Food truck: Fry Captain

Longtime chef Rusty Holman now practices his french-fry skills behind the window at Fry Captain. On a good day, the truck takes in around $500 selling just two products: fries and milkshakes.
Longtime chef Rusty Holman now practices his french-fry skills behind the window at Fry Captain. On a good day, the truck takes in around $500 selling just two products: fries and milkshakes. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:40 PM

Last summer, Jake Sendar and Timothy Patch turned an old van into an ice cream truck and made some fast money before Sendar had to return to Vanderbilt for his sophomore year as an economics major. The Post ran an article about the enterprise that ended with Sendar, then 19, musing about his future.

"I don't know," he said. "I think it would just be cool to get another Eurovan."

It didn't quite turn out that way. This year, Sendar's bright idea was a french fry truck as a way to make summer money. (Patch is no longer in the picture.) Sendar put together a 50-page business plan over the school year, got some money from Grandma and a bank loan, bought a truck he saw for sale in a parking lot and then set to outfitting it.

After Queenstown RV and Marine in Beltsville installed a fire-suppression system, propane tanks, extended bumpers and cooking equipment, the truck still had to be modified four times to pass inspection. Total startup costs: about $30,000. He was in over his head.

The day the Fry Captain truck finally passed inspection, Sendar had to return to Vanderbilt. The summer had ended, but the bills had not. Said Sendar, still a little dazed, "I never thought it would become a full-fledged food truck."

Enter Rusty Holman, a longtime executive chef whose last major stint was at Eatonville on 14th Street. He was ready to make a change when he saw Sendar's ad on Craigslist for someone to run his french fry truck.

Holman knows how to make french fries. He cuts 100 pounds of Kennebec potatoes, blanches them in 350-degree vegetable oil for six minutes, cools them, then crisps them to order. Given that fries are all the truck offers, except for milkshakes, finding someone who had the know-how was critical to Sendar's operation.

When the truck hit the streets in mid-August, they hadn't found a commissary kitchen to use as a base of operations (a problem for many nascent vendors). That meant blanching the fries on the truck before service, which takes an hour and a half and eats up the limited supply of propane.

The truck has been so busy since day one that Holman has had trouble hiring a staff. Right now he enlists the help of his girlfriend, Laura Culbreath, 34, and a friend, Justin Friedman, 31. There's no system in place to keep track of sales, but on a good day they take in around $500. Order slips fly all over the truck during service. They caught on to putting customers' names on the slips when auctioning off the orders became too time-consuming.

I arrived at Farragut Square at 11:30 on a sunny, late-summer Friday morning for my shift on the truck. Culbreath had already staked out a parking space and Holman, due to traffic woes coming from Maryland, showed up close to noon. On the same block that day were D.C. Slices, Sweet Bites and El Floridano.

Customers zoomed in even before the truck was parked, but the fryer oil had to heat up. After it did, business was nonstop, with Culbreath and Holman making fries, offered with a variety of flavored salts and dipping sauces. Friedman took orders. I was on the milkshake station.

By 2 p.m., Holman was out of propane.

- David Hagedorn


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