All Good Things...
Is the Food Truck Fad Coming to an End?
The meals-on-wheels movement wonders if its journey is over.
Anthony Calleo works 16 hour days, most days a week, tossing pizza dough and topping it with soppressata, mozzarella, and sauce—most of the ingredients made from scratch—before zipping the pie into his food truck’s oven, where each pizza is cooked to order. When he’s not making pies on board Pi Pizza Truck, he’s driving to the commissary to get the truck inspected (all food trucks must head to a city-run commissary daily to have their vehicles serviced), purchasing groceries, prepping ingredients, working on budgets and websites, and updating Pi’s Twitter account so that his nearly 7,000 followers will know to find him at, say, Fat Cat Creamery tonight instead of Catbirds. It’s just another busy day for a food truck business, except—
“I’m not in the food truck business,” Calleo says. “I’m in the getting-a-pizza-restaurant-open business.” The angular, bespectacled 34-year-old was a commercial real estate broker only a few short years ago, before giving up his slacks and Billy Reid shoes for a perpetually flour-covered apron and a punishing work schedule. And he did it all for one reason: so he could one day open a pizzeria of his own.
Houston’s modern food truck boom traces its roots back to 2010 and 2011, when trucks such as The Modular, Fusion Taco, Good Dog Hot Dog, Green Seed Vegan, Bernie’s Burger Bus, and the Eatsie Boys began setting up shop in parking lots outside coffee shops and bars, introducing a whole new generation to the idea of meals on wheels.
Four short years later, they’ve all gone brick-and-mortar. The Modular became downtown’s Goro & Gun; Fusion Taco opened its own restaurant a block away on Market Square. Good Dog has set up permanent shop in the Heights, while Green Seed Vegan’s full-service restaurant occupies a busy corner in the Third Ward. Bernie’s Burger Bus is constructing a burger palace in Bellaire, even as its fleet of three trucks continues to crawl across town, and the Eatsie Boys now run a popular cafe near the Museum District, as well as their very own microbrewery: 8th Wonder.
Of course, there are some stalwarts who haven’t yet parked the truck and put down roots, but it may not be long before they do.
“We’re trying to go brick and mortar,” H-Town StrEATs co-owner Jason Hill says during a lull in his lunch service outside Inversion Coffee House one cloudy afternoon. “That’s the whole point.” Chimes in partner Matt Opaleski: “That’s what brought me back [to Houston] from Chicago. I always wanted to open a restaurant. It was $42,000 to open this thing. It would have been at least five times that to open up a restaurant.”
And so, three years later, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Construction on an H-Town StrEATS eatery has begun in a sweet spot next to Fat Cat Creamery on Shepherd and 19th in the Heights—a block that’s also the future home of much-anticipated restaurants Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents. But don’t get the idea that the new H-Town StrEATS, when it opens, will supplant the old. The truck—and its popular Shorty Mac sandwiches filled with macaroni and cheese and braised short ribs—will continue rolling along, a popular option among many trucks-turned-restaurants. “We just won’t be on it all the time,” says Hill.
Part of the reason so many of Houston’s original food trucks are making the move to brick and mortar? “The fad has passed,” Opaleski states bluntly. “A fad’s a fad. They always pass. But it’s not just Houston; the fad’s passed everywhere.” Food truck parks are fads, too, say the partners. What isn’t a fad are restaurants, although the prospect of a permanent location is alluring for other reasons too, including economic.
“It’s just way too much work for not nearly enough money,” says Calleo of the food truck business. “If I had the pizza store open, I would do in a day what I do in a recent week, easy.” For now, he works hundred-hour weeks on a business that he too fears may be a fad.
“I would be very scared about opening a food truck now,” Calleo says, even as more parks to hold them keep opening. “If I was coming to this now instead of three years ago, I would be very nervous. I think the novelty wave has worn off.”