Simonie Wilson of 3 Girls Cupcakes backs her white-and-pink van out of the driveway of her Liberty home and heads south on Interstate 35, ferrying dozens of cupcakes packaged in waxed paper bags.
By mid-day she is dropping off a special order at Hospital Hill. Next she searches for a parking spot near the Sprint Center, but there’s too much traffic congestion during the Big 12 Tournament. Instead, she heads on over to the corner of 10th and Main streets in front of the Commerce Bank Building Arcade and parks the van within inches of the curb like a pro.
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"I was a little sweaty the first day driving this thing," Wilson admits.
After flipping up the order window, Wilson taps a message into her iPhone to share her location with 1,000 Twitter followers and 1,500 Facebook fans. Then she waits. "You never know when you’ll have 30 people at a stop that used to be two," she says.
Even on an unseasonably cool March day with gusty winds, a dozen office workers scurry down to street level on cue. Her followers/fans quickly home in on their favorite flavors from the eight she carries onboard each day. The lurkers shift from one foot to the other, staring imploringly at the menu as if for some kind of confectionary intervention.
The flavor of the day is Hippie Chow, a spice cake with brown sugar cream cheese frosting finished with a sprinkling of locally made organic granola, but Wilson is also running a special on her best-selling Red Velvet.
While waiting in line, Robin Christlieb shares her food truck philosophy: "Not to eat at them."
But the new wave of food trucks would hardly qualify as "roach coaches." The 3 Girls van is spotless. The cupcakes, which are baked in a certified commercial kitchen in Wilson’s remodeled garage, are on par with any brick-and-mortar bakery.
Wilson even wears a spotless white chef’s coat and tucks her auburn ponytail through a ball cap neatly embroidered with her company logo.
"I will definitely look into the new models," says Christlieb, who works at nearby H Block. "But I won’t eat a hot dog."
Wilson has been working the streets for more than a year, and when you’re talking about local food trucks, that pretty much seems like dog years. Wilson keeps her eyes peeled for like-minded mobile kitchens/eateries that are popping up around the metro. When she spots a new one, she types the name into her phone so she can look it up.
"Every week that I’m out, there’s another truck," Wilson says.
Got food truck fever?
Most trend watchers credit Kogi, a Korean taco truck, for igniting interest in food trucks back in 2008. Kogi was the creation of a street-smart Korean chef who had grown up in East Los Angeles, where taco trucks are a time-honored culinary tradition.
Scores of chefs credited Kogi’s personal swagger and funky fresh food as their inspiration. But the national movement was slow to gain traction in the Midwest. Local street food enthusiasts flocked to Lindsay Laricks’ Fresher Than Fresh, slurping up gourmet snow cones sold out of a 1957 Shasta trailer from May to October. Sometimes they got a shot of coffee pouring out of Roasterie’s shiny Airstream trailer, which parks at some community fundraising events. But the rest of the year they twiddled their thumbs.
The wait is over. In the past few months, a handful of mobile food vendors have begun the process of taking it to the streets.
CoffeeCakeKC, a cupcake and gourmet coffee pairing, hits the streets in an eye-popping orange bread truck.
Indios Carbonsitos sells pork ahogadas (Mexican sandwiches drenched in hot sauce) and tacos out of a tricked-out truck with side vending compartments for Mexican sodas and candy.
Good You, a handsome black trailer emblazoned with a green leaf, offers an eclectic mix of fresh, natural, local and organic products -- not to be confused with health food. Think Philly cheese steak with Boulevard Pilsner cheddar sauce.
Even though its truck is still a work in progress, the Magical Meatball Tour is all about gourmet meatballs.
Port Fonda is a minirestaurant in an Airstream trailer where chef Patrick Ryan will specialize in prix-fixe, limited seating dinners featuring Rick Bayless-style Mexican.
Chicago-based journalist Heather Shouse tracks the best kitchens on wheels in her just-released book, "Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes From the Best Kitchens on Wheels."
"Restaurants are taking more notice as the food truck scene has heated up. It’s not just a bunch of kids who couldn’t open a restaurant so they have this roach coach instead," says Shouse, who graduated from Blue Valley North High School in 1993.
Whether they are selling barbecue or sushi, licensed food truck operators are required to carry hot and cold running water under pressure, a three-compartment sink and a hand-washing sink. From there, the equipment onboard must be appropriate to the type of food served.
"You’d be amazed at some of these units that cost up to $150,000. They have grills and hoods and whole kitchen setups and are preparing food onsite," says Naser Jouhari, code enforcement manager for Kansas City.
Mobile units are inspected in the same way as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Jouhari estimates there are about 150 mobile food units licensed in the city. Most operate seasonally, but Jouhari has noticed a recent uptick in gourmet food concepts.
"We’ve always encouraged mobile food units," he says. "We do our best to work with them, because they bring a different food service environment to the city."
Across the state line, vendors are required to pass a food inspection by the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Once out on the street, they must abide by the laws governing each city or county. In Johnson County, for instance, most fall under "transient merchant" licensing -- a law one city official admits was originally designed to keep tacky Elvis paintings on velvet from sprouting on every street corner.
But until recently most of these were of the ice cream truck variety, selling from a public street and stopping for no more than 5 minutes. "Maybe (mobile food units are) up-and-coming in this area, but I’m not aware that a lot of demand has been made," says Kimberly Hendershot, the code enforcement supervisor for Overland Park.
Tweet to eat
No longer content to sit on a street corner and wait for customers to stumble on them by happenstance, the next generation of food truck owners is using social networking in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
They’re on Facebook.
They’re on Twitter.
They’re using QR Code, a matrix black-and-white bar code that smartphones can read. With a click, the code takes the user to the vendor’s website with scheduled stops or to a Google Map to help locate the truck at a given moment.
Some are even raising funds for their trucks through Kickstarter, an online platform that allows entrepreneurs to present their ideas to virtual strangers in the hope they will become investors.
And they’re no longer strictly a cash-and-carry business. Portable card sliders the size of a small battery attach neatly to smartphones so customers can charge their purchases. Vendors also can send an email receipt that includes a time stamp, Google Map location and a tally of the number of visits to a specific truck.
The lesson: Don’t leave home without a smartphone. "This is really the strongest tool we have," says Brian Jurgens, owner of E.F. Hobbes Specialty Coffee in Shawnee.
Last summer, Jurgens took his business mobile by teaming up with Renee Kloeblen, a former kindergarten teacher and owner of Take the Cake Bakery, featuring gourmet cupcakes. They retain their separate businesses, but when they’re on the road together they go by the moniker CoffeeCakeKC.
The partners initially met through a Twitter friend. They used Kickstarter to raise $8,500 to buy the truck. And they’re diligent about getting the word out about their products. "Renee has really taught me a lot about social media," says Jurgens, a former Sprint employee.
Kloeblen admits her ex-husband, who works as managing Web editor for KCTV-5, was responsible for "dragging" her onto Twitter, where she shares missives about her life and cupcakes.
"I didn’t get it for a long time, but then, organically, it started to make sense," she says. "Social media is the only way to get to people instantly."
Kloeblen and Jurgens admit they are people-pleasers, so it feels natural to invite customers to participate in aspects of their business, such as voting on the logo and helping them name cupcake flavors. "We try to let the people have a hand in our stuff," Kloeblen says.
Author Shouse insists the time is right: These forms of technology are intersecting with a new model in food service.
Of course, it’s hard to attract numbers like Kogi’s -- 85,000 Twitter followers -- unless the food is truly worth a shout-out. But social media can also backfire. Chef Rocco Dispirito’s New York City food truck sells food designed to promote his new diet-oriented cookbooks, but "people feel the fakiness, that it’s forced, and he’s just using the street-level sexiness to sell it," Shouse says. "Kogi is grassroots. It isn’t contrived."
The treasure hunt
On weekends, Adrian Bermudez drives around Kansas City, Kan., selling the food he grew up on -- Mexican and barbecue.
The owner of Indios Carbonsitos calls his brand of fusion "MexiQ" -- a menu of tortas ahogadas, tacos, gorditas and Mexican hamburgers. Sometimes he offers specials, like barbecue tamales.
In early March, Bermudez started parking his truck at 10th and Orville streets in Kansas City, Kan., in front of his parents’ home. The nearby restaurant owners were supportive and bought food from the truck, but the owner of a small grocery called the police.
Indios had to move on -- but not before someone calling himself "meesha v" managed to track the truck down, order an ahogada and post his review on Yelp.
"A family-run authentic Mexican food truck in KCK. The menu is different every time he is out but so far I tried and liked tortas ahogadas and gorditas. Tortas ahogadas are served dipped in hot sauce in a large ziplock bag because that’s the only way to handle them. Gorditas are crunchy on the edges filled with pork or beef with beans and hot salsa. They also have Mexican-style hamburgers, hot dogs, etc."
Bermudez moved to a vacant, gravel-strewn lot at South Sixth Street and Kansas Avenue, across from a body shop and a supermarket. Then he posted his new location on Facebook.
"I was a Facebook and Twitter snob," Bermudez says. "I didn’t want to have anything to do with (it), but a friend of mine told me I was missing out on a lot of publicity. When I started using Facebook, my business really started to take off. Now I’m in that thing every day."
Chato Villalobos stops by as the smell of sizzling taco meat wafts from the truck’s griddle. Villalobos fist bumps his boyhood friend through the order window, and they catch up in Spanish. Villalobos works for the Westside Community Action Network, a community policing organization, and although he’s generally not in favor of businesses that encourage people to hang out on the street, he thinks food trucks are an exception.
"It’s a family-friendly business. I’m rooting for him," says Villalobos as he waits at the window for a plate of tacos for 5-year-old daughter Madeleine and son Vincent, 2.
Karen Geary and her husband also place an order. Geary has been a chef around town for years, including at the beloved Blvd. Cafe. Most recently, Geary has been creating fairy tale cupcakes for the Reading Reptile in Brookside.
Geary heard about Indios from friends on Facebook, although she was familiar with the concept, since she has a daughter in Portland, Ore., where a thriving food truck scene happens year-round, rain or shine.
"I’m definitely a fan of street food," Geary says. "This is my first experience here, and we’re very excited. If I was younger and had the energy, I’d get a truck and do Asian street food."
Food trucks aren’t new. In fact, anyone who has worked construction knows they’re an old phenomenon.
But Kelli Daniels and business partner Kate Szalay, owners of the Good You, a mobile organic trailer, do the food-truck thing with a whole new attitude.
Often they can be found parked in the Westport area feeding late-night concertgoers and the after-hours bar crowd. But on a recent Tuesday, they were invited to serve lunch at the 119th Technology Park in Olathe.
The invitation was like hitting the lottery.
The first week, after an email invited workers to leave their cars in the lot and grab a bite to eat from the Good You, lines were long and the truck sold out of everything by 12:30 p.m.
The next week, Daniels and Szalay were ready, offering a menu that included a turkey club, tuna salad or chicken salad on a croissant, a veggie wrap, a hamburger on brioche bun, and sweet potato and black bean burritos.
"Looks fancy," says electrical contractor Jim Livingston as he scans the menu.
"It’s good stuff, man," Daniels shoots back.
"I don’t see a giant hot dog on there," Livingston ribs her. "And does that say sweet potato and black bean burritos?"
"We kind of know what we’re doing here," says Daniels, formerly executive chef at the Drop in Martini Corner in midtown.
"I’d get the hamburger, but I’m not sure what a brioche bun is," Livingston continues.
"What are you scared of? It’s just a better bun," Daniels says. "I guarantee it’ll be the best burger you’ve ever had."
Livingston orders a sandwich to go, but not before delivering some good news: Steven Karbank, the commercial real estate developer who owns the office park, has decided to put in electrical outlets.
No more hum of the generator.
"That’s music to my ears!" Daniels says. "You’ve just made me one of the happiest chefs in town."
Jenni Cattano, a former New Yorker and food truck fan, suggested bringing a food truck into the office park to see how the concept would go over.
"We’ve been trying to solve the food service needs here for some time, but we don’t have extra space in the park," Karbank says. "Good You is our first experiment, and it seems to be working well."
At a Yelp party in the River Market, business partners Ceasar Reyes and Venus Van Horn hand out samples of their Sicilian and turkey-duck Asian meatballs.
"The best balls you’ll ever put in your mouth," Reyes tells tasters, adding a devilish grin for bawdy effect.
A man wearing a bowler and dressed like a carnival barker hands out pledge sheets for the online investor program Kickstarter. A pledge of $1 gets your name listed on the meatball website, while a pledge of $2,000 or more gets you a catered party from the Magical Meatball Tour truck.
The goal was to earn $10,000, but when they appeared at the Yelp party they were only 45 percent of the way to the goal, and Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition. After a woman tasted their meatballs, they were fully funded.
"We don’t like to feel like a charity case, but what people like about it is that they’re feeling so much a part of it," Van Horn says.
The colorful duo settled on gourmet meatballs after stuffing themselves silly with meatballs at restaurants all over town. "We wanted that ‘Holy cow! That just really pops!’ " says Reyes, who has been the kitchen manager at Succotash restaurant for the past 2 1/2 years. "Our stuff pops, man! Since we only do one thing, we’ve got to do it well."
They plan to offer up to 20 flavors on the menu. The meatballs will be prepared in the Succotash kitchen on Hospital Hill. At the moment, they’re busy retro-fitting their truck.
"Food trucks are so new that electricians and plumbers have never done mobile kitchens," Van Horn says. "It’s kind of new for everyone. Somebody should write a ‘Mobile Kitchens for Dummies.’ "
Since Reyes and Van Horn both come from musical backgrounds, they envision the meatballs as just one aspect of the street persona. "It’s going to be a show," Reyes says. "We’ve got some gimmicks up our sleeves."
And looking further down the road?
Reyes dreams of owning a fleet of food trucks and managing a commissary that could serve as a hub for other vendors.
Even missing a few rivets and a final shine, Port Fonda represents the upper echelon of street food.
Since mid-January, Patrick Ryan (a chef who has cooked at the River Club, Room 39 and Green Dirt Farms in Weston) has teamed up with artist friend Peter Warren and Max Watson, a co-owner and "jack of all trades." Together they have been gutting a 31-foot Airstream trailer to create a mobile restaurant like no other.
"It’s really a new genre for our city. It’s something I don’t think anyone could duplicate," says Ryan, who earned his culinary chops at Rick Bayless’ acclaimed Frontera Grill, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Chicago. "We’ve put an insane amount of work into it. The idea was not only would it be a mobile food business, but it would also be a movable piece of art."
The dining compartment is paneled in 300-year-old Southern yellow pine carefully curved to hug the Airstream’s natural contours, while the stainless steel in the galley kitchen is riveted like an airplane.
"Sure, we could have painted a big UPS truck," Watson says, "but we wanted something old, cool and vintage to turn into something new and fun, and something that’s got a vibe."
Warren, whose work often features recycled and reused materials, signed on to direct the Airstream’s mighty transformation. He admits you can imagine all you want, but when it comes down to it, it’s still a process.
"It’s a living sculpture," Warren says while standing in the Kansas City, Kan., garage where the renovations have been done out of the limelight. "It’s been a hard project, but also really, really rewarding on multiple levels."
Warren’s dog, Memphis, has served as guard dog and companion while the men have put in grueling 80-hour weeks on the project. The plan is to park the mobile restaurant at the stationary Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange parking lot on Main Street. Owner Howard Hanna has been supportive. Ryan and Watson both work shifts at his restaurant. But the trailer is also mobile enough to move to sites for private parties and catering jobs.
The first dinners held the last week in April were snatched up. Ryan plans to offer three nightly seatings at 9, 10:30 and midnight. The family-style, prix-fixe meal for six will ring in around $200. An early menu includes whole bone-in Berkshire pork shoulder from Arrowhead Farms served carnitas-style, Rancho Gordo beans, fresh corn tortillas, guacamole and fresh-made salsa, agua verde and a choice of churros con cajeta or tres leches cake. But he can turn around and sell tacos and tortas out the window.
"People say about food trucks, ‘Oh, that must be fun!’ But this is going to be how I make 100 percent of my livelihood," Ryan says. "I want to be taken seriously and to cook high-end food."