When the PORC food truck rolled out onto the streets of D.C. in January 2011 with a menu focused on barbecue sandwiches, it was a fast success. Sales were strong and fans were dedicated. But there were drawbacks: no booze, no seating and, of course, no permanent location.
Those issues were resolved last month when co-owners Josh Saltzman, Trent Allen and a few partners opened a restaurant in Columbia Heights called Kangaroo Boxing Club. Though the name (inspired by an inside joke among the owners) is different, the menu includes some of PORC’s signature dishes, as well as more appetizers, entrees and a full bar.
“It’s the things you can’t logistically pull off in a two-hour period inside a 6-by-10 metal box,” Saltzman says.
He’s not the only mobile proprietor to have sought a fixed address. Local food truck owners are increasingly using wheeled start-ups as a way to test concepts with the public, perfect recipes and create buzz. During these tough economic times, money — or a lack of it — often is the driving reason why entrepreneurs start out with wheels.
“We always wanted a brick-and-mortar location,” Saltzman says. “The whole intent of the truck was to build up enough capital and get our brand out there.”
Kangaroo Boxing Club was financed in part by PORC’s profits and promoted to its fans via social media. Both elements were key to getting it opened — and packed — its first weekend without spending any advertising dollars.
That story probably sounds a little familiar to District Taco owners Marc Wallace and Osiris Hoil. They’d wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in 2009 but lacked the financing. Instead, they started a food cart — “a cheaper way to make the dream happen,” Wallace says.
The concept was a hit, giving the partners enough money to finally open a restaurant in Arlington in late 2010 and another in D.C. this May. (Wallace won’t ever get rid of the cart, however. When he’s not parking it in long-favored hot spots, he uses it as a research drone with which to scout other neighborhoods for future restaurants.)
Similar goals propelled Pleasant Pops, which rolled out its first mobile eatery in July 2010, selling ice pops inspired by Mexican frozen street treats called “paletas.”
“We got to see a lot of different neighborhoods, meet a bunch of people, get our brand out there and tell people our story,” says communications director AnneMarie Ashburn. “It also allowed us to establish relationships with the farmers and suppliers who provide our ingredients.”
Those connections turned out to be key, since Pleasant Pops crowd-sourced some of the money for its first fixed location through the fundraising platform Kickstarter.com. Ultimately, Pleasant Pops raised more than $26,000 from more than 400 donors, who will be thanked in writing on the wall of the Pleasant Pops Farmhouse Market & Cafe, which is aiming to open by late August in Adams Morgan.
A month after that, Far East Taco Grille — a food truck since September 2011 — hopes to open its first grab ’n’ go eatery on 15th Street NE. For owner Alex Cho, the move made financial sense, as he was renting space in another restaurant to prepare food. The new space will serve as both his prep kitchen and a new revenue stream, even as his truck continues curbside service.
All of the owners agree that there are pros and cons to each sort of set-up. Wallace boils down the differences: “Trucks are a lot sexier than a brick-and-mortar. But a brick-and-mortar is better at making money.”
Mobile Menus vs. Sit-Down Service
Far East Taco Grille’s truck specializes in tacos, but its new restaurant will also offer burritos, as well as quesadillas and Asian-Mexican fusion wings. 703-338-7339.
The PORC truck specializes in barbecue sandwiches and sides, while Kangaroo Boxing Club has a full menu featuring a range of items, from bacon-date crostini to burgers. 3410 11th St. NW; 202-505-4522. (Columbia Heights)
Pleasant Pops’ mobile eatery stars “paletas” (Mexican-style ice pops), while the forthcoming café will also offer sandwiches, salads and coffee. 202-596-8440.
District Taco’s truck concentrates on tacos and burritos, while its sit-down spots offer an expanded menu with quesadillas, nachos and ceviche. 1309 F St. NW; 202-347-7359. (Metro Center); 5723 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-237-1204.