Following the Trail of Abilene’s Mobile Food Industry
Story and photography by Casey Hatcher
So, you think you want to start a food truck? Great.
First, find a road-worthy truck. Then, you’ll need to cut a hole into the side for serving. Next, you will need to install non-toxic walls and ceilings, add a hand washing station, have hot and cold running water under pressure, fresh water and grey water tanks, a way to hold food below 41 degrees, the ability to heat food rapidly, and the necessary permits. There is a good chance you will spend anywhere from $15,000-100,000 before you even lay eyes on a customer. Welcome to the world of the modern food truck.
Food trucks can trace their roots back to the 1870s, when a small vendor by the name of Walter Scott first cut windows into the side of a covered wagon. Scott packed his wagon with sandwiches, drinks and pies, then promptly parked his invention outside of a local business. And thus a new industry was born.
Fast forward 150 years to the present day marriage between food trucks and social media. Serious trucks know the value of social media followers and actively work to cultivate food fandom.
“These are people who chose to ‘like’ me so that they know where we are going to be,” said Stephanie Blair, owner of The Toasted Traveler.
Social media has played a serious role in the popularity of food trucks. The 2014 independent-film “Chef” portrayed this phenomenon in larger cities. Send one tweet, and the crowds come running. In a smaller town like Abilene, however, consistency works better. Owners constantly update their websites and social media pages and find a solid rotation amongst venues.
Jason Adams, owner of Vagabond Pizza, has a theory that Abilene’s increase of food trucks is related to availability of culinary talent.
“There is a large influx of chefs,” he says. “And there is more talent out there, in my opinion, than there are high-level jobs. So when you can’t progress through the ranks at a restaurant because there is nowhere to go and too many quality people there for you to be creative, that’s where food trucks come into place. And that’s why, I think, they are becoming so popular.”
Abilene currently has around twenty food trucks at present, with more expected to arrive in the future. They are a fast-growing and popular alternative to the more expensive brick and mortar establishments.
“What I love about food trucks is that chefs have to get very creative in one particular genre,” Adams said. “Instead of going very wide with how far we can take it, we go very deep, so our creativity comes into the quality of stuff. This is the best food I’ve ever put out, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. We’re really trying to be the best at one thing instead of really good at everything.”
For Jesse Husbands and brothers Artie and Mondo Asencio, that genre is burgers. When these lifelong friends decided to start Rock’n Roller’z in October 2014, they had no idea the success they would soon encounter. As newcomers, they won Best Signature Dish at the Food Truck Championship in Graham, TX with their Popp’n Johnny burger, beating over 35 other food trucks, including the renowned Grady Spears and several Cordon Bleu graduates.
“When we started Rock’n Roller’z we were trying to go for something really American,” Husbands said. “The food trucks were a lot of tacos and really deep fried stuff, but burgers are so versatile that there are endless amounts of stuff you can add.”
As with most truck owners, their dreams boiled down to money.
“We had always talked about owning a restaurant, but it’s really expensive,” he said. “The two things we always loved is food and music. We couldn’t afford a sit-down, so we said ‘Let’s get a food truck!’ We scrapped metal, saved the last of our paychecks, and bummed what we could. I mean, it’s all on us. But it’s been really good.”
Dean Mayfield knows the fear that accompanies chasing your own dream. In November of 2014 he took a leap of faith, left his job managing a maintenance company and started Mean Cuisine. Like Walter Scott, Mayfield initially began by peddling homemade food on the street.
“I began pulling my barbecue pit around town and selling food at the corner after church and at bars at closing time,” he says. “I actually cook a number of different styles but I chose to start with barbecue because I’ve done it the longest. It was also the cheapest start up because I already had the smoker.”
Blair was a stay-at-home mom before establishing The Toasted Traveler.
“We moved here about five years ago from Colorado and had been looking for something to do. I felt like we didn’t have a very wide variety of food trucks, and a food truck was much easier than a brick and mortar restaurant. I didn’t want to be tied down to that,” she said.
After using startup funds from her kitchen remodel, Blair chose a take on grilled cheese for it’s mass appeal. “It’s a comfort food. It’s fun because you can take a lot of different variations on the same basic idea of a bread and a cheese, and run with it.”
With a rotating menu of about 30 sandwiches, and a philosophy of buying fresh, local ingredients, Blair has established herself as a firm presence in the food truck community. A quick glance inside her trailer and you will notice an organized hub of ingredients.
“We have our sandwich prep station; it’s a little bit like what you would see at a Subway. We’ve got lots of different containers in our refrigerated prep board. What it amounts to is that I can’t make more sandwiches than that will hold,” she said. ”That’s why it’s hard to have sandwiches that have five ingredients on it, because that takes up a big chunk of my storage space for one sandwich. That’s why a lot of our sandwiches have ingredient overlaps. It’s kind of like a puzzle, but it’s fun! And in all honestly, it’s no smaller than the kitchen I have in my house.”
Abilene Christian University recently tossed their hat into the food truck ring with the debut of 1881 this past August. Aramark chefs create the rotating menu and cook on the truck.
“1881 is a true mobile concept, meaning that we are not confined to one type of cuisine,” says Jennifer Ellison, Director of University Events. “We are also one of the few actual food trucks in Abilene, as opposed to a food trailer.”
Unlike other trucks in Abilene, 1881 is not dedicated to one specific food theme. Authentic Cubano, street tacos, barbecue and coastal Maine are just a few of the genres 1881 offers.
“Our menus will continue to be based on items currently in-season, including seafood, wild game and produce,” says Ellison.
Whether ordering fresh seafood from Maine like 1881 or working with local vendors and farmers like many other Abilene trucks, preparation is a consuming task for truck owners.
“If there is anything I need to pick up from vendors, I will have needed to have ordered that yesterday, so I can pick it up today. We don’t have a lot of storage space so it’s not like I can keep a weeks worth of stuff,” Blair said.
Mayfield rather enjoys the preparation process for Mean Cuisine.
“The day before an event for me is the most fun,” he said. “Because I smoke most of my menu, I start on it all the day before. That is the part I really enjoy because it’s like art. You can create anything and make something beautiful from nothing.”
Trailers that are not enclosed, like Vagabond Pizza, must do their 5-6 hours of prep work at a rented commissary kitchen off-site.
Commercial kitchens and food trucks have their similarities and differences, and there are always tradeoffs. Lacking a commercial refrigerator means less storage options, which requires truck owners to keep extremely accurate notes for future planning.
“We have to do a lot more forecasting than I have in the past based upon the previous week, the current week at other spots, the same week, the same week the previous year. We can only bring so much product, so we really have to know how much to bring so we don’t have a loss. My dough is a living breathing product. It won’t carry over to the next day,” says Adams.
Commercial kitchens are obviously more accommodating for space issues, prep work, and vendor deliveries, but Mayfield sees benefits elsewhere.
“With a food truck I can cook whatever I want instead of pushing someone else’s recipes,” he says. “It gives me great satisfaction to see happy faces and knowing that it was my creation.”
As food trucks continue to increase in popularity, many of the stereotypes are fading away.
“In the food truck world we are always fighting that ‘roach coach mentality’, but because of that, food trucks are inspected more than anybody else. We have to tell the city where we will be, so we have the same random inspections and the same rules as any other restaurant,” Adams said.
The future looks very different for many truck owners. While Blair is just excited to continue expanding The Toasted Traveler menu, Mean Cuisine is looking to invest in a truck for expansion.
“Now that I am getting the ball rolling I am looking to invest in a truck so that I can expand my menu. I have no desire to go brick and mortar because the only way to have a successful business is to be with it every minute it’s operating. I love the freedom of the food truck because I can coach my little boys sports and be with my family,” Mayfield said.
Rock’n Roller’z would love to eventually open an establishment, but they also see the current marketing value their food truck boasts.
“We wouldn’t have the notoriety from everybody seeing us. It’s like a driving billboard,” Husbands said. “If we spend a couple of years making our name, then a sit-down will be no problem.”
Vagabond Pizza, however, will soon be leaving the food truck scene behind. In early 2016 they will open the doors to their new brick and mortar restaurant at 1056 S. 2nd. The establishment will have a rotating menu, 40-60 wine labels, 10 craft beer taps, and much more.
“We started with the intent of growing Vagabond into a restaurant,” Adams said. “We wanted to build a reputation, build a clientele base, build a product base, then transfer over into a restaurant within 5 years. We’re in year 3 and doing that now. That way we could introduce people to our style and quality of food and have a better chance of success.”
Talk is in the air of two potential food truck courts in Abilene, offering a gathering place where customers can find several food trucks on any given day. One proposed location would be located at 158 Tannehill Drive, across Loop 322 from PrimeTime Family Entertainment. The second court could set up at the corner of South 1st and Sycamore St. Reactions from local food truck owners are mixed. While many prefer to not be tied down to one particular location, others see clear benefits.
“I think it would be a God-send,” Husbands says. “When you have multiple trucks at an event location like The Mill, you risk competing with each other. But at a food truck park, people are specifically coming there to eat.”
Dean Mayfield believes a food court will give certain advantages as well.
“It will give working class citizens with short lunch breaks a quick and easy lunch rather than waiting in a fast food line for 20 minutes,” he says.
The camaraderie amongst food truck owners is genuine and may lend itself to such a gathering spot. This past September, Vagabond Pizza, The Toasted Traveler and Rock’n Roller’z collectively came together and organized the first ever “Truckin Tuesdays” downtown. With only two days of social media advertising, all three trucks sold out within a couple of hours.
“I’m a big of fan of supporting them because they are doing the same thing—buying local and staying small, and they make good food,” says Blair.
Husbands agrees. “We joke that it’s like Game of Thrones! But it’s all good!” he says, laughing.
The inundation of food trucks is ultimately advantageous to many throughout the community.
“I think the food truck scene is beneficial to all parties involved,” Mayfield says. “The owners, such as myself, have freedom to work around their family schedule. Bar owners have the freedom of changing their menu nightly without having to employ a full kitchen staff. And customers get to enjoy their favorite hangouts without getting tired of the same food every time they go.”
Ultimately, at least one theory appears to hold water: “If you have a good product, people are going to come to you whether you are in a food truck or a sit-down,” Husbands said.
Abilene’s Latest Line Up of Food Trucks
Abilene Gourmet Hotdogs
Big Country Coffee
Marcy’s Little Kitchen
Nikki’s Swirl Shoppe
Tacos Los 3 Potrillos
The Toasted Traveler