As the food truck boom matures, ambitious vendors are turning to brick and mortar establishments for growth and visibility.
By John Garland
Photos by Daniel Murphy
I lounge on the patio of what will soon be Hola Arepa at the corner of 35th and Nicollet in South Minneapolis. It’s late April, with mild chill sweeping beneath a gloomy sky. Maybe it’s the melancholy weather, but I’m feeling nostalgic about the tables. They have a wood border surrounding a blue and white tile mosaic. You’d recognize them from every Mexican restaurant in 1993.
The building’s former tenant, El Paraiso, left them behind for Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem to repurpose as patio furniture. In fact, the rest of the deck feels just as reclaimed. Church pews ring the perimeter. Behind them, painted shipping pallets have been converted into planter boxes.
“We wanted an open air, Latin feel with lots of DIY elements,” says Nguyen. “It’s not brand new and shiny, it has some character, a little rustic. We’re going for charming and rough around the edges—just like our truck.” And, come to think of it, just like the cornbread sandwich they’ve popularized.
Since widespread permitting of mobile food vendors began in Minneapolis in 2011, a handful of trucks have parlayed their early success into opening storefronts. For many who did, it was the culmination of a long-term goal in which the truck acted as a steppingstone—an entry point with low overhead and the chance to build a following.
Hola Arepa is one of those trucks. “We always wanted to open a restaurant,” says Grudem. “It has the parking and the patios. We’ll be able to represent our vision here. We didn’t want to open until we had a space that was perfect for us.”
They secured just such a fit for their South American snacking hangout in February. “We had to fight for this location, but it’ll be worth it,” says Grudem. “It’s zoned for liquor, which is hard to come by around here.” To that end, they’ve brought in local bartending luminary Dan Oskey to develop a patio-friendly cocktail list. Grudem has known Oskey for a decade, since when they worked together at Longfellow Grill.
He hopes the crowds will gather on the front and side patios to mimic the feel of a farmers market. That’s where, in large part, the current truck trend was born. Less than five years ago Minneapolis allowed mobile food vendors only on private property. It was thanks to early morning vegetable shoppers that Chef Shack, Dandelion Kitchen, and Foxy Falafel became cult favorites.
You may recall seeing Erica Strait’s stationary bike smoothie machine at the markets in Northeast and Kingfield. When she upgraded Foxy Falafel from a market stand to a truck, she naturally expanded to events and catering. “The truck exposed more people to our name and brand,” says Strait, “just being able to be flexible, to go downtown and to events.”
The search for a new commissary brought Strait to Raymond Avenue, just off University and Highway 280, and the space most recently held by Caribe Bistro. A permanent storefront means a private kitchen—no more need to rent a shared commissary. But finding the perfect building meant tackling two new operations at the same time. “We opened the storefront three months after the truck,” she recalls. “I found this location and jumped on the opportunity. It wasn’t when I’d planned for it, but it was what I’d wanted all along.”
With the store, she expanded the menu with more meat options, side dishes and desserts, plus the obvious bonus of beer and wine. “I mean who doesn’t want a beer and a falafel?” she asks. “It’s pretty much the best.” Foxy caters to a high volume of gluten-free customers. So she’s excited to carry Burning Brothers Pyro, which she recommends paired with her cheese curds.
Once they’re able to set down roots, food trucks don’t usually open gastro-temples like Smack Shack did in the North Loop, or spots with such polish as the veteran Wadi Brothers did with World Street Kitchen. They’re more often like Potter’s Pasties, for example, who occupies a basement under a deli in St. Paul. They grow in a manner befitting a smaller, more versatile brand.
This was certainly the case for Amol Dixit, whose trajectory to brick-and-mortar wasn’t planned as such. A marketing veteran of General Mills, his Hot Indian Foods was the breakout new truck of 2013. “I was surprised there were no Indian trucks,” he says of his early plaudits. “So the novelty helps, but really, I have a great head chef. The food is amazing.”
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