Mobile Gourmet: Food trucks take to the streets
By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Joy Ring of Ringo’s North Star at Urban Nights Food Truck Rally
When is a restaurant not a restaurant? When it is a food truck. No longer the roach coaches of yesteryear, today’s food trucks are the latest, hottest trend in the restaurant industry. In the past few years, a growing number of mobile restaurateurs have taken to Dayton’s streets, serving up diverse offerings in a fun atmosphere. DCP reached out to several of the area’s food trucks to get an inside look at what it takes to make a mobile eatery work.
Fressa is the start-up truck from husband and wife team Matt and Lisa Halpin. Chef Matt honed his culinary skills here in the Miami Valley, with a culinary degree – and multiple awards – from Sinclair before working the restaurant circuit around town. Fressa specializes in modern comfort food – unique flavors destined to become personal faves.
Zombie Dogz offers a convenient, economical and exciting alternative to the everyday, mundane fast food chains with horror-themed gourmet dogs and sausages and unique side dishes. Owners David and Lee Ann Van Artsdalen worked in the restaurant industry for years before branching out on their own.
Harvest Mobile Cuisine provides comfort foods, locally sourced. Owner Patrick Sartin began cooking at an early age before honing his skills at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. After working in all corners of the United States, Sartin returned to Dayton to evangelize the importance of locally sourced, healthful foods.
Ringo’s North Star offers stone hearth pizza, gourmet burgers, quesadillas and other locally sourced treats. David Ring, proprietor, has a long history of working in the restaurant industry, from the front and back of the house to private catering.
McNasty’s Richard and Cathy Bell owned the former brick and mortar restaurant, McNasty’s, in Huber Heights for 20 years before moving out of state. They are back, this time with a mobile food truck specializing in great sandwiches.
The Monchon is the brainchild of co-founders Adrian Perez and Eduardo Arroyo, both graduates of the University of Dayton. Monchon is derived from a late-night business in Puerto Rico and specializes in gourmet fast food. Monchon sandwiches are popular with the UD late night crowd, due in part to the special Puerto Rican bread and the secret sauce.
Go Cupcake founder Jenny Cox reminds you to save room for dessert. Her mobile cupcake truck combines two hot culinary trends. A lawyer in her past life, Cox used her research background to perfect recipes and techniques and her legal savvy to navigate opening her own business.
How did the idea of a food truck versus a brick and mortar take root?
Even before I started culinary school, my wife and I dreamed about opening up our own restaurant. If we ever had to drive a long way we would most likely start talking about the kind of place we would want to open and what we would want to sell. After getting my degree and working for some great chefs and restaurant owners, I found myself really wanting my own place, but opening a traditional restaurant takes a lot of start up capital. My wife is a teacher and I was a cook, plus we had just had our daughter so money was not something we had a lot of. Being in the restaurant industry, I tried to keep up with the trends that were up and coming and I was hearing a lot about food trucks. Here were people starting businesses while they were still really passionate about cooking and serving great food and doing it much sooner than they would normally have been able to. Opening a food truck takes less money than a brick and mortar restaurant, although there are quite a few drawbacks. But, we loved the idea of having our own place and we didn’t care if it had wheels for the first few years. This was our way to start our dream and doing it before we had a chance of talking ourselves out of it. –Matt Halpin, Fressa
The idea for a food truck came after we came up with our idea for horror-themed hot dogs. We thought it would be a lot of fun to travel all around Ohio and meet new people and see new places. –David Van Artsdalen, Zombie Dogz
The food truck thought has been bouncing around in my family for the past three years. It is the best way to reach a broad audience and an opportunity to share my offerings with more people by having the capability of moving the restaurant on a daily basis. A brick and mortar does not allow for the potential to cater to as many areas of the Miami Valley as I intend, and limits the opportunity to spread my message. First we were going to build a truck for Maine and use it as a traveling Lobster Bake-mobile. That thought changed upon visiting Dayton in 2010 and seeing how poor the eating culture was around here, and the challenge it would bring in order to try to educate the general public about the benefits of eating local. –Patrick Sartin, Harvest
During my later careers, I always looked back on my restaurant days as the time when I most enjoyed my work and [so I] decided that life was too short to not be doing what I really loved. With two kids in school, having the funds and time available to start a brick and mortar restaurant right away just wasn’t practical, but having a food truck gives us so much flexibility in terms of where and when we operate, so we can be at our kids’ events, and although there is still a great amount of cost involved in starting a food truck, it is substantially less than starting a brick and mortar restaurant. The mobility also allows us to test our menu in many different places and get an idea of what areas seem most supportive of our particular style of food. As the kids grow and graduate, a brick and mortar restaurant might just be a direction we’ll be interested in heading. -David Ring, Ringo’s North Star
We’ve done the brick and mortar already. [A food truck is a new] challenge for us. –Richard Bell, McNasty’s
We were looking for the most efficient way to start our business. We had tons of ideas but no money and the food truck was the best option to start our business. A brick and mortar location is fixed and cannot move. On the other hand, a food truck can change location where the demand is at any given time. –Adrian Perez, Monchon
I was attracted to the flexibility that a food truck business provides in terms of schedule and opportunity. There are so many creative ways to use the Cupcake Truck by taking it directly to office events, school affairs, parties, church festivals, store openings, art fairs and other community celebrations . . . the possibilities are endless. –Jenny Cox, Go Cupcake
What part do food trucks play in the larger Miami Valley restaurant industry, now and in the future?
It’s true for me as it is a lot of food trucks that the end game is a brick and mortar restaurant. Starting at this point hopefully means a better chance of success down the road. What Dayton needs are more successful businesses … Trial and error and asking forgiveness got to be common practices for us. We probably had to rethink our business plan two or three times before we could feel like we were getting anywhere. But we have come a long way since then. We have the Miami Valley Mobile Food Association now – I’m the president – and that helps give owners a voice with city government and within the community and we even have designated areas of the city where we can set up on the street and serve. I think what’s really encouraging is that when I drive through town I see people recognize us. … When you’re mistaken for a weird delivery truck for so long, that’s a great feeling. -MH
Food trucks are really good for the community because they will bring people to areas that they usually wouldn’t go to. -DVA
I believe food trucks play a very important roll in the future of Miami Valley restaurants and the general area because it brings diversity back to eating. Most restaurants you visit these days all offer the same exact thing and purchase their products from the same corporate vendor that has saturated our market and bellies. Food trucks bring excitement back to the streets. It is a proven fact that trucks bring vibrancy and foot traffic to city streets, as well as business to other surrounding establishments. If you have been in downtown Dayton in the past several years it is obvious that the city is in desperate need of a facelift and revitalization. Food trucks can and will make this happen, the question is how long is it going to take to allow us to show the city what we can do for its future. The individuals you see operating these trucks are the future restaurant owners and caterers of the area. I have chosen the mobile route because I feel it is the best way to reach a population that obviously needs to be shown that there are different flavors out there than what the corporate market is selling them. Another benefit of food trucks in the Miami Valley is we support and source our products from the local area when applicable. This is huge in supporting the revitalization of our area, helping the other business grow and the local environment prosper. Nothing is more important then sourcing your products locally. -PS
It does seem that cities with a vibrant food scene also have a vibrant street food scene, and excitement about food in general just helps everyone. [T]he people of the Dayton area have very much embraced the street food culture, and in other cities where people have been enthusiastic, food trucks have maintained popularity and stayed viable for many years. -DR
Food trucks are up and coming in Dayton. A food truck can be a great business, [especially with lots of] summer events in the area. -RB
Food trucks in the Miami Valley have just started to establish. It is a completely different model from the brick and mortar restaurant and even for some start-ups a step from starting your brick and mortar restaurant. Food trucks decrease the risk of starting a business enormously by reducing – and in some cases eliminating – costs that the brick and mortar business has to incur. -AP
The future is bright! One of the most important recent developments is the establishment of the Miami Valley Mobile Food Association. For the first time, food truck operators have the opportunity and forum to work together to promote our businesses. We have already had the chance to participate together in local food truck rallies, and many more of these collaborations are planned. The formation of the MVMFA demonstrates that food truck operators can organize and present a unified front to local government, can establish procedures whereby community members can procure food trucks for local events, and can, in general, celebrate street food in Dayton and the greater Miami Valley. -JC
What are some of your favorite experiences so far?
So far I would say that the Food Truck Rally was one of the best experiences. I got to see a packed sidewalk in downtown where everyone was excited to try Dayton-based businesses. Food trucks drew a huge crowd and hopefully those people are excited to come back and see what else is going on in Dayton. -MH
Our favorite moment so far was probably when we catered at HorrorHound [a horror film celebrity event] in Sharonville earlier this year. We had only been open for about two weeks. We got to meet so many of our idols in the horror scene. It was so much fun. -DVA
My favorite experiences so far are seeing the smiling faces on those individuals that try my food. This is what I live for, making people smile through my flavor. Though the road traveled thus far with my truck has been a bit bumpy, one smile from a customer each day is what continues to drive me forward on my path. -PS
For us, it really boils down to the individual customer, so our favorite experiences are simply each time we serve someone who is really excited and happy about their food. -DR
Meeting all our old friends from McNasty’s restaurant. -RB
My favorite experiences have been at the University of Dayton. UD students love the different atmosphere and late night food that the Monchon provides them. -AP
I love that so many people from our community have approached me with ideas of creative ways to use the Cupcake Truck to add fun to events of all kinds. More than anything, I have enjoyed meeting so many great people. It is a wonderful thing to have a business where enthusiastic customers come up to our serving window and say, “this is so cool!” And it is. –JC
Hungry? Track your favorite food trucks using social media. All of the trucks mentioned in this article, as well as many others in the area, are on Facebook and Twitter. Like their pages or follow their feeds to see when they will be in your area. Also, visit the Miami Valley Mobile Food Association on Facebook at facebook.com/pages/Miami-Valley-Mobile-Food-Association/479079455484663 to see a more expansive listing of the food trucks in the Greater Dayton Area.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com