Cheese On Down the Road
With 25 years’ experience as a chef, Dave Danhi had his eyes on the prize at the 2009 Grilled Cheese Invitational. And though he didn’t win, he came away with something better: a winning idea for a business.
The epiphany hit him when he saw a crowd gathered around a food truck—hence the birth of Danhi’s Grilled Cheese Truck (GCT) in Los Angeles. Ironically, his nonwinning entry—the Cheesy Mac and Rib Melt—now nets 75 percent of sales as his signature sandwich.
Of course, ever since the first Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2008, mobile food vending has been on a roll. And cheese trucks such as GCT and the Cheese Corner in Los Angeles; Chicago’s Southern Mac & Cheese Truck; Durham, North Carolina’s American Meltdown; and Seattle’s soon-to-be launched Monte Cristo are keeping pace.
Hit the Road, Jack—with Brie and Cheddar, Too
Grilled cheese lovers, forget that sandwich Mom made. Brie, Gruyère, fresh chèvre, and smoked Gouda rule. At American Meltdown, Paul Inserra makes a point of using interesting and artisan cheeses. “We go through tons of cheddar but also more geeky cheeses like parrano and local goat cheese from Holly Grove.”
Even more daring is mobile cheesemonger Laurent Bonjour, who sells 70-plus varieties, including hard-to-find imports such as Strachitunt and Cantal Vieux, from his refrigerated pickup truck, the Cheese Corner, at the Larchmont Farmers Market and other locations in Los Angeles.
But however luxurious the offerings, all cheese trucks hew to the code of the road: indulgence has to be affordable. “We work hard to make sure we keep our price points reasonable. We are still food from a truck, after all,” says Michele Grant, GCT’s cheese executive officer.
Getting the cheese to the streets, however, can be complicated. First, there’s a maze of health department, city ordinance, and safety regulations. Chicago, for example, only recently allowed cooking on trucks. Sometimes rules change within a matter of miles.
“I spent six weeks talking to the food-truck community and reading everything I could find about different regulations,” Grant says. “The county of Los Angeles has more than 80 cities, and the rules vary in each. We have to hold a license for each city in which we operate, and we hold about 15 licenses.”
“We knew there were strict laws, so we tried to figure out what concept would work best,” says chef Cary Taylor, who had a store before his Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. “Our mac and cheese was popular, so all we had to do was put hot holding ovens in a truck. Then we thought about how to put things in the mac and cheese to make it more interesting.”
Then there’s the truck. The basics include running water, cooking equipment, hot boxes, refrigeration, and an attention-getting bus wrap. Costs run between $40,000 and six figures. There’s arranging for foodprep facilities and daily truck maintenance/cleaning/recharging at a specialized commissary.
Once on the road, parking, traffic patterns, and foot traffic are key considerations. Most trucks have regular routes, roaming among businesses without food service. Often, they provide food and retro chic for concerts and special events.
Chef Danielle Custer’s itinerary plans for Monte Cristo—“Seattle Gourmet Grilled Cheese and Mobile Melts”—include Washington wineries, museums, and upscale events in the mix.
Since customers love the thrill of the chase, truck operators use Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail to communicate locations, schedule changes, and available cheeses.
“Only a small percentage of the clientele at a truck happens to be walking by,” Taylor explains. “The rest are friends or followers. If you’re a customer who’s hunting us, we can tell you we’ll be at a certain corner. If customers don’t see us, they’ll get out their smartphones.”
Sometimes, operators take matters into their own hands. “I went on real estate sites to see where is the money,” Bonjour recalls. “People who have money travel, and when they come back they want a taste of that food. They want some cheese.”
Of course, some customers’ tastes can be a challenge. “This morning a customer came to me and asked if I had any vegan cheeses,” Bonjour exclaims incredulously. “I almost had a heart attack."
by Robin Watson