Food-truck boom yields new brick-and-mortar restaurants

By Pam George
DBT Contributor

When Norrawit J. “Wit” Milburn took his Kapow food truck on the road in 2014, the self-proclaimed “Thai Guy” was at the forefront of a culinary convoy. Food-truck fever had finally spread to Delaware, and entrepreneurs like Milburn were pulling up to festivals and farmers market to serve curious customers.

Restaurants saw the appeal. Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts, a hospitality group, bought a food trailer hitched to a pickup truck. Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli, then based in Ocean City, Maryland, and Drip Café in Hockessin also took the show on the road.

Lately, however, there’s been a shift. Milburn, for instance, now has Kapow Kitchen in the Booths Corner (Pennsylvania) Farmers Market, and at least three other food truck owners have brick-and-mortar projects in the works. SoDel Concepts, Rosenfeld’s and Drip Café decided to concentrate on brick-and-mortar sites.

As the segment of the hospitality industry matures in the state, operators on both sides have seen the pluses and minuses.

A foothold in the industry

Some food-truck operators saw the business as a means to an end. “The plan from day one was to open a restaurant,” said Mike Stanley, who debuted his WiLDWiCH food truck in July 2014. “I didn’t know whether it would take months or years or decades. It was never supposed to be the only thing, but it seemed like a smart way to start.”

The food truck is a test kitchen of sorts. “Your friends and family tell you how good your food is, but you don’t know how viable it is until you do it,” he said. If you can’t make it with a food truck, you won’t lose as much money as you would with a restaurant.

Nearly two years after starting WiLDWiCH, he opened a café serving breakfast and lunch at 800 Delaware Ave. in Wilmington. He planned to open a second café in Cocina Lolo’s old site on King Street in early February.

Similarly, Melissa Ferraro of Outlandish Food Truck is opening Sonora in the old David Finney Inn in New Castle. A culinary school graduate, she was a chef at Jack’s Bistro, the restaurant that once leased the space. “I said if ever I owned a restaurant — whenever that time came — this would be the place,” Ferraro said. When it came up for rent, she jumped at the chance.

Kristin and Milton Bowen, who own the Nude Food-On-The-Go food truck, this spring opened V-Trap Kitchen & Lounge in space formerly occupied by Bistro Jacques in Wilmington’s Little Italy section.

Bowen said her food-truck customers often told her they wanted to eat her cuisine more often, which was one impetus behind V-Trap. (Although the restaurant and food truck have different names, they both specialize in healthy and vegetarian foods.)

The ability to test a market also appeals to restaurants. Warren Rosenfeld, owner of Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli, for the first two years created a regular route of food-truck spots in Sussex County as well as Salisbury, Maryland, to gain recognition for the Ocean City, Maryland-based operation. He succeeded. The name and menu became so familiar that he had a ready audience by the time he opened a Rehoboth Beach location on Del. 1 in 2017. A site in Salisbury opened in 2018.

SoDel Concepts’ food truck, Big Thunder, was not attached to any of the hospitality company’s existing restaurants. Consequently, it served items from Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria and lobster rolls famous at Northeast Seafood Kitchen. Alternatively, it offered dishes that weren’t in any of the restaurants. “It gave us the opportunity to explore foods we never made before,” said Scott Kammerer, president of SoDel Concepts.

A mobile billboard, a food truck clearly is a marketing tool for restaurants. Kammerer said Big Thunder helped SoDel Concepts reach new customers by appearing at festivals and events. Restaurants also
use the trucks for catering.

Getting down to basics

Restaurants with food trucks have a ready place to prep and cook their food. But food truck-only operators — who are also subject to Delaware Health and Social Services regulations — typically rent space in a commissary, which can get expensive. Moreover, commercial kitchens for rent are hard to find in Delaware.

Having a dedicated kitchen is a primary reason why some food-truck owners seek a restaurant site. Although Booths Corner Farmers Market is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, Milburn has access to the Kapow Kitchen all week. “You have your own refrigerator, you can do your prep work there and you’re cooking there,” he said. “I have a home.” He can also park his truck in the lot.

Plus, he makes money by serving market customers on the weekend. “It ended up offsetting my costs better than I thought, so now I have two trucks,” said Milburn, who is also managing his family’s restaurant, Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar, on the Wilmington Riverfront. 

However, juggling a food truck and a brick-and-mortar location can prove challenging. SoDel Concepts sold Big Thunder. “We decided to focus on the restaurants,” Kammerer said. “They’ve become so much busier in the last five years — the whole area has grown much busier.” SoDel also added a banquet venue to its stable.

Greg Vogeley, owner of Drip Café in Hockessin, can relate. Initially, he’d planned to start a food-truck business that focused on coffee. But the café became available at the same time he’d gathered the funding to buy the truck. With the restaurant under his belt, he launched The Brunch Box food truck. When his Hockessin site’s business took off, the food truck became hard to juggle. He sold it and recently opened a Newark café.

Rosenfeld said the effort to keep his truck on the road and manage three locations also proved too taxing. He’s spent up to $6,000 a year on repairs. Entrepreneurs who started as food- truck operators are well acquainted with the tribulations. “We’ve been diligent about researching how to maintain and take care of our truck ourselves, which has saved us hundreds of dollars,” Bowen said. “We just had a generator issue the other day. If I’d taken it to the shop, it would have cost $700. Instead, I found a $20 part, watched a video on YouTube and fixed it myself with the help of some friends who know something about cars.”

But for Rosenfeld, the cost of the repairs was only the start. He paid licensing, insurance and a cut of the proceeds to some high-traffic venues. “It was overwhelming,” Rosenfeld said. “I decided to concentrate on the three locations that I have and do away with the administrative load. I put the operator, a very good line cook, back on the line in Rehoboth.”

That’s not to say that all restaurants are getting rid of their food trucks. Taco Reho, part of Rehoboth Beach-based La Vida Hospitality Group, is the kitchen for Big Chill Surf Cantina, a tavern. When not in use, The Sea Hogg Street Eats, part of Zogg’s Raw Bar in Rehoboth, is parked at The Wheelhouse, Zogg’s Lewes sibling, and has served the outdoor area.

Keeping it on the streets

The Bowens plan to keep their food truck on the road, as do Ferraro, Stanley and Milburn. Granted, these operators are all in northern Delaware, where there is more activity. “I make a nice living with the food truck,” Ferraro said. “I love doing events and festivals.”

Dover, which is hungry for food trucks, is nearby, Stanley noted. Generously populated by chains, Dover embraces the innovative fare that many food trucks offer.

Milburn serves up to 250 people during a two-hour appearance at Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington. “It would be hard to do that at my restaurant in the same amount of time,” he acknowledged. Milburn, who keeps his food-truck menu simple but memorable with Asian-inspired tacos and rice bowls, plans to venture into the Philly market this year.

Even so, the operators said the food-truck industry in the state is a bubble that is likely to burst, which may explain the addition of bricks-and-mortar for some. If there’s one thing that owning a food truck has taught them, it’s that there are detours on most paths.

Said Ferraro: “You have to be adaptable and ready to change.” 

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