Otis and Sarah Frizzell were honeymooning in the US in 2011 when they got bitten by the food truck bug.
"We were struck by the diversity of tasty food available from food trucks, which were these super-cool eateries on wheels," says Sarah Frizzell. "We're passionate home cooks, so we thought it'd be cool to do something similar in New Zealand."
They're now a couple of committed food truckers, with their business The Lucky Taco regularly parking up at a spot on Ponsonby Rd, or travelling to events and private parties.
Frizzell says the worldwide phenomenon that is the food truck trend is giving ordinary folks a chance to share their food with others. "Most importantly, it makes gourmet food affordable and available to everyone. It's not exclusive," she says.
Peter Stewart is another who got inspired by the food truck trend in the US - during a stint in San Diego in 2011. He came home and later converted what had originally been a laundry running truck for New Zealand Towel Service, largely managing the build himself.
Stewart's typically found at the Silo Park Markets or at the No. 1 Queen Street Cafe and Bar, and uses social media to keep punters in the loop as to his whereabouts on any given day.
Like a number of the food truck operators interviewed this week for Your Business, Stewart describes the local body restrictions on where and how mobile food operations like his can currently operate as tight.
The Auckland truck scene is sure to hit a bit of a boom and so long as the trucks continue providing honest, quality food, more channels will be sure to open.
"The Auckland truck scene is sure to hit a bit of a boom and so long as the trucks continue providing honest, quality food, more channels will be sure to open," Stewart says. "But if there isn't any movement in allowing more street trading then it won't hit anything near its potential and you may even see a few trucks drop off."
While the food truck scene is hot right now, it's certainly not a new industry here. 'Pop' Washer established CBD icon The White Lady in 1948, and his son Peter Washer says The White Lady has never missed a night shift since - "that's seven nights a week, every night for the last nearly 67 years," he says.
The White Lady wasn't the first cart on the scene, either. Washer says five carts were operating in Auckland's CBD alone when The White Lady first parked up.
So how has the spike in the popularity of food trucks affected his business? Washer says it's the reason for the spike that's something to celebrate.
"There's more activity being encouraged in the city and the Council is more open to allowing markets and events to happen. In terms of our business, my son Max has had a 25-foot events cart made, which he has operated from mid-last year, and he's now commissioning a second."
Nico Fini of Urban Escargot has also been in the food truck business for a number of years, starting at the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival 21 years ago. Now based on Waiheke Island, he runs his food truck alongside a fine dining-style catering operation, but increasingly he's seeing the two sides of his business merge.
"Where I'm based on Waiheke, I get lots of enquiries from people getting married on the island and, instead of doing the full-on catering thing, they just hire a couple of food trucks and do all the food from there," says Fini.
Movies like Chef, or our local TV show The Food Truck may have popularised the image of the food truck business, but Fini says the reality of life on the road can be far less glamorous. Truckers might have to pay $1500 to park up at a festival, for example, so can need to serve up 800 or 900 portions in a day to turn a profit.
"If you're paying a stall fee you need to crank it up big time," he says. "Logistics can be tricky too. When I do catering for a wedding, it's maybe for 120 people, which is nice, but when you go out with the food truck to a festival, you've got to be ready to cater for thousands from a very confined area. It's so important to have a menu that's properly designed to cope with those numbers."
Still, new entrants to the industry seem undeterred. Steve Coppard recently chucked in a 30-year career in IT to start his Rock Dogs food truck business. It started with a hotdog stand that he built for his son about a year ago, which they set up at a friend's place near Eden Park during the NRL Auckland Nines. It went off like a rocket, and propelled Coppard on a journey to buying and decking out an old school bus, and finally making the call to become self-employed.
"I hit a real crossroads in my life when I started to question if I enjoyed working for a multinational IT company," says Coppard. "I was actually really unhappy, so rather than focusing on money and income I decided to focus on creating more happiness and job satisfaction. I didn't own a flash house - I was renting - so I didn't have a mortgage, and I also had no debts or credit cards. I felt the time was right to build a business that could become my lifestyle. So Rock Dogs was born."
Sarah Frizzell, The Lucky Taco
When and why did you set up a food truck business?
When my husband Otis and I were honeymooning in the States in 2011, we were struck by the diversity of tasty food available from food trucks, which were these super-cool eateries on wheels. We're passionate home cooks, so we thought it'd be cool to do something similar in New Zealand.
Before we opened for business we had to go to the land of tacos and learn from the pros, going on a four-week food odyssey starting in Mexico City. Lesley Tellez and Ruth Alegria from Mexico Soul and Essence shared their cooking secrets with us and took us to all their favourite taco joints. We consumed a lot of tacos of all shapes and sizes, and Ruth is still our mentor to this day.
It took around 16 months to complete our project and get Lucky fitted out by the very talented Bruce Greenidge of Custom Coach Builders. It also took a lot of time to work through Council red tape, permits and consents. It's not easy, but we did it: on May 14th 2013 in the heart of Ponsonby we launched our little brand: The Lucky Taco.
How does the business work on an operational level? Do you do everything from the truck?
Once we'd started the truck, we realised we needed our own commercial space where we could prep and cook all the food. We started off all legit in a commercial kitchen on Ponsonby Rd, but it wasn't suiting our needs, so we did what anyone else in our position would do - we did it at home.
We didn't have any visitors - even family - over to our home for six months because we were terrified of getting busted by the Council! But now we have a very beautiful and functional A-grade commercial kitchen at our home. We converted our double garage and we love it. Prep happens there on Tuesday to Thursday, for service Friday to Sunday. Our spare room at home is now also an office and warehouse to 3000 bottles of The Lucky Taco Hot Sauce.
We have an awesome team: Ruby, a young foodie rockstar who helps us in the kitchen and the truck, and young Otis - what are the chances!? - who's a connoisseur of Mexican food and a financial whizz kid. He also works in the truck with us and comes over once a week to take care of all the accounts, banking, deliveries and supplies.
How mobile are you as a business?
We're lucky to have a semi-permanent spot at 230 Ponsonby Road where we park up each weekend. This is our friend's carpark at Flying Fish. It wasn't easy to secure this and we had help from some ex-Council licence and permit experts. It's incredibly hard for vendors to find places to park up.
When we're not in our usual spot, we're at an event or taking our tacos to a private party. We are starting to limit the amount of private events we do. Building our brand in Ponsonby and being part of a community vibe for our regulars is important to us.
What are some of the particular challenges you've faced being in this industry?
They're really those of any small business owner: making sure you have enough working capital, cashflow, predicting sales, finding the right suppliers, managing the people who work with you. We also ask for advice and have sage business partners that are the yin to mine and Otis's yang.
But one of the biggest lessons we've learned is to never underestimate what other people will do to try and take you out. Some other businesses on Ponsonby Rd have gone to extravagant lengths to try and shut us down. It can be tough out there. But more fool them - each time we get knocked, we come back stronger!
On the other hand, what do you love about it?
The great thing about having a mobile business is the spontaneity factor. If a huge event was on at Western Springs Park, we could potentially take the truck - with Council consent of course - and sell tacos to the masses. When we're driving around the streets of Auckland, Lucky acts a giant billboard advertising exactly what it is we do.
We've driven to the beach to cater a wedding, a mansion for a 21st, and a backyard for a small fiesta. We get to meet lots of different people from different walks of life, and I think that's what we enjoy the most - the diversity of people.
What are some of the trends you're seeing more generally in the food truck scene?
The food truck trend is big all over the world. We're just catching up. It's an opportunity for ordinary people to put themselves and their food out there.
On occasion we still get asked if we sell hot chips or cans of Coke. Through gritted teeth we politely say 'no'. Mobile food is so much more than that now, and people are excited by it's creativity, flexibility and spontaneity.
Most importantly, it makes gourmet food affordable and available to everyone. It's not exclusive. We've spent a bit of time helping fellow wannabe truckers and brand builders fulfil their dreams, so it'll be exciting to see the influx of new mobile businesses hitting the streets of Aotearoa this year.
Coming up in Your Business: New health and safety legislation comes into force in April. What changes has your business had to make because of this, and what impact will new rules around compliance have on your operation? If you've got a story to share, drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org