The American Dream Is Food On Wheels

An article originally published in Thrill City - August 7, 2013

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who loves anything as much as Mike Stenke loves food trucks.

 

As the former owner of Klausie’s, a mobile purveyor of Detroit-style pizza, Stenke led the fight to open Raleigh up to food trucks two years ago. Next Sunday, that fight will culminate in a food truck rodeo featuring more than 70 trucks. Two years ago, Klausie’s was the only food truck in the city.

 

Stenke sold Klausie’s earlier in the summer but has plans to open a stationary restaurant, out of which he’ll run another truck.

 

When I arrived at Durham’s Full Steam Brewery Wednesday night to watch a series of short documentaries about the Triangle’s food trucks, I didn’t anticipate Stenke’s fervor. For one thing, Chapel Hill’s food truck scene is limited to, well, Carrboro. More than that, the fast-food industry isn’t exactly known for the enthusiasm of its employees. I had been to a food truck rodeo in Chapel Hill toward the beginning of the summer (sponsored by Chapelboro 2.0!), and while it was pleasant, no one was any more fired up than they would have been at a picnic.

 

So when Stenke made his first appearance on screen, I was a little taken aback.

 

“Food trucks are just rolling dreams,” he said to the camera matter-of-factly.

 

Someone had told me earlier in the evening that temperatures could soar above 135 degrees inside the truck kitchens — maybe rolling nightmares, I thought.

 

But when I found Stenke after the screening and talked to the makers of the documentaries, it became clear to me that this man was not being melodramatic.

 

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Steve Brame co-owns Creative Illusion Productions with his wife, Kim Brame. Their company’s interns, mainly college kids from the Triangle, spent the entire summer interviewing and filming the owners of the area’s food trucks. The project was called “Street Foodie Diaries,” and their work will be released on YouTube on August 8.

 

“There’s something we’ve noticed with every single truck,” Steve said. “We’ve interviewed them with sweat pouring out of them — they’re just beat, but they’re happy. They love it so much.”

 

Kim said she’d noticed the same thing.

 

“Across the board, everyone we’ve talked to is ecstatic,” she said. “But look at Mike right now.” She motioned to Mike Stenke, sitting at another table. “He’s miserable; he doesn’t have his truck. He’s in limbo.”

 

Operating a food truck is difficult. The temperatures, as Steve and I mentioned, are downright dangerous. Owners have to rent or borrow kitchen space from restaurants to store their wares, and food truck chefs often work between 12 and 15 hours a day.

 

But there are many things that endear this relatively new development in the food industry to a growing number of people.

 

For one thing, the capital costs associated with a food truck are many times lower than what one would pay to operate a traditional restaurant.

 

“I figured that I could either sit around and wait for my money tree to sprout and open up a restaurant, or I could work with what I had,” said Mark Thomas, owner of popular Triangle-area truck CJ’s Street Food. He told me he used to work as a professional chef. “That’s how I fell into it.”

 

Food trucks also allow their owners to take bigger but potentially more lucrative risks than their restauranteur counterparts. If a chef has a crazy new food idea — baguettes stuffed with delicious meat and vegetables, in the case of Baguetteaboutit — his or her investment is not only smaller but more flexible. Mike Stenke’s food truck came about as the result of a combination of these reasons.

 

“You’re able to go to a lot of different markets and test your product,” Stenke told me. “If it doesn’t work, no big deal; you just take your old label down and put a new one up. As long as you have a kitchen inside that truck, you can turn a dinner truck into a breakfast truck, and you can turn a taco truck into a Greek truck. It doesn’t matter!”

 

Everyone I talked to mentioned something else: intimacy between creator and consumer. Food truckers who started their careers in restaurants or corporate kitchens said they’d always wanted the satisfaction of getting to talk to their customers about what they’d made for them or watching someone’s face light up as they ate. Owners delight in this aspect of business, and the cult followings enjoyed by some food trucks suggest customers appreciate it as well.

 

“I’m a lot more likely to eat someone’s food if I know their story, which I think is the coolest part of this project,” said Ally Levine, who worked on the documentaries with Creative Illusions. She’s a Raleigh resident and a rising first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You can listen to a band and really like them, but when you see them in concert, all of a sudden there’s this visual connection to the music you’re hearing. It’s more intimate. You feel more like a part of their creation. By sharing the story, we’re allowing people to become more intimate with the trucks.”

 

Food truck owners come from an eclectic variety of backgrounds. Some begin with experience in the food industry, while others buy a truck possessing an enduring love of food and little else. But Kim said she’d noticed that what many people riding the food truck wave have in common is a desire for freedom.

 

“A lot of these people have, over the last several years, come upon some economic struggles,” she said. “Some of them, their companies went under. One guy got laid off by an email. They said they didn’t want to be in the position again where someone controlled their destiny. You heard several of them say [in the documentary], ‘I’m my own boss.’”