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