The business of street food


The business of street food
The boys behind Eat Art Truck.

One of the many theories behind the recent spurt of restaurant closures in Sydney is that diners are moving away from the fine dining scene, instead preferring a more casual, relaxed atmosphere but still with the same top quality food.

Well it doesn't get more casual than ordering from the side of a truck and eating in a park or on your way back to the office. But this mobile dining style seems to be the type of experience Australians are growing hungry for.

Rafael Rashid operates two food trucks in Melbourne - Beatbox Kitchen and Taco Truck - and says peoples' demand for the street food experience has been growing over recent years.

Beatbox Kitchen hit the road in 2009 and serves up burgers and fries at music festivals and various Melbourne locations seven days a week.

In February of last year Rashid launched Taco Truck which, as its name suggests, sells the Mexican favourite.

And while it might seem like a low-stress, low-maintenance business model, that's not necessarily the case, says Rashid. The hardest part of the job is debunking the myth that street food is low quality, and perfecting the right balance of freshness and speed.

"That's the biggest challenge," he says. "Probably where you feel it the most is at places like music festivals where if you stand for a great food product and you have to pay high rent at some of these music festivals, you feel like there's going to be a trade off, which is traditionally why music festivals have really poor food. Because people need to sell a lot of it to make their business viable.

"So it's sort of the same in the street. It's how are you going to build a great business if you can't deliver a great product? You're talking about a real balancing act. It comes down to asking 'have I built the right menu?' and 'am I able to sell enough of this great menu to make it a viable business?'."

There's much more to operating a food truck than just driving from venue to venue dishing out simple but tasty meals. It's just like any other foodservice business, says Rashid, and there are serious costs involved too. "We operated without a fixed address for nearly two years," he says. "Now we have a warehouse with a prep kitchen and it allows us to get out a lot more often than we could have when we just had the truck.

"Having a fixed address is good, but that's going to take rent as well. I think it's a bit of a myth that everyone thinks you don't have rent. Our permits are as much as the rate payers'. Yes, we don't have fixed rent on the street but we do have a fixed warehouse...and you can't really operate without a fixed address because suppliers can't deliver to a truck. They need somewhere to go. Plus we have all our grease traps set up there so all our waste comes back and goes through there. It's quite a set up."

Sydney's street food scene isn't quite as established as Melbourne's, but that is changing with the City of Sydney's food truck trial now under way which will see ten operators roaming the streets as part of the 12 month test run.

Eat Art Truck is one of the food truck concepts that made the cut and operator Stuart McGill, ex-Tetsuya's, hopes his concept will push the boundaries of what people consider to be street food.

"We don't call it high-end street food, but it is street food that we consider to be a lot more accessible and we use some of the best produce and techniques, like you'd fine in a normal restaurant," McGill says. "We're themed around a barbecue, so we like that style of cooking. It lends itself well to the kind of street food that we want to do. I guess you could look at it as trying to push the envelope a bit as far as what people think street food is and what they can get out of the side of a truck."

McGill says Eat Art Truck has been very well received with favourites off the menu already establishing themselves with customers - including pulled pork in a bun with barbecue sauce; shichimi wings (Japanese pepper seasoned chicken wings); and beef ssam, a Korean-style lettuce wrap with twice cooked beef.

Despite its popularity, McGill agrees with Rashid that the costs of operating a food truck aren't to be dismissed. "We use a prep kitchen, and then we've got wage costs for myself and for the other guys who have very good credentials," he says. "The labour cost is what kills us, it's definitely our biggest expense. I definitely wouldn't say it's a cash cow or that we don't have expenses. We have a 15 kVA generator we have to fill with premium petrol and that takes a tank every three hours. Running costs aren't minimal."

There are usually two chefs working in Eat Art - in a five metre by three metre space - at any given time, in a basic kitchen which comprises two combi ovens, a chargrill, a deep fryer and a touch screen point of sale system. Decking out the truck was no simple feat either.

"It's essentially like a commercial kitchen, just on the back of a truck," McGill says. "We had to abide by the same standards and build it to the criteria that any other restaurant would have to abide by. So we had to think about exhaust fans and things like that. We have to obviously have hot running water and we have to deal with waste water, all those sorts of things that you wouldn't automatically think of, but of course they're a crucial part to you operating in a normal manner."

Stephanie Raco and her partner Rode Vella operate another of Sydney's trial trucks, the Mexican Cantina Mobil, after previously operating a restaurant in Manly for nine years.

"The truck took my partner longer to fit out than the 120-seat restaurant we used to have," says Raco. "It's like building a kitchen inside a boat or something - just the amount of curves and tight spaces, and certainly trying to generate enough power to enable all the equipment that you require, even if you are [only] keeping food at a safe, consistent heat. That was really challenging."

No cooking is actually done on the truck, but rather in an off-premise kitchen. The ingredients are simply kept fresh and/or warm and compiled on the road, making the truck's bain maries, freezer, microwave and underbench fridges of utmost importance. Food safety, after all, is a big concern for street food vendors.

"It's just a matter of educating the staff about the four hour danger zone," says Raco. "We bring back-up bain maries, and gastronomes if we are doing a long trading period, so we're able to put fresh ones in. We have a fantastic hot box that is able to keep food at the appropriate   temperature for many, many hours.

"Other than that it's just normal hygiene. We have our handwashing sink as opposed to our cleaning, sanitising sink. It really isn't that dissimilar from the normal expectations within a restaurant. "We obviously can't wash onboard, we don't have those types of facilities for crockery and utensils and things like that, so there is a tub where anything dirty goes and we just have to make sure we've got back up, back up, back up of spoons and tongs. So it's a lot of fresh use rather than washing and re-using."

Before being accepted as part of the City of Sydney's trial, Cantina Mobil was already cruising around the city's beaches, with a permit from Warringah Council. With the concept so warmly received wherever the truck has parked, Raco and Vella now have plans to build a fleet of Cantinas to roam all over Sydney.

Raco says people are enthusiastic about the quality offering. "Parking down at Customs House [at Sydney's Circular Quay] we've got McDonald's to one side of us and Hungry Jacks to the other side of us," she says. "And people are so grateful that there's this late night offering that takes them out of those questionable fast food chains that have dominated for so long and not really given us much by the way of great flavours. People are excited on so many levels." 



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