Restaurant openings are a common trend these days in Whatcom County, but something that's just as hot is the proliferation of food trucks.
In the past three years the number of locally permitted mobile units has jumped from 27 to 60, according to data from the Whatcom County Health Department. Along with hot dog and taco menus, the new local food trucks offer a variety of items for customers, including barbecue dishes and sandwiches from unique recipes. The background of the food truck owners is diverse, from former chefs with plenty of restaurant experience to those who are just entering the food service industry with their own ideas on what might work.
"Food trucks have some passionate people and maybe that's what drives the business," said James Pitzer, who operates StrEAT Food, a food truck that started operating in Whatcom County a couple of years ago.
One of the attractions for starting a food truck business is that the start-up costs are less than the traditional restaurant route.
"Not that many folks can afford the brick-and-mortar restaurant, so this is a great alternative to getting started," said Gina Norton, co-owner of Bare Bones BBQ. The food truck is in a variety of locations during the week, including on the intersection of Smith and Hannegan roads and at Applied Digital Imaging on North State Street in Bellingham. "We're thankful to have jobs in this economy."
The stand started a year ago, using recipes from Norton's grandfather to serve slow-cooked pork and other items to customers. In the first year of business the company was able to pay off the start-up costs, which is faster than expected. The owners are now pondering expansion.
"We're so thankful that the community has come out to support us," Norton said.
The concept of bringing food to people is a notion growing in popularity. Man Pies, which has a permanent spot on Bellingham's Railroad Avenue, recently started using its own food truck. Bryce Sharp said they are considering a variety of locations around town, including near the airport.
While the mobility of a food truck has the advantage of bringing food to people in different parts of the county, it also has challenges. For Norton, the food truck business can be like camping in that forgetting to pack something can be a huge problem. Organization is also difficult: She has five different notebooks to track all the different schedules between the food truck and catering events.
It's also a learning process, even for those with a restaurant background. Pitzer said he quickly learned that it's important to keep the menu simple and that driving an 18-foot vehicle is a challenge.
"You really have to learn to adjust quickly; people get mad if you run out of stuff," Pitzer said.
One traditional problem for food trucks is making sure customers can find the truck, but it's becoming less of an issue with the growth of social media. Keith Stephenson and Vicki Lynne, who operate Roll' N Smoke Barbeque and Catering, said Facebook and the business' own website have been the most effective way to let people know where the truck will be parked. These days the truck is either at Kulshan Brewery, alternating days with StrEAT Food, or at public events.
"The advertisement of cherry wood smoke also helps," said Stephenson, noting that customers realize where the truck is by the smells wafting in the air.
Location is one of the keys to success, and in Whatcom County it appears to be more of an art than a science. Pitzer said when he first started, his plan was to park the truck at business parks that didn't have many eateries nearby, hoping to serve workers looking for a quick bite. While sales at some of these business parks were steady, he realized that many workers were in the habit of bringing their own lunch. For his food truck, some of the best spots are near other eateries. Others have noted public events and busy intersections also can be good spots.
So far it appears competition for finding a space isn't a major problem, despite the additional trucks. Generally it's a matter of getting permission from the property owner before parking the truck. Norton said she hasn't encountered ill-will when it comes to staking out a spot, and that for the most part food trucks support each other.
In terms of a customer base, all the food truck vendors interviewed agreed that it's across the board. At Roll' N Smoke, Stephenson said they get a fair amount of travelers that have heard about the food truck, as well as workers and families.
Food trucks are a popular trend across the U.S., one that's expected to continue to grow in Whatcom County. Along with the permits already issued, several more are under review, said Tom Kunesh, the food safety program supervisor for the Whatcom County Department of Health. In terms of regulation, food trucks present different challenges compared to a restaurant: Most food trucks use a different site to prepare some of the food, so inspectors need to keep track of two separate places for the same business.
For many food truck vendors, the long hours and the challenges of being mobile are balanced out by the positive aspects of the business.
"You get to meet so many more people and you get to travel around, which is great," said Norton, who previously owned a women's clothing store outside of Whatcom County.
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Reach DAVE GALLAGHER at email@example.com or call 715-2269.