I’ve been writing for 614 Magazine sporadically for the last year and more frequently for their new Food and Beverage quarterly Stock and Barrel. I had pitched an idea to the editor about writing about many of our food truckers that are making the jump to Brick and Mortar restaurant spaces. When I pitched the concept they already had it in development but I was asked if they could use Truck to Table as part of the headline and I was happy to do it.
The photos were taken but the story did not develop as planned so I was contacted and asked if I could do it in 48 hours. I was up for the task since I know the subject matter well and because I have a kitchen renovation to help pay for. The article was to focus on food but I had some challenges. One site was undergoing a menu change, another was closed due to a power outage and the third I did not have time to visit. So, I opted to write “big” (going way over word count) to write the stories of the guys behind the food and hoped that the editor could condense into something useable. He did….a lot of condensing. So you can do an compare and contrast by reading this final cut for print -> HERE and the original draft with sidebars, below.
Truck to Table
Truck – Paddy Wagon
Table – Jailhouse Rock at Little Rock
In August 2010 Zach James was a student at OSU that liked to hang out at Dick’s Den. He formed a fast friend/mentorship with JP Potter of Fusion Café one of the first food trucks in the city, which often served at James’ watering hole.
James was looking for a challenge and wanted to push his boundaries after a series of food service jobs. Potter revealed his mobile food secrets: how to get started, navigate regulations, etc. and James was a quick study. The original concept for his truck Paddywagon was a burger based menu. His original beat was a mission to dispel the roach coach myth. James learned a lot about branding in his early days which led to two big changes. James changed the wrap on his truck and shifted his focus from burgers to brisket. The first time he sold out all of his brisket was the moment the deputy shifted to thinking like a Sheriff. He knew he was ready to grow out the business and stake his claim on a permanent spot.
One dark night, while sharing beers with Daniel McCarthy (Tatoheads) at St. James Tavern, James was approached by a regular customer who told him about a new bar opening down 4th Street. The bar was looking to partner with a truck so James decided to commit to the new spot for the duration. That bar was Little Rock. After seeing how good food meant good business, owner Quinn Fallon asked James to look at a small space in the bar to see if James could do anything with it. The nook in the back had a walk in cooler, a mop sink and 150 square feet to work with. After plotting out 20-30 configurations James finally found one that was more arresting than the others. Then looking at the layout and what equipment he could shimmy in, he decided a hot dog menu was the best way to get the most out of the little space. Initial response was hot with many regulars working their way through the entire menu in a few visits, To keep customers coming back new items are integrating into the menu as specials and becoming regular items when they resonate with fans but hot dogs remain at the core of the kitchen. Since the space is small like a prison cell and to stay on the with the Paddywagon theme, James dubbed the space the Jailhouse. The operation has also taken a cue from Late Night Slice with some signature (and very, very tasty) sauces available to slather on whatever fills your plate. The Jailhouse recently added Sophie’s Pierogi’s (a truck turned cart) pierogi to the menu to mix things even up more.
What James has learned in his drive from truck to rock and roll dive is that Jailhouse serves as an anchor to consistently connect with his customers. In his experience, even his biggest fans are not going to invest time to find him online and then drive 30 minutes to eat at a different (random) location. Having Paddy Wagon inspired food at the Jailhouse gives James and his customers the consistency both have waited for. Menu items come with names inspired by the Paddy wagon law enforcement motif and the Rock and Roll vibe of Little Rock. James has also moved to Italian Village so he can be a part of the community he is helping to grow. In the meantime the truck rolls during the day and the Jailhouse rocks at night.
Truck – Swoop
Table – The Hey Hey, operating pop-up eatery Bebe
Table 2 – Swoop Take Over at Ace of Cups.
Forget professional objectivity, Matt Heaggans is my favorite chef to watch in action. In the kitchen he swoops into an action with the mental intensity of an Olympic athlete. A series of serendipitous events seem to be adding more ingredients and experiences to the recipe that may make Heaggans the next big thing.
A few years ago, Heaggans, a Columbus native was practicing his craft (he might say, getting schooled) in a French restaurant in DC. What he learned in that kitchen, “there was no way I would learn it all”. That did and still does serve as his daily inspiration to continue to learn and strive for the best quality in his craft. As he was pondering on what his next life lesson would be, a friend from Columbus contacted him for advice on starting a food truck. Heaggans offered to advice on finding and equipping a truck, consulted on a menu and volunteered to spend two weeks to help train the staff to execute the food he conjured up. While this was in process, his mother had an accident and then needed extra help at home, which was an excuse for fate to nudge Heaggans back home. The offer to help turned into an unexpected business venture and Heaggan’s was back in student mode again.
He figured out early on – to be a sustainable food truck business he needed to change the food he was serving. He “had to adjust to dishes that were tailored to shorter prep time, quicker turn around and tight work space of a truck. His style demands fresh food – which means he had to serve almost everything created earlier that day by the end of the day. A fresh food menu takes a lot of prep, space and forethought but along that path somehow his signature dish became tater tots.
According to Heaggans, “most cooks are in the kitchen to learn, and grow so the natural progression is to keep growing by expanding the business or the menu”. In the fall of 2013, when the opportunity of the Hey Hey popped up (passed to him by Angela Theado of The Coop) he was ready to have a little more elbow room in a slightly bigger kitchen.. He expected everyone would flock his way right away but the customer rush started with a trickle instead of a stampede. So he had an opportunity to spend more time with his customers, which at the Hey Hey is a very diverse clientel – a little bit of everything– every class and palate He had to create a menu that will connect with people with at any level. It was a lesson in adaptation.
This summer another opportunity presented itself. This one passed along by another food truck peer, Jamie Anderson of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit. Anderson has a good gig set up next to Ace of Cups but the spot needed food the days that Ray Ray’s is not there and it needs a wider range of food and longer hours that Ray Ray’s could do sustainably. So Heaggans and Anderson agreed to pursuing menus that don’t step on others toes. Now Ace of Cups can offer food when its doors are open so owner Marcy Mays does not need to close the doors from exhaustion of running a bar and kitchen. So what is Heaggans lesson from the Swoop Ace of Cups Take Over? Delegation. He can’t be in three places at the same time but he can set the standards for the menus for all of his locations, make the sauces used on all menus and check on the other two when he is not cooking up a new creation at the Hey Hey. While the food at the Hey Hey leans towards comfort foods, the menu at the Ace of Cups plays out as classic bar food for sharing between beers or bands.
Table: Public House
You can blame PBS for the interesting path which drove Daniel McCarthy to the food business. One might even say he entered it out of necessity. His single mother always worked so he had a choice of TV dinners or to make something that he wanted. Public Television was a constant so he grew up with the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child instructing him in the background. As a teenager he would cut school and make everyone food when they snuck over to his home. As he got older he took a concept of Malcolm Galdwell’s which is one needs 10,000 hours doing something to be skilled at it so he decided at that point in his life, the only thing he had done for close to 10,000 hours was cooking, so he would make cooking as his livelihood.
When I spoke with Daniel McCarthy (I call him Tater) he has just spent the day reconfiguring all of the tables at the Public House (formerly Hall and Al’s). He had also been training staff and fine-tuning some mechanical concerns with his Tatoheads truck. It was well after 9 pm on a weeknight. McCarthy was tired. Running two businesses will take a lot out of a fella but this summer has been a busier that usual. After getting an 11th hour loan he was able to secure the capital he needed to take over the reins of Hal and Al’s but that also meant he had to move to a new house, open a new restaurant and change the home base for his food truck in ten days….during peak food truck season. Luckily, McCarthy is no stranger to a rapid life changes.
In late 2009, the native Chicagoan was given the opportunity to pursue his two passions. His girlfriend was moving to Columbus to go back to school, so he decided to chase her to the capital city. He also decided it was time to make a living by opening a restaurant. That deal fell through but while visiting Columbus he saw the Late Night Slice Truck in action so he decided, “I can do my thing without a restaurant”. McCarthy moved to Columbus in April 2010, bought the truck that May and opened for business on the September 3rd OSU home game that year. He learned a lot in a truck that reached 140 degrees inside. His first three outings were “dismal”. Then he decided he would stay at the same spot until he broke even for the day….that took 16 hours. After a few months he “figured out the trick to the food truck business…work, work, work”. The next step in his transition from truck to table occurred while he was working on a collaborative restaurant project that fell through at the last moment. While disappointed that the endeavor did not launch, he did walk away with an established team, a finished business plan and an extended network of supporters. One was the owner of Hal and Al’s who was looking for the right person to take over the Parsons Ave tavern, a spot that is as much about the community it serves as the food it plates. Having heard of McCarthy’s struggles and frequently experiencing McCarthy’s passion for his menu and desire to grow out his business, it was time for destiny to knock at Daniel’s door.
What McCarty learned in his transition from truck to table was the never-ending need to constantly change the business to accommodate what he learned on a daily basis and how to reconfigure the design and equipment in his truck kitchen to work best with the menu he wanted to execute. While Tatoheads has won the hearts and minds of the TatoNation through fries, McCarthy is excited to have the elbow room to flex his cooking muscles and show the public a diversity of menu he has wanted to do for years. In the process, Public House also become home base for the Tatoheads truck so he can prep menus for both concepts from one kitchen. His girlfriend will be using her horticulture skills from college to create and expand a community garden for the restaurant and the neighborhood. McCarthy has planted his roots on Parsons Ave. by moving his household there as well and he plans to grow with the community as the business blooms.
The original concept of Tatoheads was to have a rotating menu but McCarthy could not run with that concept because the fries were so popular. Now with Public House he plans to add dishes like Shepards Pie, Chicken and Potato Pot Pie and more. He is also excited to have the space to do catering, events and parties. He is even more excited about growing a new business in an area where he feels his business can make a difference in the community. Maybe patrons will be watching PBS instead of NFL at Public House?
Table To Truck (Restaurants that have gone mobile)
White Castle – two food trucks
Donatos – One food trailer
Cuco’s – one food truck
Pizza Cottage – one food truck
Schmidt’s – two food trucks
Giant Eagle – Market Place Food Truck
Explorer’s Club – food truck
Los Jalapenos – Tortillas Food Truck
Costello’s (closed) – now the Cilantro Food Truck
Yabos Tacos – one Truck
More Truck or Cart to Table
Skyward Grille – from multiple carts to brick and mortar base of operations and restaurant
Late Night Slice – went from Shack, to Truck to over 8 locations across town
That Food Truck – Dan Kraus is working on a concept in Italian Village