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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ryan Seabrook mapped out a plan: Start a food truck. Run it for four years. Open a
He actually wound up
graduating to brick and mortar early. After just two years working the streets with his Greek Geek trailer, Seabrook turned his attention to The Olive Branch Bistro, a Northeast Albuquerque restaurant that debuted last month.
He made the transition ahead of schedule thanks to a partnership with a pair of other onetime food truckers: his mom, Karen Seabrook, and her longtime friend Michele Haskins. The duo gave up their own ride, dubbed Hot off the Press, to launch the restaurant near Louisiana and Montgomery.
The Olive Branch Bistro is just one of a series of local restaurants born of mobile operations. More established examples include Safari Grill on the West Side and Boiler Monkey Bistro – now on Mountain Road, but soon to be expanding into bigger Downtown digs – and the trend seems to have accelerated in recent months, with several truck/trailer veterans setting up fixed locations.
For Seabrook, that was always the idea.
“This is literally a dream come true,” he said of the eatery, which continues serving the trucks’ bestselling items, plus a host of other Mediterranean and American fare.
For others, the road simply led to a restaurant.
Kelly Adams headed out with his Rustic truck and its burger-centric menu four
years ago. He had no defined restaurant aspirations at the time, but said the mobile grind – from the extreme workplace temperatures to limited storage space that necessitated daily supply runs – ultimately steered him in that direction. He signed on for a spot at Green Jeans Farmery, the shipping container community near Carlisle and Interstate 40, and opened there last fall. While not quite a traditional restaurant, given the food court-like nature of the development, planting roots marked an evolution for the business. Rustic has increased its staff and its sales, and Adams has since sold his truck.
“It just seemed like a logical transition to me,” he said.
The Toasted Bean trailer continues to dish out crepes and all manner of coffee drinks for special gigs. But owners Rod Mason and Jonna Stanger recently halted its daily operations after buying and starting operations at a grab-and-go cafe inside the Alvarado Transportation Center in Downtown. Mason, a former network operations technician, said he did not know what to expect when entering the food business five years ago, but that it has become his passion. Though adding a cafe has upped his expenses, including lease payments and salaries for four new staff, he is eager to keep growing with permanent locations. He already has begun seeking other sites.
“I want to put one on every corner,” he said.
Kristina Leeder started her Conchita’s Creations truck in 2012. She did solid business serving tacos, what she calls “New Mexico fusion food,” and baked goods based on her grandmother’s recipes during lunch-hour stops at places such as the University of New Mexico. But it was the booming catering she did on the side that prompted her to seek a brick-and-mortar location with a larger kitchen. She opened Conchita’s Cafe last December in the Simms Building Downtown.
For Leeder, the transition has proven rocky. The catering business has increased. But, despite her efforts to continue what worked on her truck – like a daily $5 lunch special – business has been slow to materialize at the 48-seat cafe.
“It’s very difficult to get the word out, so business has been quite a struggle,” she said, noting that she made $224 during one recent day at the restaurant.
A typical two-hour food truck stop usually meant $250-$400 in sales.
Location, location, location
The food truck scene continues to flourish in Albuquerque, according to Patrick
Humpf, who runs his own, Gedunk, and also serves as an administrator for the ABQ Food Trucks Co-op. New operators continue jumping on board, though sometimes they merely replace others that quit what Humpf said can be a grueling business. Overheads may be lower than a regular restaurant, but mobile vendors remain subject to many of the same health and equipment standards, and have other challenges. The climate became a little more difficult for food trucks with a new ordinance barring them from setting up on a city street within 75 feet of a regular restaurant. (Humpf said he’s heard that has hurt some trucks that focused on Downtown, but doesn’t know of any that folded as a result.)
Still, he said, many chefs simply prefer the mobile model and don’t see it as a stepping stone to a stationary setup.
“Most of the food truck owners have no aspirations to be a restaurant owner,” said Humpf, who counts himself in that camp.
Dave Sellers, program director at the Albuquerque-based Street Food Institute, said some food truck owners enter the business specifically for the freedom and flexibility it offers, but there is “definitely a solid percentage” of people for whom a restaurant is the ultimate goal. Sellers, a chef who has had his own restaurant in Santa Fe, said food truck experience should ease the transition since the owners understand food costs, have refined their offerings and, ideally, have built a following. That history also might make it easier to obtain financing, he said.
“The key is really you’ve got to be super careful about location because, with a food truck, you have that ability to move so you can find events and whatnot. With a restaurant, that can be a killing blow if you start off in the wrong spot,” he said.
Adams from Rustic on the Green credits location in a buzzed-about development, his already proven menu and existing fan base for his early success at Green Jeans.
“It’s been outstanding,” he said.
Mason has had to tweak his menu for his cafe location, adding breakfast burritos and subtracting crepes, but he said the mobile business gave him a solid education in food costs and customer tastes.
“I think if you just bought a huge (coffee) shop and you jumped in, there’s a lot of room for error. If you’ve never done it before, you’re going to fail if you don’t do your homework completely,” he said. “(The mobile business is) a very good way to learn.”
Seabrook said years on the Greek Geek taught him how to cook fast, which has been a blessing and a curse at The Olive Branch Bistro. Sometimes, he’s delivering the main dish while customers are still taking their first bites of an appetizer.
That has been an adjustment in a restaurant setting, as has tracking and maintaining the larger inventory required.
But he said things have gone well otherwise in the restaurant’s first month, with traffic steadily picking up and the relatively vast kitchen area providing the menu experimentation opportunities he and his partners were seeking.
Of course, it hadn’t yet yielded enough cash for the owners to get paid through the first month, but Seabrook said he expected to turn that corner soon.
Leeder, meanwhile, is making some changes that she hopes will spark business, including adding weekend hours starting next month.
She eventually plans to start sending her food truck back out for events like the Truckin’ Tuesday gatherings on Civic Plaza.
“Just to let people know (about the cafe),” she said. “A lot of (truck customers) would say ‘Where can I find you?’ It’s nice to say ‘We’re just a few blocks away.'”