Trucking Along

The latest scoop on mobile food vendors in Memphis.

| October 13, 2011
Erik Proveaux, co-owner of Fuel Cafe, in the Fuel Truck, one of the few food trucks to pass the city's new permit process. Expect more down the road.
- Justin Fox Burks
Erik Proveaux, co-owner of Fuel Cafe, in the Fuel Truck, one of the few food trucks to pass the city's new permit process. Expect more down the road.

When the Memphis City Council passed an ordinance last April granting food trucks a permanent presence in the city, many Memphians were overjoyed. Soon the happy buzz about the new ordinance turned to bewilderment: Where are these food trucks?

Otho Sawyer of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department explains that the permit process to start a food truck is as rigorous as any brick-and-mortar restaurant — just on wheels.

"[Applicants] have to submit a plan showing us the layout of the vehicle with all the equipment, a menu that matches up with the equipment in the vehicle," Sawyer says. "There are specific requirements that aren't that easy to fulfill if you don't have experience. And many of these people don't have that experience."

After working through the food truck plans with applicants, Sawyer sets up a meeting to inspect the truck. This can take some time.

"I've had very few trucks to pass the first time I look at it," Sawyer says.

Now, some six months after the ordinance was passed, the first wave of food trucks is getting permitted. So far, Sawyer says they've granted permits to 21 trucks, with five more pending.

What should we expect from this first graduating class of trucks? Well, barbecue, of course. At least six of the 21 are barbecue, two are taco trucks, a few serve wings and turkey legs, and YoLo will keep serving its wildly popular frozen yogurt.

Fuel Café was granted a permit last week, given their considerable catering experience.

"We've done movie catering all over the country and worked for FEMA," says Erik Proveaux, who co-owns Fuel Café with Carrie Mitchum. "We actually just turned down a job for HBO in Baltimore because we wanted to focus on the food truck here."

The Fuel Truck even catered the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race — a cross-country competition among food trucks — when it filmed in Memphis last spring.

Proveaux's experience with mobile food vending — and perhaps more important, the fact that he already owned a food truck — allowed him to be on the leading edge.

"[Food trucks] are expensive," he says. "I would have had to work out some financing, but the fact that the truck's paid for meant I only had to do a few specific things to it."

The cost and labor associated with a food truck might stymie some restaurateurs, but for others, the mobility offers a new experience that makes the additional culinary outlet worth the effort.

"The restaurant's fun, but it's sort of the same every day," Proveaux says. "The beauty of a food truck is there's no particular place I have to be every day and there's no set menu. As the seasons change, we might get into more soups and whatever seems appropriate and whatever people like. We'll have some fun with it."

"I'm thinking tacos like we did for the Food Truck Fare downtown," he says. "Organic chicken, bison, and vegetarian and vegan tacos made from our veggie burgers. Then we'll probably do grilled cheese and our vegetarian chili."

Proveaux isn't sure where he will set up his truck first, but he plans on using the gold standards of food truck marketing — Twitter and Facebook — to let fans know where to find the truck.

Fuel Café, fuelcafememphis.com

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Had the grilled cheese with bacon and Hibiscus tea last week when they were parked outside of City Hall.

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Posted by MollyP on 10/18/2011 at 9:32 AM

I see that the catering truck business has come a long way since the 80s when I owned and operated one. I started out leasing a truck from Mrs. Drakes sandwiches. After a couple of years of working for that company I bought my own truck. It was the hardest work I have ever done, while being at the same time the most fun I'd ever had. I met so many people, both good and bad, and every day was an adventure. I sure miss those days. I finally had to give up the business because of the recession of the early 80s. Unlike you, I had a regular route. I was expected to show up every day, rain, sleet or snow. When the recession hit, people started bringing their food from home and my once lucrative business dwindled down to nothing. So, I just wanted to say congratulations on your new Memphis adventure. You won't be disappointed.
Ida

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Posted by Ida on 10/18/2011 at 9:58 AM
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