Proud American

Veterans find success in the competitive food truck world

For 15 years, Alex Del Castillo served his country as a cook in the U.S. Navy. When he went into business, he knew it had been time well spent.

“In the Navy, you get an attitude of checking things before you go, and going over checklists,” said Del Castillo, who opened a food truck, Taceaux Loceaux, in New Orleans in 2009.

“This goes well with running a restaurant or a food truck. If you can cook on a sailboat, then a food truck is even nicer, because it’s a lot more still.”

Eight years later, Del Castillo’s whimsical takes on Mexican classics have made Taceaux Loceaux one of the Crescent City’s longest standing food trucks.

It’s a success story that’s being told across the country. Despite local challenges and bureaucratic hurdles, military veterans throughout the U.S. are opening gourmet food trucks with inventive dishes that go way beyond hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and pretzels. Thanks to their military backgrounds, their perseverance and their savvy use of social media, the vets say food trucks serving quality chow are more popular than ever. 

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But nothing comes easy, even in The Big Easy. New Orleans wasn’t very food-truck friendly when he got started, Del Castillo said.

“The city allowed 100 food trucks in New Orleans, but they counted ice cream trucks as food trucks. My wife and I helped form a coalition and brought our issues to city council and changed the laws. 

Many of the food truck owners say social media has played a huge role in their success.

“During presidential campaigning season, apropos of immigration, they talked about how there was a taco truck on every corner, as I think as a form of fear mongering,” Del Castillo said.

“We thought, ‘We love the idea of a taco truck on every corner,’ and came up with the hashtag #atacotruckoneverycorner and used it in our social media. I think people liked it and can agree a taco truck on every corner is a great thing.” 

Air Force veteran Richard Myrick, author of "Running a Food Truck for Dummies" and editor-in-chief of the trade website Mobile-Cuisine.com, agreed that social media is a vital component of running a food truck.

“Not only does social media allow a food truck owner to post their next parking location or event they’ll be attending, but it gives them the ability to see what their customers are saying about them,” he said. “This information can give insight into how to make their food and service better than it already it is. It also allows them to speak directly to their customers and share information about their food truck brand and staff.”

Last year, when Savannah, Ga., passed an ordinance allowing four food trucks to operate in the city, Allison Terrill and her Canadian boyfriend, Frederic Theriault, launched the Squeaky Beaver Food Truck. Its specialty: the Canadian delicacy known as poutine — french fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy.

Terrill, a former Navy engine mechanic and onetime military brat, said the Squeaky Beaver represents everything she was raised to value.

“It's about unity,” she said. “For example, we've combined the colors of the U.S. and Canada flags into our entire scheme. Our menu is based on Quebecois fare, but we've been sure to incorporate so many American twists, such as a humorous play on Paula Deen's famous ‘It's butter y'all’ phrase with our ‘It's poutine y'all.’"

“I have to utilize lessons in patience, persistence, personal ambition, drive and determination — which I grew up having a sense and practice of, but the military definitely refined it.”

But Terrill can’t just park anywhere in Savannah. The law requires food trucks to operate on private property, so she’s parked the Squeaky Beaver outside a local brewery.

“Getting spots to park and operate is difficult,” she said, “and it’s pricier to run a truck than I thought. But working with the health department is easy.”

Like Del Castillo, Terrill said social media has been responsible for much of her success. “Without it,” she said, “we’d go broke with old-school advertising.”

In 2015, in Orange County, Calif., Army veteran Don McPeck opened Mess Hall Canteen Food Truck with his son, Jake. Mess Hall Canteen has a higher price point than 50 percent of trucks, McPeck said, but people line up to buy his food because it's made from scratch and is a quality product.

“We see many food trucks come and go in Orange County because they think it’s an easy lifestyle,” McPeck told Fox News. “It’s not. You get your nose in it and you get it done.

“Work hard and outwork everybody else. That’s what the military engrains in you. We work extremely long days and are super tired, but you learn to put on your boots and go.”

Theme, concept, a quality product and social media are all critical to a food truck’s success, he said.

“Many of the trucks here don’t use social media. They’re crazy not to. We produce tons of food photos and videos and share them on Facebook. We’re a vacation destination, so we try and snap photos of people visiting from out of state and post photos of them on our social media.

“When we go to LA, we literally have people jumping up and down when they see us, because they’re already following us on social media and they’re excited when we can make it up to their neighborhood.”

McPeck is one of many veterans funded by Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit that offers loans to the mobile food sector in California. “We lend to U.S. veterans all the time,” said Anna Suarez, Opportunity Fund’s small business marketing director. “They are definitely folks we want to help out, and we aim to do that.”

“What we’re seeing,” said McPeck, “is that there’s a lot of new trucks that hit the food truck scene in Southern California, but the problem is they don’t think out their concept and the quality of food they’re putting out. “As new food trucks come in, the older ones that aren’t putting out a true gourmet product, they close up.

“I’d say food trucks are hotter than they used to be. I find cities all around the world that are either modifying existing food truck regulations to make it easier or creating new laws that will allow food trucks to operate within their city limits.”

Myrick said it’s hard to report statistics on food trucks in the U.S. because every state, county and city has different rules and regulations. Prospective food truck owners should spend time looking into their local and state laws involving food trucks. 

If the city or county allows food trucks, they need to know what type of equipment is allowed, what kind of food can be sold and how it must be stored, prepared and served. With this information they can start on a business plan and start pricing out trucks that will meet their needs and local regulations,” Myrick said.

He continued some cities, such as Pittsburg and Detroit, do not allow food trucks to park within their Central Business Districts unless there is a city approved food truck event.

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New York City, Myrick said, banned food trucks from parking in metered parking spots, which excluded food trucks from parking in Midtown. The city also capped the number of food truck permits, which Myrick said, “has created a black market for vending permits; some have been sold for over $10,000.” That-- and sky high costs of buying ingredients around the Big Apple-- make it a difficult city in which to start a food truck business.

On the other hand, many cities California make it easier to open food trucks. “The primary reason is that California actually has laws written into their state constitution which prevent lawmakers from creating laws that do not relate directly to public health and safety,” he explained.

It also helps when a city is active in creating food truck events for the population. “Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, actually has a monthly food truck event in the city, which he attends,” Myrick said.

Del Castillo emphasized the importance to start the trend, not follow it.

“The smart money is there first to start the trend, then the fast followers come, and the stupid money comes after that. There was a batch of food trucks that came in and weren’t that good and fizzled out. You gotta be good, just like anything else.

“You need good food, the right place, and social media.” 

Eva Fedderly is a travel, culinary, and political journalist who writes for Travel+Leisure, Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She lives in Savannah, Georgia and can be found on the road and overseas.