Appetites: When the (food) cart comes before the cafe

Foxy Falafel
An order of the falafel platter which is served with hummus, seasoned cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers and pita chips sits on a table at the Foxy Falafel in Minneapolis
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News file

The Twin Cities restaurant scene is transforming thanks to food trucks that are expanding to open brick-and-mortar establishments.

Critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl joined MPR News' Tom Crann to talk about the explosion of restaurants that started as food trucks. Moskowitz Grumdahl writes about the trend, which she calls a "mega-boom," in the Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine.

Tom Crann: Let's start with the basics. What's the history of food trucks in Minnesota?

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Of course, there's always been mini-doughnut trucks. But starting in 2010, the city of Minneapolis changed its laws to allow food trucks to exist and park in official downtown zones. The state of Minnesota also changed its laws. Now, in the summers in the Twin Cities there are trucks everywhere. It's common for people to seek out the trucks for lunch and becomes something of a big party.

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Crann: How large of a boom are we seeing? Your magazine article mentions more than half a dozen ventures.

DMG: It's actually quite significant. We are looking at establishments like Smack Shack; Sushi Fix; World Street Kitchen; Hola Arepa; Chef Shack; Foxy Falafel; Potter's Pasties; A Cupcake Social; and Bistro La Roux.

Crann: Food trucks must be a good path to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant?

DMG: They appear to be. We're all familiar with the idea of refining your business plan. But, I don't think people understand how brutal and efficient the market can be. The food trucks are something of a laboratory for what will be successful.

Consider the Smack Shack. Josh Thoma started with a number of items that fell flat. Over time he realized that nobody wanted chilled crab off a truck, but they loved lobster off a truck. So, the lobster stays and the crab goes.

Crann: Is there a financial advantage to starting with a truck and then opening a fixed establishment?

DMG: The advantage comes in that you can do a lot yourself and don't have a ton of labor costs.

Also, vendors can end up with a couple years of financials that show how the concept worked. I talked with Birk Grudem who co-owns Hola Arepa. He said when they first went to the bank with a concept of selling aerpas — which are wonderful South American cornmeal sandwiches — the bank wasn't interested.

However, a loan officer was interested once the concept was a proven success with long lines and the numbers to back it.

Crann: What are the biggest challenges food truck owners face when trying to take the wheels off and open restaurant?

DMG: The challenges really aren't all that great. I've been covering this story for a few years and didn't anticipate how much owners would really enjoy having a restaurant. They are all so grateful to not have to drive refrigeration over potholes. The weakest link in a food truck is the freezer or refrigerator compressor, which breaks easily.

Talking to this breed of restaurateurs feels a little like talking to people who survived the Great Depression. They are happy for so many of life's tiny luxuries.