Eli Masem, owner and operator of Ursa Minor Coffee, operates his food truck throughout the four seasons. He says he just pushes through winter, which thankfully doesn't last that long. / Erin Brethauer / email@example.com
Curious to try the new breed of gourmet food truck?
The parking lots of the Masonic Temple at 80 Broadway St. in downtown Asheville will be the site of up to 20 food trucks for the Food Truck Showdown, noon-8 p.m. March 15. All of the proceeds benefit three charities: Asheville Humane Society, MANNA FoodBank and the Asheville Masonic Temple Restoration Fund. There is no admission, but food will be available for sale.
Also, learn more about what food trucks are at at 51 Coxe Ave. in downtown Asheville by visiting The Lot’s Facebook page, which is updated (almost) daily.
Learn more about Little Bee Thai and the truck’s whereabouts at www.littlebeethai.com. Learn more about the Lowdown food truck at www.thelowdownfoodtruck.com. Learn more about the rest of the trucks by finding them on Facebook.
In 2010, hopeful food truck vendors were fighting for their right to a free market exchange. Aspiring entrepreneurs were busily lobbying the city to be allowed to vend falafel, barbecue sandwiches or hot cups of espresso in the central business district.
Nearly two years since Asheville’s first food truck lot opened downtown, mobile food vendors are still finding challenges to contend with. And one of the biggest hurdles to a steady cash flow, they say, is bad weather.
How food truck owners deal with the seasonal challenges of extreme temperatures varies from business to business.
One truck, Roaming in the Raw, serves food that depends heavily on seasonal produce. To stay true to the concept, the trucks owners have hauled it from Asheville to warmer climes for the duration of the winter.
“We have all organic raw foods, and we try and keep our menu in tune with the seasons,” wrote owner Zach Bier in an email from Florida. “So, in an effort to keep our menu in season, we essentially followed the veggies ... When the farmers markets start back up in April, we will be back in Asheville, ready to enjoy the spring bounty.”
But not all food truck owners can follow the seasons.
Making hay while the sun shines
Nate Kelly is the owner of the Lowdown food truck, part of the original fleet of food trucks to hit downtown. Kelly helped build the four-truck Coxe Avenue lot, known simply as “The Lot,” equipping it with electricity and the like in order to accommodate food trucks. Two years since it opened, Kelly’s still trucking. But he says making it through the winter requires a bit of strategy.
During the height of the summer festival season, Kelly says he can easily serve 400 plates of his signature comfort food sandwiches and other dishes in three to four hours. “Crazy amounts of business,” he said.
The problem, said Kelly, is that festival business dries up during the colder months. And he’s not seeing quite as much traffic in his regular vending spots, either.
This year, he said, has been particularly difficult for the sheer strength of the cold snaps. “Whereas other winters you’d get cold days and then it would go back up to 50,” Kelly said.
To supplement the drop in business, Kelly saves while business is booming and picks up side jobs during the winter.
“I do literally anything,” he said. “I’ve baby-sat some kids. If a restaurant in town needs a dishwasher for a night, any little thing that won’t interfere with the truck.”
The cold weather isn’t just bad for scaring away customers. Water carried in the food truck’s tanks for cooking and washing up is in danger of freezing when temps are low, something that could sideline a truck.
The excessively cold temperatures this year also made it hard for trucks to carry tender produce like lettuce, which easily freezes and wilts.
“And we have a sandwich with Nutella and peanut butter, and that stuff does not spread very easily at all in cold weather,” Kelly laughed. “I’d say it’s harder than concrete.”
But if the truck’s running, Kelly can count on a handful of hard-core loyal customers to grab a sandwich.
“It’s tough, but The Lot’s nice, because we’ve built up a clientele who will always come down,” he said.
Against the wind
Ursa Minor, an espresso shop in a bright blue, star-emblazoned trailer, was at The Lot on a frigid Tuesday.
Well before the lunch crowds would descend — or not — owner Eli Masem manned the lone food truck, whipping up coffee drinks for a local businessman. Between orders, Masem explained that when the weather gets particularly tough, the tough get going — to Mexico.
Masem said he makes hay while the sun shines, and shutters Ursa Minor each January. “Last year, my wife and I went to Mexico, and we got back here and told the other trucks, ‘You’re dumb for being here. You should go to Mexico.’ And so everybody went to Mexico,” he laughed.
Masem said the bad weather and threat of impending snow sometimes makes opening barely worth it. “It’s slower, considerably,” he said, steaming almond milk for a latte. “It’s more like you’re just keeping the doors open during the winter.”
The cold weather — and the way that Asheville tends to hide from it — doesn’t make it easy for anyone, said Masem. “But the season’s not that long here. You just push through it, and then it’s spring again and there’s a billion festivals.”
Many who open food trucks do so as a stepping stone to opening brick and mortar eateries. But Rick Corcoran, of Little Bee Thai, worked the trend in reverse, consolidating his restaurant into a food truck.
There are similarities between the two businesses, Corcoran said. The level of prep work is about the same, for example. Corcoran’s wife, Took, cooks nearly everything to order, just as she did from her former kitchen in an Arden gas station.
But overhead, he said, is “way less. Operating costs are way down.”
Being able to shift locations to follow business is a big plus, too. He makes good money at the breweries, including Oskar Blues in Brevard. “We’re always busy in Brevard,” he said.
Green Man and Highland Brewing are also great for business. Surprisingly, vending downtown — a perceived advantage the food truck operators worked so hard to get — doesn’t necessarily bring big business, particularly when there’s no parking.
“Downtown is hit or miss, depending on what’s going on down there,” he said.
Winter is also an unpredictable animal. That’s especially true when cold weather can turn a food truck into a 10,000-pound ice-carrying road hazard.
“With the food truck, I wonder, ‘Is everyone else going to be safe around me?’” Corcoran said. “That truck is heavy, and it’s like driving a kite in the wind.”
Like the other trucks, Corcoran sometimes loses money in the winter.
He estimates that closing for inclement weather can cost up to $1,500 a day.
“And you have to supplement that lost income, but there’s not a lot of people looking for help right now,” he said. “You have to have good friends to help you through.”
Took sometimes helps cook at Suwana’s Thai Orchid. Corcoran moonlights at Aaron’s Welding in Black Mountain.
“This week, I’m just trying to find something to do to make a little money, and it just doesn’t look good,” he said. “But I guess that’s the game; you just wait until April and do your thing.”