FORT WORTH -- It's no secret that food trucks -- not the factory gate variety but fanciful nouveau versions serving up everything from red velvet waffles to New York deli to sashimi -- have gained a foothold in North Texas despite the obvious business risks.
The scene exploded after Dallas began allowing food trucks in July 2011, broadening the potential market. Those certified by the city of Fort Worth, not including shaved ice, catering and traditional barbecue and Tex Mex trucks, numbered fewer than 20 in October 2011.
Last month, there were more than 36.
A number have not only led past lives as FedEx vans, but also as failed attempts to break into the niche market -- 3 Men and a Taco is now British-themed Three Lions, featuring fish and chips and meat pies, and The Munch Box's truck has been repurposed as SlushWorks, selling frozen drinks, said Stephanie Hawkes, who writes a blog dedicated to the commercial phenomenon, DFW Food Truck Foodie.
A sign of the food trucks' acceptance are the mobile kitchens -- SlushWorks and the vegan Good Karma Kitchen -- invited to feed the crowds at the State Fair of Texas this year.
Another is the entry of such established restaurateurs as Tim Love of Lonesome Dove, Terry Chandler of Fred's Texas and Franson Nwaeze of Watauga's Chef Point, who have rolled out signature food trucks to tap the trend's popularity.
But now, a new crop of food truck entrepreneurs has entered the fray, many of them carting rather unusual bios -- for a chef, anyway.
Many have made radical career changes, such as the partners of Nammi, the Vietnamese/New Mexican fusion cuisine truck run by trained architects Gary Torres and Tina Nguyen. Randy Wolken, 53, who owns the area's two Gandolfo's New York Delicatessen trucks, spent 21 years as a stockbroker and analyst for Morgan Stanley and Fidelity.
Some went looking for a new career after losing their jobs.
Lee Perez, wife Veronica and Keith Lee Weber were all working for the same Grapevine video game developer, South Peak Games, when it hit serious financial problems. Weber began planning a food truck business, first hot dogs, then grilled cheese. When Lee Perez lost his job, they needed to get the business up and running to support their families.
Now, Lee's Grilled Cheese is branching out with a stationary site in north Fort Worth at 5040 North Tarrant Parkway set to open the day after Thanksgiving.
Then, there are those who are just starting out.
Raffi Nasr, 20, and Kyle Hesthag, 27, both full-time undergraduates at TCU, negotiated a spot behind the library for their pale blue Mediterranean Chunky Monkey truck. Nasr says they are each putting in 40 hours a week on the truck.
Hesthag, a mechanically adept Navy veteran, keeps it in repair.
It's not unusual for startups to spend $80,000 and up. The French food-service giant, Sodexo, which handles most TCU catering, bought Love a custom-built, 31-foot mobile kitchen for $180,000 to use around the leafy campus.
But some do it on the cheap. Perez said he's happy with his used red trailer, which along with a 2001 Suburban with 200,000 miles on the clock, cost "under $20,000."
"We spent little out of necessity and it worked out," he said. "Some people spend $10,000 on just the wraparound signage. And $100,000 for a truck, that's a lot of grilled cheese to sell. "
Moreover, Perez and Weber knew it was a chancy industry.
"They say half of new restaurants go out of business in a year," Perez said.
"For food trucks, half go in eight weeks."
Going for permanence
Purveyors of gourmet extravagances and dished comfort in recycled vans haven't won over all brick-and-mortar competitors.
Some traditional owners still liken the mobile kitchens to carpetbaggers who poach customers without putting in the years needed to build up the trade or paying for the overhead or, if they park on the street, providing washroom facilities that store-front cafes must.
"There was some negative reaction when we pulled up onto their street," conceded Wolken. "But in downtown Dallas, the trucks helped street-level restaurants by pulling people out from the tunnels," or food courts under and between some office blocks.
Some truck owners, like Perez, are even planning to join the locked-in-place eatery world.
The fixed location on North Tarrant near Keller will allow Lee's Grilled Cheese to order more cheaply from the big food service companies, which Perez says have been reluctant to supply food trucks.
"We'll finally be able to buy Boar's Head products wholesale," he said.
And there will be more space to do much of the prep work -- buttering hundreds of sourdough bread slices.
Wolken, who is the region's master franchiser for Gandolfo, is seeking his own storefront site in a dense urban block somewhere in North Texas for his Flower Mound-based venture, which has a commissary in Grand Prairie.
Wolken hopes the trucks and a successful brick-and-mortar site will establish the Gandolfo brand, facilitating the sale of some 40 area franchises to others. He paid $500,000 for the right to seed the area with deli franchises.
A permanent store would allow Perez and his partner to survive the extreme changes of Texas weather.
They opened just before the ice storms during Super Bowl week in 2011, then suffered through the extended period of triple-digit heat that summer.
"I'm an opportunist"
Nasr said his venture was capitalized at $100,000, secured through family loans.
One day, he said, he looked out of his frat house window and saw a food truck pull into TCU's Greek housing area.
"What if one was there every day, selling gourmet food at prices students could afford?" Nasr thought.
He shared the idea with Hesthag, who was attending the same supply-chain class at the Neeley School of Business, and they convinced family investors of the vision.
They bought the van from Rick Huffman, 50, owner of Accelerated Graphics & Signs in Burleson, whose wife had operated the food truck as Rollin' Diner.
"Demand is pretty high right now. I could sell five immediately, but really no one has one for sale," Huffman said.
Why did he sell his wife's?
"I'm an opportunist," he said, adding: "Food trucks are a good business, but it's a lot of work -- physically demanding and a lot of hours.
"But we'd do it again if we could find a truck."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718