Food truck fever shows no signs of slowing

May 23—When Quad Graphics in Waseca closed, it opened a door for Dan and April Miller.

"I went to culinary school in the early 2000s and then April and I started working at Quad Graphics. When they closed we jumped in with both feet doing a food truck full time."

Their Evan's Eatery truck (named after their son) has since crisscrossed southern Minnesota in all months of the year. They are one of a handful of food trucks in the region that operate year round.

"In the winter we do a lot of wineries, breweries, school events — basically anywhere there are people," Dan said.

When they started four years ago, there were just a few food trucks in the area. "Now there's so many you can't keep up with them. They're popping up in towns all over southern Minnesota."

The explosive growth in food trucks shows no signs of abating. And while the pandemic slammed restaurants, it was a boon for the food truck industry.

Greg Traylor started his TNT food truck five years ago and sees no slowdown in more food trucks. "I think it's a fast and up and coming thing. COVID had a lot to do with it, too, because they could serve food outside and do weddings and things and people could distance."

Lacey Lueth, who owns Lola American Bistro in New Ulm and has a food truck, said food trucks are popular business ventures for people who are thinking of getting into the restaurant business.

"It's a way more manageable thing than a full-sized restaurant, and it's a good place for people to start out."

While some brick and mortar restaurant owners initially pushed back against the opening of the Hub food truck lot in Mankato several years ago, opposition to the trucks has diminished and many restaurants are doing their own food trucks to expand their business.

A recent study released by the Institute for Justice looked at 12 years of census data on food trucks and restaurants and found that an increase in the number of food trucks in one year does not lead to a decrease in the number of restaurants the following year.

During the period studied, 2005 to 2016, both the number of restaurants and the number of food trucks per county grew. And while the food truck industry grew at a faster rate, restaurants still vastly outnumber them.

Kansas City experience

Traylor grew up doing barbeque in Kansas City, Missouri, and started grilling and smoking in his grandpa's backyard.

"Possums, squirrels, skunks — whatever came into the yard we'd grill. My grandpa grew up in the Depression and he said, 'We're going to use everything from the snooter to the tooter.'"

Traylor designed the truck he wanted and it was built in Tennessee. Like Evan's Eatery, Traylor works year round with his truck.

"In the winter I do a lot of breweries. I do appreciate the partnership with breweries. It's two small businesses helping each other out," he said, noting that most breweries offer little or no food.

In the summers, food trucks are increasingly in demand for weddings, graduations, corporate events and festivals.

Traylor sources his meats from local butchers and stores. "I try to keep it as local as possible."

He and other food truck operators are, like everyone, feeling the pain of higher food prices and some shortages of meats and other products.

Traylor will soon achieve another dream — owning a restaurant.

"We've been renting the Old Town Tavern for almost a year." While he's installed one of the biggest free-standing wood smokers in the Midwest outside the back of the tavern, he hasn't yet been able to open the doors to the inside.

"Everything got backed up. We'd order things for the restaurant and it would be six months or more. We still can't put a date on opening because you just don't know when you're going to get a lot of things."

While he's specialized in barbeque in his truck, he will have a wide offering in the TNT Eats restaurant, including cornbread, waffles, wings, hash and other items.

Evan's Eatery

The Millers designed their own truck and also had it built in Tennessee.

While many truck operators hope to someday open restaurants, the Millers don't.

"We didn't want to get into restaurants. We enjoy traveling and seeing new places and faces. We enjoy the nomad life," Dan said.

Based in New Richland, they travel from western Minnesota to Rochester and the Twin Cities to the Iowa border.

Evan's Eatery is strictly a burger shop. "Our best seller is the Jack Daniels Bacon with our chipotle aioli sauce."

They get all of their burger meat from the local butcher in New Richland. "They grind it fresh everyday. We try to keep as much as possible local," Dan said.

They're out 3 to 5 days a week in the summer and 2 to 3 days a week in the winter. Dan said they've built up a fan base that ensures they get business when they return to a town no matter what the weather or temperature is.

"It can be zero or rainy and people still come out to us."

Lola's truck

Lueth was one of the first to have a food truck in south central Minnesota, starting in 2014.

"We had the restaurant and events and catering and added the truck for something fun to do."

She advises anyone who wants to start a truck to keep it simple. "If I did it again, I'd keep it simpler. Offer five things instead of 12."

And while she has a licensed kitchen in the bistro to do the truck prep, others would need to find a licensed facility to do their prep in.

They were using the truck about three days a week, but Lueth said she's had to reduce the number of outings because of difficulty with staffing.

"We do mostly festivals, get hired to do graduation parties, groom dinners and weddings. We get a lot of requests for small town festivals, we get a lot of requests for that. And bigger corporations like to have the truck come to their site for employees."

While she switches up her menu offerings, she sticks with two customer favorites: the Hot Mess and rosemary garlic fries