. There are three people on the truck, including Hodgson. Two people cook (one being Hodgson) and one person takes orders. “We set up somewhere by 11 a.m. and we run out of food by 12:15 p.m.,” he says.
Dim and Den Sum also does a late-night run on Fridays and Saturdays where crowds gather.
Fields, who is also selling his empanadas at retail, plans to use his truck to conduct food demonstrations outside establishments carrying his products. “The truck is a really great way for us to help launch our brand,” he says.
Even an established retail sausagemaker, Jody Maroni, is getting on the food truck bandwagon. Maroni, who got his start in 1979 by hawking hot dogs with “weird and crazy combos” from behind a hot dog cart on the Venice Beach, Calif., says food trucks are the rage in Southern California.
Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdoms are located in airports, ballparks, convention centers, boardwalks and casinos throughout California and as far east as St. Louis. The chain sells a variety of specialty sausage, from Smoked Chicken Mole to Toulouse Garlic, a pork variety. But Maroni, who says he’s tried his products in a “gazillion different places,” says there are still “a gazillion different places I can still try them.”
One is a food truck. The concept reminds Maroni, who’s a people person, of his early days at Venice Beach. “It really gets you out with the people,” he says.
Getting a food truck up and running does take some leg work. In one word: regulations. Hodgson has a three-ring binder filled with permits, including a certification letter from the local health department. Recently, his truck had been inspected three times in two weeks. “You need permits for everything,” Hodgson says.
Running a food truck is also a lot of hard work. It’s not uncommon for owners to put in 70 to 80 hours a week. For instance, Fields and his wife make every empanada by hand, about 100 dozen a week.
It also takes time for a food truck to become established. The owners have discovered that social media, including Twitter and Facebook, is a godsend to their businesses. They use the online tools to announce where their trucks will be located daily. Soon before he rolled out the truck, Hodgson sent a mass e-mail to food bloggers to let them know about Dim and Den Sum.
Because of Facebook and Twitter, Hodgson says he hasn’t had to hire a public relations company to help him promote the business. The truck has nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter and about 5,000 on Facebook.
Hodgson couldn’t be happier the way things are going. He believes the down economy is driving the success of food trucks everywhere.
“I’m serving the same meats and vegetables that you’ll pay $40 for at restaurants,” Hodgson says. “But I’m serving it on the street. I don’t have to pay rent, and I don’t have to pay for plates and servers. We have little overhead, and our menu prices range from $3 to $7.”
Hodgson pauses and smiles. “I didn’t think we’d be this popular,” he says. “I’m still in a daze about it.”