Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
With the sun slipping from view
on a recent weekday evening, Zachary Gould sat at a picnic table on Marble Brewery’s packed patio with a couple of friends, a pint, and a heaping helping of seasoned french fries.
The beer came from inside the Downtown Albuquerque brewery; the eats came from The Supper Truck, a mobile kitchen unit parked out front.
Gould was among the stream of customers keeping The Supper Truck busy. A steady flow of patrons lined up outside the truck to order some of its “Southern fusion” cuisine – fried chicken bahn mi, barbecue beef tacos, shrimp and grits and, for the salt-and-grease cravings, french fries.
For Gould, a frequent brewery-goer, having access to food at taprooms like Marble’s has become an essential part of the experience.
“There’s been times I’ve been to breweries and there hasn’t been a food truck and I’ve left,” he said.
By now everyone knows we’re in the midst of a craft beer boom, both nationally and locally. Craft beer sales in the U.S. rose 17.2 percent in 2013, according to the Brewers Association, a national industry group. Their $14.3 billion in sales represent nearly 8 percent of overall beer market.
About 20 different craft breweries operate in the Albuquerque metro area today, and the number continues to climb. Chris Goblet of the New Mexico Brewers Guild said he knows of another 10 in the works around the city.
Among some of the most established, the struggle exists not in attracting customers but producing enough beer to keep up with demand. So why add a restaurant operation to the equation?
“We love having food for our customers,” said Amberley Rice, marketing director for Marble, “but we don’t necessarily want to be the ones making it.”
In a relationship frequently described as “symbiotic,” many craft breweries here and throughout the country turn to food trucks to handle their hungry customers. Trucks regularly park outside Marble, Tractor and La Cumbre.
The pairing of two trending Albuquerque industries seems to work for both sides.
“It’s definitely helped keep the trucks that go to the breweries in business and it helps keep the breweries’ overhead down, because they don’t have to invest in a commercial kitchen and all the staff (or deal with) the inspections and maintenance associated with that,” said Pat Humpf, an Albuquerque food-truck owner who helps coordinate truck gigs through the ABQ Food Trucks co-op.
While Marble sells a few snacky items from behind its bar – food currently sourced from nearby Cocina Azul restaurant – it began incorporating food trucks a few years ago after Marble co-owner/brewmaster Ted Rice had a chance encounter with some great tacos.
“I was driving down South Broadway one day and stopped at this food truck and fell in love with all the Mexican street tacos,” he recalled. “I invited them to come park in front of our place.”
That truck, Chicharroneria Don Choche is now part of Marble’s regular rotation of food truck visitors. Others include Soobak Foods (Korean soul food) and The Supper Truck.
The Supper Truck’s owner, Amy Black, says food trucks are “pushing people’s palates and being more creative and edgy with their food” and that they generally appeal to the same customers as microbreweries.
“I think with the newer, hipper food trucks it’s a perfect match,” she said. “(Craft beer fans are) young, affluent, fun people (who) like to hang out, and the same people like to eat at food trucks.”
Humpf said the local array of mobile food vendors fills many niches. Gourmet burgers. Pasta. Crepes.
“If you can get it at a restaurant, you can probably get it from one of the trucks (here),” he said.
About 90 to 100 mobile food units currently operate in Albuquerque, according to the city health department. While the craft beer revolution didn’t spawn Albuquerque’s food truck scene, it has certainly been a boon.
“I don’t think the food truck scene in Albuquerque would be as dynamic without the craft brew scene,” Goblet said.
‘Stick with beer’
Plenty of Albuquerque breweries make their own food, of course. Some go with simple sandwich-based menus; others aim for a legitimate culinary experience. The Stumbling Steer, for example, brands itself a gastropub and has banana leaf grilled salmon on its menu. Nexus Brewery’s New Mexico-style comfort food, meanwhile, prompted a visit from celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” TV show.
But the owners of Albuquerque’s forthcoming Red Door Brewing Co. never gave that possibility serious consideration, especially knowing they had plenty of local food truck sources to tap.
“We don’t know anything about menu design, we don’t know anything about purchasing or menu pricing,” said Red Door’s managing partner Matt Biggs. “We just wanted to stick with beer.”
Red Door plans to have a rotating cast of food trucks visit the site. Biggs said the strategy benefits everyone involved. Red Door provides the electricity and an audience. In return, the trucks offer a kitchen and enough variety that customers aren’t “stuck with one type of food” at every visit. Just as important, the trucks provide another avenue for reaching customers.
“From the marketing side, breweries actually benefit as well,” he said. “You’ve got independent organizations pushing the brewery. … It’s a very nice relationship between the two industries.”
La Cumbre has seen the value of the partnership play out many times, according to social media director Geraldine Lucero. If a scheduled food truck shift somehow goes unfilled “we’ve seen people leave the taproom maybe after one beer or not even stay at all because there’s no food,” she said.
Brewery gigs tend to be some of the most lucrative – and therefore coveted – locations for local food trucks.
Humpf said a nine-hour brewery stop could mean $1,200 in sales. By comparison, he estimated that the average lunch service equates to $125-$150 in sales for about two hours.
Louis Metillo launched Adoughbe Pizza six months ago with the goal of working at local breweries. Without that carrot, he says he may not have started at all. Adoughbe has three weekly shifts at La Cumbre, which represent about 75 percent of the truck’s total business.
“There’s never been a shortage of work,” said Metillo, who runs the truck with partner Lela Dominey.
Of course, it’s only good work if you can get it. More trucks want to park at breweries than there is sometimes space or actual demand, and the competition has been known to create tension.
Black of The Supper Truck said vendors used to fight over parking spots at Tractor in Nob Hill, so she worked to create a shift schedule that she says management has helped uphold.
Amberley Rice at Marble said there’s even a waiting list of vendors who want a spot in Marble’s truck rotation. Owners have lobbied her for shifts, touting their existing fan bases or award-winning grub. But Marble makes its decisions on a number of factors, she said, including food, personalities and whether the truck contributes to the community atmosphere the brewery aims to offer.
“Some trucks just are not a good fit. We’ll meet and talk and I’ll try the food and there’s nothing wrong with the trucks but they’re not what we’re trying to do at Marble,” she said.
Marble’s food strategy seems to have worked – at least as far as customer Logan Gillespie is concerned.
“Oftentimes,” Gillespie said recently from Marble’s patio, “I come here specifically to eat and the beer is the perk.”