Food trucks are big business for area’s many “rolling chefs”

Melissa Burden

        If you are a fan of Food Network programming, you may be familiar with a little show known as “The Great Food Truck Race.” Originally airing in 2010, the show is currently in its 10th season.
        The premise is seven to eight teams of three people drive, park, cook and try to outsell the other teams in order to win $50,000, and in many cases, own their own food truck. Watching the show, the whole idea of owning a truck seems glamorous and, one might think, easy.
        Talking to local food truck owners, although they love what they do, glamour is not part of the job. Making customers happy is.
        Holly Jester, owner of Holly's Homemade Street Eats food truck, went into business in September of 2016. A graduate of Eastwood High School, Jester, of Genoa, was trained in Early Childhood Education at Penta Career Center before getting associate degrees in both Culinary Arts and Small Business Management from Owens Community College.
        “When I was younger, I got into cooking,” Jester said. “I dreamed of owning my own restaurant. You can work like 100 hours a week though as a restaurant owner.”
        Jester, who is the mother of one, decided to own a food truck for more practical reasons.
        “It really is more family-friendly,” she said. “Yes, I do work a lot on it, but not as much as I would if I owned a restaurant. The truck really is a lot of fun and my daughter loves to be in there with me.”
        Although fun, Jester said the food truck business really is so much more than what viewers see on television. She found her truck in Portsmouth, Ohio, and replaced much of the equipment before getting on the road.
        “On the television show, the trucks park and there are tons of people showing up to buy food,” she said. “Yes, they use social media to let people know where they are, but it really takes a long time and word of mouth to get people to seek out your food.”
        Jester said people do follow her on Facebook and at the many events at which she parks her truck.
        “I guess I thought it would be easy in the beginning,” she said. “I thought I would park at factories and make money. I now do more festivals and other events. It is also much different than a restaurant. In a truck, you have to park where you are level. If you are not level your equipment will not work.”
        Jester is known for her pot roast melt sandwich and her Buffalo chicken dip served with tortilla chips or in a sandwich. Turkey melts, BBQ beef, grilled cheese, soups and salads are also big hits with customers, Jester said.
        Holly's Homemade Street Eats regularly posts on the Facebook Page. Jester will be at the Gibsonburg Homecoming Festival, June 1-June 22; the Rossford Farmers Market on Wednesdays starting June 26 and the Water Lantern Festival at Maumee Bay State Park, Saturday, July 20.
“My food is my money”
        Mike Lopinski, of Northwood, owns the Lake Erie BBQ Food Truck. He worked in skilled trades for 25 years, retiring from Green Line Foods, in Bowling Green.
        “A lot of my friends at my backyard barbecues would say my food was money and I should have a restaurant,” Lopinski said. “I worked as a kid in restaurants. The overhead for a restaurant is high and most fail in one to three years. I can have my truck paid off in a year.”
        Lopinski had his 30-foot trailer built for him in Tennessee. He has a 250-gallon wood burner on the back.
        “All of the wood I use is locally sourced,” he said. “I can smoke ribs in four to five hours and pork butts take eight to 10 hours.”
        Even with all of the planning, Lopinski said it was not that easy running the truck at first.
        “My truck was eight weeks late which put me in the hole from the beginning,” he said. “I struggled for the first few weeks getting customers. By the second year, I started learning how much food to have and how much to cook so there was not as much waste. That was the hardest part. I have learned over three seasons how much to cook, and we have an established clientele so it is easier.
        Lopinski said he believes about 80 percent of what is shown on “The Great Food Truck Race” to be true. He said the licensing alone for the trucks has to be very stressful to figure out.
        “My licensing is different in every location,” he said. “It is $50 per year in Toledo and $25 per year in Northwood. In Lake Township, it is $75 plus a background check every 90 days.”
        People search out Lake Erie BBQ for its smoked BBQ rib dinners, loaded fries with pulled pork, beans, cheese and BBQ sauce, and for its perch dinners.
        “I have a killer batter that is second to none in this area,” Lopinski said. “I have people from as far away as Swanton come every week for perch dinners and sandwiches. I also sell a lot of chicken chunks and wings.”
        The truck also specializes in shrimp sausage and jalapeño sausage sandwiches. The sausages are made specially for him by Lou Takacs at Takacs Grocery and Meats, in East Toledo.
        Lake Erie BBQ can be found Wednesdays at Family Farm and Home, 3700 Williston Rd., in Northwood; Thursdays at Great Eastern, 2676 Woodville Rd., Northwood; and Fridays at Tractor Supply Company, 3942 Navarre Ave., in Oregon. The truck will make its first appearance at the Ottawa County Fair, July 15-21. Other dates and events are posted on the Lake Erie BBQ Facebook Page.
“The food people want”
        Quinn McDougle, of Oregon, owns Quinn’s Concessions. The Clay High School graduate works a full-time job as a wastewater treatment operator at First Solar, in Perrysburg. 
        “I was in the food service industry for many years,” McDougle said. I was in the food service program at Clay and then I was a combat cook in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Polk, in Louisiana. I then got my associate’s degrees in restaurant and hotel management at Owens.”
        After taking a break from food service, McDougle went into business with his trailer in 2013.
        “I always thought that getting a food truck would be a way for me to eventually open a restaurant,” he said. “After one week, I decided I never wanted to open a restaurant. I like going to different places and setting up.”
        McDougle said that although he has watched the Food Network show a few times, he said he doesn’t know how the truck operators are able to get a line of supplies so fast. He would like to compete on the show, though.
        Quinn’s Concessions is known for fair-type foods including funnel cakes, fried vegetables, burgers, bratwurst and huge tenderloin sandwiches.
        “I like to offer different foods so it is easier to fit in to the festivals I do,” he said. “I do mainly festivals, fairs and farmer’s markets so it is fun to provide the food people want at those events.”
        The truck can be found at the Old West End Festival, June 1; the  Oregon Rollin’ Food and Farm Market, June 5; the Phantom Fireworks Boom on the Bay at Maumee Bay State Park, June 8; Curtice Kidz Day, June 9; at Clay High School, for the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, June 20-21; and at Oak Shade Grove, July 6, for Boomfest.
Specialize in what you love
        Jorge Zapata, owner of the Taco Gringo food truck, has been a rolling chef for two years. Born in Mexico and raised in Toledo, Zapata retired from Chrysler and decided to have some fun.
        “I kind of got into it for the excitement and the fun,” Zapata said. “We get to talk to people and mingle with them. It is really just a big, huge party.”
        Zapata said in some ways, food truck life is similar to what you may see in “The Great Food Truck Race.”
        “Food trucks are everywhere now so a lot of the time, we do ‘fight’ with other food trucks over who gets what spot,” Zapata said. “Unlike owning a restaurant, we do not wait for our customers to come to us. We use social media to let people know where we are, but mostly we go to where our customers are.”
        Zapata is currently in the process of finding a building where he and his sons can build food trucks for people to either buy or rent. Trucks can cost $45,000 up to $150,000 depending on the equipment a person wants and the amount of luxury, Zapata said.
        “I want to build them and allow people to lease their own trucks,” he said. “If you are smart, you can lease a truck for $2,500 month. The truck pays for itself. There is no reason a truck will not pay for itself.”
        For those looking to get into the business, Zapata said, based on his experience, having a smaller menu is the best.”
        “My experience is to not have a huge menu,” he said. “You have to specialize in what you love to make, that makes everyone happy. Having too many items is overwhelming and you have to remember you also have limited space.”
        According to Zapata, his truck is famous for… wait for it... tacos. Taco Gringo offers tacos filled with chicken, beef steak, shrimp, chorizo and eggs as well as potato. Zapata also caters to vegans with their “build-your-own-taco” with items likes nopales (cactus), grilled vegetables, potato and soy chorizo.
        The truck has also added a grilled shredded chicken torta, a tostada and elote, also known as Mexican street corn that is a huge hit, he said.
        The truck posts their current location on their Facebook page, TacoGringo Toledo, but spends Friday and Saturday evenings in downtown Toledo.
Holly Jester, a mom of one, dreamed of owning her own restaurant, but opted for a food truck because it’s more family-friendly.  Friends told Mike Lopinski, of Northwood, that his barbecue was “money,” and he should start a restaurant. Potential overhead and other costs led him to start a food truck instead. (Submitted photos)


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