Backseat drivers

Backseat drivers

For some owners of Baton Rouge's food trucks, the mobile eatery isn't their only successful business enterprise.



Tim Houk is a Realtor with Keller Williams Red Stick Partners who works long hours selling residential and investment property.



Recession or not, business has been good for Houk, who has seen a 30% rise in annual sales every year since entering real estate in 2006. He attributes it to hard work, a ritualized schedule and relentless goal-setting.



Sales targets for Houk's team of three are displayed on the office whiteboard, along with catchy quotes from motivational speakers, like Jim Rohn's "To succeed in sales, simply talk to lots of people every day. And here's what's exciting—there are lots of people!"



But despite his laser focus on selling houses, Houk decided last year to open Salivation Station, one of the latest entries in Baton Rouge's growing fleet of food trucks.



"I cook every day. I love food, and I wanted to be back in the food business," says Houk, who once ran the now-closed Arceneaux's, a fine dining restaurant in St. Francisville. "This was my way to participate in the food industry without having to give up my life."




Houk hatched the idea of Salivation Station after trips to Los Angeles, where he sampled ethnic street food and fusion cuisine from some of that city's famed trucks. Last September, he saw an available catering truck in Baton Rouge on Craigslist and decided to take a chance. By then, seven trucks had launched, and the city enthusiastically was receiving them.



Houk recruited a business partner and an operations manager. He crafted a lunchtime concept he believed was different enough from other trucks, which then offered barbecue, hot dogs, hamburgers, crepes and tacos. Salivation Station serves six wraps and paninis, collectively branded "the six degrees of salivation."



So far, Houk says, things are going well.



"I love my truck," he says. "It's hard work, and I pretty much missed the first half of this year working 18-hour days to get it off the ground. But it's great."



Houk is one of a handful of local food truck operators who have businesses independent of their mobile eateries. They've determined that the food truck business is a solid investment despite its demanding hours and capital outlay.




Nationwide, food trucks remain one of the most popular culinary trends. In the National Restaurant Association's 2010 survey of chefs, 30% of respondents said that mobile food trucks and pop-up restaurants would be the hottest operational trend in 2011. Menus are nimble and can change on a whim. Trucks also promote a grass-roots, outlaw culture, since they reveal their whereabouts largely through social media. Los Angeles County, considered the trend's epicenter, now is home to about 9,500 food trucks.



Enthusiasm notwithstanding, Houk says he couldn't sustain his new venture without a full-time operations manager, who drives and sells. His business partner cooks, while Houk handles promotion. He often drops by between showings to listen to customer feedback about the menu, whose biggest current seller is an ancho chili-braised pork wrap with homemade boudin, Cole slaw and cilantro-jalapeño aioli.



"With a food truck," he says, "it's easy to adjust to what the public wants."



Two of the city's most visible trucks, Ninja Snowballs and Taco de Paco, were founded by entrepreneur Jared Loftus.



ON THE ROAD AGAIN

A sampling of Baton Rouge's mobile eateries:

A Coffee Truck
Menu: Coffee

All Star Catering
Menu: Cajun, seafood

Curbside
Menu: Burgers and fries

Fresh Salads and Wraps
Menu: Salads and wraps

Go-Ya-Ya's
Menu: Crepes

Kickers BBQ
Menu: Barbecue

Latte e Miele
Menu: Gelato

Nice Dog Hot Dogs
Menu: Hot dogs

Ninja Snowballs
Menu: Snowballs

Salivation Station
Menu: Paninis and wraps

Southern Dawgz
Menu: Hot dogs

Taco de Paco
Menu: Tacos

Three Bones Catering
Menu: Cajun

He entered the sector not because he had a food background, he says, but because it sounded like an interesting idea. By the time Loftus launched Ninja Snowballs in 2009, his collegiate apparel store, Tiger District, had been open on State Street for five years.



"I had been reading about food trucks in L.A. and New York, and how they were using Twitter," Loftus says. "I had been doing social media for my business and had experienced the highs and lows of foot traffic. I thought about how you could take a business, and instead of just hoping customers were going to come to you, you bring it to them. I thought it was brilliant."



Loftus also is busy with three other entrepreneurial ventures. The physical location of Tiger District has been replaced by an online enterprise set to morph into a nationwide venture called College District. He owns 250 domain names, through which college football fans will be able to purchase game day T-shirts and submit original designs this fall.



He also co-owns a social media consulting firm, Socially Awkward, and co-founded Entrepreneur Headquarters, which is renting work space in a 3,000-square-foot Perkins Rowe office to entrepreneurs and startups.



Loftus says the trucks have helped him attract investment and interest in his other ideas.



"It's almost been a way to legitimize myself as an entrepreneur," he says.



Similarly, other food truck owners see the eateries as a way to extend a bricks-and-mortar brand, acting as roving billboards that can reach new markets.



Restaurateur Kevin Black founded Go-Ya-Ya's, the only local crepe truck, after opening O-Ya-Ya's, a café located inside Courtyard Gifts and Interiors on Arnold Lane in August 2009. The physical location closed in late May.



Black opened Go-Ya-Ya's after several trips to Los Angeles, where his wife worked in the film industry. He had used the restaurant as a daily launch pad for the crepe truck, often doubling up on ingredients, even when they end up in different dishes.



He says his decision to sell crepes was risky in a market known to favor big portions and po-boys.



"That's exactly why I did it," Black says. "You can always get a deep-fried shrimp po-boy, but where else can you find a crepe? We're always talking about our French heritage."



Fresh Salads and Wraps founder Pat Fellows decided to enter the food truck market this summer to bring new exposure to his healthy fast-food concept, which includes fresh-made salads tucked in wraps or served in take-out cartons.



He says he wants to bring his downtown-based eatery's menu to other parts of the city, and the truck will help identify areas where his concept might perform well.



"It's a fantastic marketing piece for us," Fellows says. "Even if it just breaks even, it's giving us more visibility. It's really going to open up opportunities with events. It's also enabling us to test-market different locations in case we want to set up a future bricks-and-mortar restaurant."





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