The Pros and Cons of Going Mobile
Chefs and restaurateurs weigh in on how food trucks stack up against bricks and mortar.
People line up for food trucks
Photo by Lori Eanes
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Open the doors and wait for customers, or take your food on the road? What is the better business move in an era of skyrocketing Bay Area rents and expenses?
As Bay Area commercial rents predictably rise in tandem with housing costs, some restaurateurs are abandoning bricks and mortar for four wheels and a propane tank. But others have been happy to park their trucks and leave behind the associated maintenance challenges for regular hours and a bigger kitchen.
Jay-Ar Isagani Pugau opened a vegan Filipino restaurant in 2010, but closed it one year later. Then he made the switch to his East Bay-based food truck, No Worries. “The overhead is still less than having a brick and mortar,” the 36-year-old said. With a permanent location, even on slow days, “you still have to pay your staff, pay electricity, pay water. With a food truck, if you’re not out there, you don’t have to have a full staff.” Pugau said his brick-and-mortar rent was three times the cost of his commissary kitchen expenses, “which is, to me, a huge difference. I’m able to pay for my commissary kitchen for just a few days.” In two weeks of running a food truck, Pugau covers his monthly expenses and begins to bank profit. “The overhead is a lot lower with a food truck,” he said.
“I can bring my passion, my food, to the people,” Pugau said. “I don’t have to wait for people to come through the door. It’s very satisfying.”
Lorenzo Puertas, 43, is the longtime owner of Croll’s Pizza in Alameda, which closed in October, after his landlord declined to renew the lease. “We looked all over Alameda for a physical space,” he said. “We had a really good business. Croll’s was incredibly busy. It was really a shame to lose it. Every day that we’re closed, we’re losing thousands of dollars.”
Undaunted, Puertas searched for a truck with pizza-baking capabilities and had a soft opening in December, setting up at Alameda Point next to a Christmas tree lot. “The most important thing to me is to be able to maintain the quality of the pizza,” he said. “The money is very secondary; you can make it work.” He likened cooking in a food truck to camping. “You have to be thoughtful about the space and methodical about prep. It’s very different. There’s a learning curve. We’ve had to adjust the dough recipe and the [baking] time.” And Puertas views the economics differently than does Pugau: “It’s not any less expensive for us as a pizzeria.”
Puertas plans to use the pizza truck as his workaround for finding a brick-and-mortar site in Alameda: “Our goal is to come back to Alameda permanently,” with a possible truck location at the West End. Since most of his original business was takeout, the clientele will be the same, he said. And with a still-devoted following, Puertas foresees good prospects when the dust settles.
At Paul Skrentny’s last restaurant stint, he worked eight months straight without a day off. “I want to be able to spend time with my wife; have a weekend once in a while,” said Skrentny, 53, who recently left the kitchen at McGee’s in Alameda to start his own food truck, the Eats & Treats Truck. Although long hours are standard in the industry, Skrentny likes the flexibility of going mobile. “With a brick and mortar, you have to keep your hours; with a truck, you can pick and choose,” he said. “I can make almost the same amount in a day with fewer employees.”
Gail Lillian, 43, of Liba Falafel, started her business with a food truck and has made the leap to opening a restaurant in Oakland. “The restaurant is a lot easier than the truck, which is saying a lot,” she said. Vehicle maintenance was a major issue for her business when she relied on just the truck. “When something breaks, it could put us out for a few days,” she said. “That kind of thing doesn’t usually happen in a restaurant. It is a 12,000-pound kitchen that’s driving all over the Bay Area.”
But having a food truck “helped us polish our brand and open the restaurant with a finished product,” Lillian said. “The truck first allowed us to fine-tune who our customer is.”
Jim Angelus of Bacon Bacon, who started out with a truck and built his fleet up to three trucks and a café in San Francisco, has just opened a second brick-and-mortar space near AT&T Park. In his experience, both trucks and cafes have benefits and drawbacks. But starting a food truck is not the easy way out, in his opinion. “It’s a misconception,” the 47-year-old said. “It’s not cheaper rent.”