With the passage of a mobile food ordinance last year, local food truck owners like Audie Earley are putting in long hours, code-compliant equipment and lots of elbow grease to make their businesses work.
Earley, who owns Street Eats, has always had an eye for creative outlets and entrepreneurship. He always has a side gig going, he admits, chuckling. When he started his food truck business in 2016, it was a perfect combination of both.
“I’ve always loved to cook and create, and I think that was just an outlet for me to be creative in,” Earley said.
As much as he enjoys it, operating a food truck is a challenge, Earley said. In addition to the truck, Street Eats just opened its first brick and mortar business in summer 2019 in downtown Paris. The two businesses certainly have their differences, he said.
“You’re trying to fit everything that you have in a commercial restaurant establishment into a 6 foot by 10 foot box. So that gets difficult at times,” Earley said.
In Earley’s opinion, the issue with Paris’ food truck scene is that food trucks require an additional draw to the location, such as a concert or event.
“If there’s not something drawing people there, there’s just not enough reason for a large crowd to go to a parking lot just to grab something to eat,” he said.
There have been eight food truck permits issued in the City of Paris, city building official John Ankrum said in an email. There are multiple regulations for them; the trucks must be located at a business, and they cannot be on a vacant lot. A third-party gas inspection is required, as well as a hood with ansul system for grills and fryers. The health department oversees health requirements, and fire and building departments do safety inspections, he said.
Obtaining all the proper permits and paying fees can stack up quickly, as well as outfitting the right vehicle, Earley said. Some owners and operators can invest as much as $100,000 into their food truck — “and you have to get that back $4 at a time,” he pointed out.
Attending an event can sometimes cause more loss than profit, he said. Costs to set up shop can run high; if there’s no crowd, there’s no profit.
“I think there’s a misconception, too, with all the food trucks that were popping up, that we were all cash cows,” he said. “They see things (like) “Food Truck Wars,” and they don’t realize all that line of people were paid to be there.”
When Earley began operating his food truck, they were at Collegiate Drive and Lamar Avenue; but sales were not as profitable as he hoped, he said. But after setting up shop at the Farmer’s Market, the business found a loyal set of niche customers.
“If it really wasn’t for the farmer’s market, I’m not sure we would still be operating a food truck,” he said. “There’s a clientele that trades at the market, and they’re very loyal customers. So you see the same faces every Saturday, and they’re really into quality products, quality food, and they like unique things.”
To succeed as a food truck vendor and turn a profit, Earley recommends owners find their niche.
“Find something unique and make it knock-your-socks-off good,” he said. “Don’t be the next burger place or corn dog stand. Do something that’s unique to yourself and unique to Paris.”
Persistence and frugal resource management are also essential, he said.
“Don’t think you’re going to open up and have a line of 100 people that first day. You have to stay the course,” he said. “Believe in what you are serving, and put in the hours. You have to put in the hours yourself for it to be successful.”