By Robert Rivard
First Friday-goers: Be nice to the food truck workers tonight. It’s hard ass work, the pay is iffy, the tips meager, and you’ve been drinking. Oh yeah, the tasty food you just ordered will be ready in minutes, and you’ll probably get change back on a $10 bill. I know all these things because I spent a hot Friday night as a food truck worker.
I worked a shift for Ana Fernandez, the artist who owns the Institute of Chili(formerly the Chili Queens) food truck based at the Alamo Street Eat-Bar.
Fernandez said it wasn’t clear legally if she could continue to use the Chili Queens name that hearkens back to the Mexican-American women who sold prepared food in Military Plaza in the 1800s. You can see old photographs of the Chili Queens and their customers at the Witte Museum’s South Texas Heritage Center.
“The food we serve is like the food the Chili Queens served, a mix of Tex-Mex and cowboy, the food that was born here in San Antonio,” Fernandez said. Both her food and her art seem rooted, literally, in her sense of place here. “I am a chili queen, it’s my culinary heritage.”
Fernandez earned a fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and then a fine arts graduate degree from UCLA. A Corpus Christi native, she experienced life in Chicago and Los Angeles, but found San Antonio offered the right mix of urban life and South Texas culture. Her paintings have been included in an exhibition at the McNay Art Museum, and she has pieces in the permanent collection at UTSA. Collectors from Texas to California have bought her work.
Fernandez still needs to supplement her income, and she isn’t the type to look for 9 to 5 work. Before finding her 1978 Chevrolet truck, a former Frito-Lay vehicle, on Craig’s List, Fernandez worked as a river barge driver. The job paid $6 an hour plus tips and required her to deliver a mind-numbing script to tourists, a spiel that wasn’t exactly designed to engage people intellectually about the city and its history.
So these days Ana, as regulars know her, is in the truck six nights a week, open until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. That doesn’t count the hours spent, shopping, cooking, opening and closing.
The late hours, I learned, is why the men includes breakfast tacos.
“The tacos are for the 1 a.m. crowd, the people who have been drinking all night, you can see it in their eyes,” said Jenn Villanueva, the truck cook and friend of Fernandez. Villanueva, a San Antonio native, commutes down to work here from her day job as a private chef in Austin. “People have been out all night and they come here to eat before they go home.”
Mayor Julián Castro is calling this the Decade of Downtown. I’d say 2012 is the Year of the Food Truck in San Antonio. Momentum has been building for two years in terms of the growing number of food truck permits issued, the city’s downtown pilot program and the establishment of food truck court locations. Food trucks have finally become a permanent part of the urban fabric. You can even download a free San Antonio food truck app, the work of SWEB Development, located blocks away from the Alamo Eat-Bar on South St. Mary’s Street.
So, wondering about the economics of the food truck business as much as the culture of the food truck community, The Rivard Report decided to get a truck-level view. Everyone dreams of owning a bar or restaurant. It all seems so romantic from the customer side of the counter. I have family in the food business and knew better. Friday night was refresher course in reality. I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, because I did, but…
My shift began hauling dirty pots and pans to the food truck court’s kitchen, where Fernandez scrubbed everything used to prep the evening fare. We no sooner returned to the truck when I was sent back out.
“Take this $5 and go up front and ask the guys for two bags of ice,” Fernandez said. At least they trust me with the money, I told myself, walking off.
The beer bar is the center of the Alamo Eat-Bar universe, I patiently waited while Dale Johnson, the quiet guy with the Wyatt Earp handlebar mustache, attended a growing line of customers ordering premium beer on draft. I took advantage of the wait and checked on my old Peugeot roadie locked in the street front bike rack, a paranoid reflex that started a few months ago when my wife Monika’s new townie was stolen from our Lavaca front porch.
My bike had a lot of company as more people flowed in from all sides for an early meal or an end-of-the-week beer. I collected the ice and trudged back to the food truck with a bag on each shoulder. A few vaguely familiar customers stared: “You working here now?”
A food truck park has a rhythm, and the early evening belongs to couples and their kids, and couples with no kids and their dogs. The kids seem content petting the dogs, sitting in the gravel, running free. Alamo Eat-Bar does not offer the familial amenities found at the nearby The Friendly Spot, although both businesses are owned and operated by Jody and Steve Newman. The playground at The Friendly Spot would make a great edition to Alamo Eat-Bar, but the space is smaller and there is a scruffy authenticity to the Eat-Bar that comes from its predecessor, the Acapulco Drive Inn, which closed in 2011. The Newmans lease the property from its owner, Guillermo Nicolas, and there are no plans at this point to make any substantial changes or improvements.
Six trucks occupy fulltime spaces, although they might come and go.
“It’s been a fun business to create and operate,” Jody said. “It’s organic and growing and still only three months old, so we are still in the watch-and-wait phase. Our goal is for one of our truck operators to be successful enough to one day open a stand-alone restaurant in Southtown.”
Authenticity means some bad comes with the good. The bathrooms are pretty grim, about the only complaint I’ve heard as a regular customer myself. The Newmans bring in Porta-potties for the First Friday crowd.
“It’s a 1937 building, which has the kitsch everybody loves and is worth protecting and preserving, but it also has its drawbacks,” Jody said. The Rivard Report agrees, but also believes great cities have great downtowns which have great bathrooms. God help us if Urban Robert visits, I thought to myself during a shift break.
Ana and Jenn took advantage of a slow stretch to teach me how to turn ice into slush and make a raspa, one of their signature offerings. It took me awhile to make my way through the bottles of available syrup flavors, and I had to ask for help filling my first order, which came from a little girl in the company of her mother .
“What flavor would you like, young lady?” I asked, leaning way out the food truck window. “Red,” she said, smiling. Red. There are about 10 red raspa syrups, ranging from watermelon to chamoy, some kind of sour apricot. Big Red, Ana said. The kids want Big Red.
Ana and Jenn did most of the actual work while I savored the differences between the classic chili on cornbread versus the vegetarian chili on cornbread. Even with a small window unit blowing, it’s hot in the confines of the truck with a hot grill fired up. I took every opportunity to deliver food orders to customers seated at nearby picnic tables, a nice Chili Queens touch. If they get real busy, you collect your food at the delivery window. Iff they have time, they deliver the food to your table.
Entrepreneurs with good credit and lot of faith can spend up to $80,000 on a custom, state-of-the-art food truck. It might not be as expensive as opening a restaurant, but’s a big time small business bet that few would be able to justify in terms of return on investment.
Fernandez bought her used truck in north San Antonio from a former produce vendor for less than $15,000, and didn’t have to do much to turn it into a food truck. She spent another $3,000 on a grille and other improvements, and will soon add an exhaust vent to complement the windows and the small air conditioner. I suggested an oscillating fan to keep employee morale high.
Add to the startup costs the monthly truck court rent, diesel and propane fuel, food (Ana, you’re out of Sirachi!) and labor costs, and it takes several $1,000 nights just to climb out of the red each month. That’s an easy sum to make when you’re slammed on a First Friday, or a Fourth of July, but weekday nights can be slow, especially for a new location. On the Friday I worked, business was slow for all six food trucks. The mercury climbed above the 100 degree mark and that seemed to affect appetites. People hang, people drink, but people don’t eat a lot when it’s that hot.
Ana and Jenn split tips, but most customers do not tip. Part of the food truck appeal is affordability. Credit card charges for a $2 raspa are not uncommon. The average food and drink order comes to less than $10. A 15-20% tip is considered customary — if not mandatory — in a restaurant. No such social tradition exists in a food truck court, although the beer bar tip jar always seems full. A buck in the bucket at a truck is a good tip. It’s also the exception to the rule, in my limited experience.
A large man in a wheelchair waved me out of the truck for a consult. How are the servings here? Very good, I assure him. Ample? Quite ample, yes sir. How ample? Ana signals me: Give him whatever he needs. I return to the truck and spoon up a triple serving of chili over cornbread and walk it back out. Got any extra cornbread? Okay, I say. Make it a couple extra servings, friend, and make it all to go. I take the food back inside and Ana helps me wrap everything nicely in aluminum foil and then bag it. The man motors off toward home, a warm bag of dinner in his lap, promising to return soon.
I’ll be back to check out the action on First Friday and probably sample the good food at some of the other trucks: The DuckTruck, Attaboy, Tapa Tapa, Wheelie Gourmet, and Where Y’at. I like them all. It’ll be nice to have a Friday off and just be a customer. Remind me to leave a good tip.Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.