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Order Up: Life in the Fayetteville food truck business

story by Josh Souza, special to The City Wire

It’s just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon (June 18) and the Schulertown Food Truck Court on Dickson Street in downtown Fayetteville is already buzzing with eager patrons ready to sample cuisine from one of the shiny new food-trucks lining the lot.

At the far corner of the courtyard, which is nestled between Jose's and The Rogers Rec-Room, Bryan Brandon Jr. is hard at work prepping his truck – Wicked Wood Fired Pizza – for another long evening in the kitchen.

Like most of the trucks on the lot, ''Wicked'' will stay open until 3 a.m., making the bulk of the day’s money in the last two hours. The long nights are just the cap to a very long day which begins early as Brandon prepares dough and searches for fresh ingredients to spice up his ever changing menu.

"We prep all of our dough at Ozark Natural Bread, which is owned by my parents," said Brandon. "I try to use as many local ingredients as I can. I recently did a farmers market pizza that was a big hit."

Brandon cut his teeth in the kitchen, working at Ozark Natural Bread with his parents for nearly 20 years. He has a bachelor's degree in baking and heads up the sales and marketing for Ozark Natural Bread. 

Like all the proprietors parked in the Dickson Street food court, Brandon leases his space from the lot’s owner — restaurateur Zac Wooden, who also owns 21st Amendment and Los Bobos Tacqueria. Wooden requires a one-year lease from the tenants who park in his new food court.

COST OF OPERATION
The National Restaurant Association estimates the average food truck investment ranges from $55,000 to $75,000, which is a fraction of the $250,000 to $500,000 or to open a restaurant. Other benefits cited by the association with food trucks are the flexibility the mobile units have in testing new menu concepts and recipes.

Brandon said he spent more than $40,000 on his food-truck venture. Most of the money went toward the truck and its custom wood-fire oven. It is the only cooking appliance on the truck, but the oven more than pulls its weigh. The 3-convection heating system use white oak and hickory logs and can churn out a hand pressed pizza in 3 minutes. 

"Our craziest times are definitely right after the bars close," said Brandon. "The last hour is all hands on deck."

While the inside of the truck is roughly one quarter the size of a standard kitchen, Brandon uses a three-man crew to handle the late-night rush. The 11-inch custom pizzas are the fastest ticket times in the lot, which is packed with top-notch munchies like Mama Dean's and Green House Grill.

"I think we all had our own hurdles to climb in terms of seeing this courtyard come to life," said Brandon. "It was a ton of paper work and legal stuff. ... I am just glad to get that aspect out of the way. There is a lot of room for growth in this industry. ... Right now things are going great."

IBISWorld estimates the fragmented food truck segment will do about $1 billion in annual revenue, growing at about 8.4% over the past three years. The research estimates there are roughly 31,000 food trucks operating in the U.S. and it’s one of the fastest growing food segments in terms of traffic and sales since 2008.

A report by Intuit Inc. and Emergent Research in late 2012  forecast that the roving restaurant sector is on track to be a $2.7 billion national industry by 2017.

Celebrities and large corporations are also riding the food truck wave. Taco Bell, Red Robin, Nabisco and Rachel Ray have their own food trucks.

LAW CHANGES
Earlier this year, the Fayetteville City Council passed new regulations designed to facilitate roving food trucks and businesses that operate inside mobile vendor courts.

One of the new laws allows for the creation of mobile vendor courtyards on private land if the owner is granted a conditional use permit by the city. Vendors who park in the courtyard are not required to get a conditional use permit, but they must provide the city with a site plan, copies of the necessary health permits and regular inspections.

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The new law also addressed roving food trucks that park in public areas. The city requires food truck owners to pay an annual $100 mobile vendor fee and cover any fees charged for public parking spaces used.

The city said public parking access for roving food vendors will be given on a lottery basis. A drawing will be held each year to determine which vendors are allowed to set up shop in public parking spaces or inside city parks. One-third of all vendors who apply each year will be awarded a permit through the lottery, with a minimum of three permits granted each year.

The initial lottery will take place before November, according to city officials.

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