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Top Story: On a roll

Seafood truck operators dish on the challenges of roadside vending

By Steve Coomes
December 05, 2011

When Colin Comer buys cod to fry and sell from his seafood truck, The Mobile Marlay, his order needs to be as exact as possible. If he requests more than he needs, his pricey purchase begins perishing. Too little and he runs out before satisfying his growing cadre of mobile customers.

And even though he’s part owner of Marlay House, a Decatur, Ga., pub that also serves fried cod, he can’t dump his excess inventory into its walk-ins; that business has its own established pars. And raiding its refrigerators when the truck’s supplies dwindle isn’t an option either; the truck roams the streets of Atlanta about an hour away, rendering a rapid replenishment trip out of the question.

“The hardest part of doing the truck is the forecasting part,” says Comer, the Dubliner’s Irish accent still thick despite living many years in America. “We can’t have too many days like the time we cut 50 pounds of fish for an event and only sold 15. The food truck is a totally different animal from the restaurant.”

Yet according to a new study from Chicago-based foodservice tracker Technomic, customer traffic at food trucks should rise steadily in the coming years, removing some of that unpredictability for operators like Comer.

“As we took a closer look at food trucks, we saw that the term ‘trend’ shortchanges what’s really a growing movement,” says Technomic director Kevin Higar, who visited 150 food trucks in three cities to compile his research. His study found that one in five consumers aren’t even aware food trucks exist as a high-quality food option, and of those who do know about them, only a third have patronized one. “This is just the beginning for food trucks, we think.”

That food trucks in general are migrating from the foodservice fringes to the mainstream pleases Comer, who’s surprised trucks took so long to catch on in the United States. “They were all over the place back home,” he says. “Since pubs there typically don’t do food, you expected to step outside one and see a food truck there late at night.”

He admits, however, that Ireland’s food truck scene never had the wide range of options he’s learned about here. There were no fish tacos or sushi or shellfish, nor were prices as high as here. The Lobster Truck, which has vehicles in New York and Washington, D.C., is charging $15 for lobster rolls, and Alex Tsamouras, chef and founder at Feelin’ Crabby’s in D.C., gets $11 for lump crab sandwiches and salads. On his Rockin’ Roll Sushi Truck in Los Angeles, chef-owner Roy Kim charges $8 per roll, while Comer fetches a comparably humble $6 for a fish and chips cone at Marlay.

“We’re putting 4 ounces of jumbo lump crab on our sandwiches, which is a good-size portion for $11,” says Tsamouras, who deliberately chose the large portion to compete with a Lobster Truck in his area. “The price for Maryland crab has gone as high as $25 a pound, so we’re blending it with some Indonesian blue-swimming crab. A quarter pound portion can limit your profit margins some, but we know people have to see it as a value.”


Comfort zones

The pace of business at Rockin’ Roll Sushi’s curbside post requires Kim to keep things simple for maximum throughput and profits.

“We have a lot of customers, and though we do sushi, we can’t do as many things like we do at our restaurant, so we keep it limited,” says Kim, who prepares a load of spicy tuna mixture at his restaurant before moving it to the truck for rapid rolling. “Less labor on the truck is important to feeding customers fast.”

Though Technomic’s research didn’t examine the ratio of seafood-only trucks to food trucks in general, Higar says, “My best guess is that it’s a fraction of the total, 10 percent at the most.” Ross Resnik, who manages marketing for Roaming Hunger, a promoter of food trucks in several markets, put the total number of food trucks nationwide at 1,800, and says there are approximately 65 dedicated to fish or sushi.

“There are a lot of trucks out there serving fish with other foods, but not a lot doing just fish,” he says. Some of that low number, he believes, is tied to Americans’ ever-tepid relationship with seafood. Since it’s still a small part of American diets overall, he says, “they might not be as ready to try it from a food truck.”

Higar says Technomic’s research revealed no reluctance to seafood trucks, and that seafood options were well regarded among the highest quality choices. But several operators say Resnik’s assumption of a mild customer seafood phobia has merit.

“We’re out there talking to customers about it, and some will say, ‘Oh, I don’t eat fish,’ or ‘I don’t like fish because it’s fishy,’” says Jack Garabedian, owner and chef of Jefe’s Original Fish Taco and Burgers in Miami. “So we do all we can to get them to just try it. We know that once you get them past all that, they wind up saying, ‘I never knew fish was this good.’”

Tsamouras agrees, saying, “Even handing out free samples of crab is hard. It’s like, ‘It’s free crab! C’mon! Take it!’” he laughs. He believes some customers’ reluctance is rooted more in food trucks’ “roach coach” past than in a general fear of seafood. “It’s tough to get them to see that it’s just as good a quality as they’ll get in a restaurant. In the beginning it was hard to do, but once we started getting some public praise, people became more open minded.”

To manage similar concerns about his sushi, Kim makes a point of telling customers that his fish is prepared at the restaurant, not in the truck. “We make the roll as ordered and use what we’ve already made,” he says. “And I think they’re more comfortable knowing we have a restaurant and aren’t just a truck.”

Kim says he has his own food-safety concerns about trucks, particularly their refrigeration systems.

“Not only is the system totally different, it’s not enough to keep the fish in the same fresh condition as refrigeration at the restaurant,” he says. “It’s not really a good idea to do all kinds of sushi with raw fish in a truck, which is why we just do the spicy tuna.”


Drive buy

To ensure freshness for Feelin’ Crabby’s food, Tsamouras drives directly to a seafood wholesaler for pickup, where he approves the catch. The seafood is then iced and kept refrigerated throughout the day, and if any remains, it’s returned to a kitchen where they rent space.

“But even when we have leftover crab, I don’t like to keep it more than a day,” he adds.

Since Garabedian keeps his inventory on his truck and uses an electric generator to back up his truck’s power over night, he’s admittedly obsessive about buying whole snapper and corvina from his wholesaler and wrapping, icing and refrigerating it during the day. If any remains at the close of business, he pulls out each portion, rewraps it, re-ices it and places it back in the reach-in. “We often run out on purpose just to make sure we’re getting fresh product and rotating inventory,” says Garabedian, a veteran chef of Miami’s Oceanaire Seafood Room. “After you’ve worked in that environment, you have to maintain your quality that high. It doesn’t matter that it’s a truck.”

Greg Casten, partner in Profish, a D.C.-area seafood wholesaler, has “around five truck guys who come right to the door and get their seafood,” but he suspects there are at least a few other truck customers whose seafood is procured through their restaurants. “It’s nice that we don’t have to deliver to the guys who don’t have restaurants,” Casten says. “It’s also good that they get to see what they’re buying right then and approve it.”

Casten says he’d be hard-pressed to examine his company’s revenue and isolate a sales increase due to seafood food trucks, but he believes they’ll have a greater impact over time.

“When you see how well ones like the Lobster Truck are doing — and nothing they sell is cheap — you get the feeling [seafood trucks] will be around a while,” says Casten, who also owns four seafood restaurants and is the president of Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW). “That’s a successful truck franchise that has a good product for the price people pay and they do good marketing. It’s a good business.”

Joe Cooper, VP of sales and marketing for Bristol Seafood in Portland, Maine, knows the company is serving seafood truck operators, “but I’ve got to admit, if I look at our sales, I don’t notice anything truly different. It’s just so new right now.”

Truck sales also are new to many cities that are struggling to figure out how best to let rolling restaurants operate among traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, businesses that often resent the behavior of some truck operators. In his RAMW role, Casten hears complaints about food trucks parking so close to restaurants that they draw sales from an existing business.

Such infringements have led some municipalities to limit how close a truck may park to a restaurant and for how long. Other cities are scrambling to update food-safety requirements to ensure food trucks meet standards already maintained by regular restaurants.

“I think it’s very important to level the playing field quickly, and I see myriad ways of doing that,” says Casten. He’s proposing RAMW members limit the number of trucks that can operate within a given area, and pinpointing specific locations within a city where trucks may gather. “There are issues, but they’re not unresolvable. There’s room for both out there, but we’ve got to figure out a way to make it work for both.”

Feelin’ Crabby’s Tsamouras, who averages $100 a week in parking tickets in the D.C. area, hopes current legislation will be less vague and more reasonable. Despite keeping parking meters full throughout the day, he’s restricted to no more than 2 hours in any one spot. That means he has to stake out spots early in the day, wait for lunchtime to come, and then have a Plan B if a meter officer forces him to leave.

“At first I was really mad about the added expense since it’s not like we’re making a ton of money doing this,” he says. But he eventually accepted his parking fines as a cost of doing business. “I know they’re doing their job when they ask me to leave, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Still, sometimes I try to bribe them with a crab sandwich so I can stay, but they usually don’t take it.”

Contributing Editor Steve Coomes lives in Louisville, Ky.

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