WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- In the midst of a busy weekend at Babe Mann Park last month during Elkhorn Community Days, Mariann Hunter, executive director of United Way of Walworth County -- whose agency helped coordinate the event -- managed to make time for a hot breakfast that was close, quick and delicious. She found it at one of the food trucks on the grounds.
“The Rodeo Wagon had the best breakfast burritos. You could add bacon or chorizo to your egg, cheese and potato burrito,” Hunter wrote in an email.
Hunter and her family were at the park early for the annual walk and run benefitting the local United Way, and she said other families who worked up an appetite after running or walking also were sampling food truck fare. More food trucks, from El Chile Caliente and Jakarta Café to Rolling Cones and Gourmet Kettle Korn, set up shop as the day progressed, so visitors could find food for lunch and dinner.
“There was something for everyone,” Hunter said. “My kids all had homemade milkshakes and I had the best steak taco with avocado sauce -- yum.”
Jenna Gough, assistant director at the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce, an organizer of Community Days, said the trucks offered kind of a “custom catering” approach for diners.
“People like the convenience of them coming to you, and it’s a fun way to sample food,” she said. “I went for the classic at Lefty’s Chicago Style Hot Dogs that day, but this gave people an opportunity to try some new things, too.”
Lefty’s already has a summer-season stand along U.S. Highway 12 in Elkhorn, but its location isn’t easily seen from the road, and first-time customers tend to stumble upon it, said Dona Mann, whose daughter, Karlee Mann, owns the business.
Dona Mann said her daughter decided to expand by adding the more visible food truck this year.
While Karlee Mann is at the stand this summer, Dona Mann will be operating the truck. Besides showing up at events around the county, the truck can be found outside Aurora Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays.
Dona Mann said the truck was purchased from a Delavan restaurant and tweaked to prepare the hot dogs, burgers, milkshakes and smothered fries on Lefty’s menu.
Food trucks aren’t cheap, although operating costs are lower than for a standing restaurant. The food truck website Roaming Hunger advertises vehicles for sale ranging from $15,000 for a simple food trailer or cart to $269,000 for a food truck fashioned from a DC-3 airliner fuselage and designed to look like the Space Shuttle.
But interest is booming. The food truck industry grew at an annual rate of 7.9 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to a May article in The Economist, which notes there are about 4,000 food trucks around the country.
Kay-Tee Olds, owner of Rodeo Wagon, said she’s increased employee shifts at her Madison-based food cart business from six to eight shifts per week to 17 in one year. Rodeo Wagon has traveled to events in Green Bay, Eau Claire and Monroe.
The workload isn’t lightened for food truck operators like Louis and Cari Ortega, whose Milwaukee-based food truck, La Guacamaya, was at Bands, Bites & Beer, an event at Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan last month.
“The part that is challenging would be the long hours that are put in every day to shop for supplies, prep the food, set up the kitchen and then taking down and cleaning up everything at the end of the day. There is also quite a bit of paperwork involved with licensing, permits and applications for each event, as well as the bookkeeping/accounting side of running a business,” Cari Ortega wrote in an email.
Some businesses, like Rodeo Wagon, have a base kitchen apart from their carts from which they prepare their food. Most, however, use the tighter quarters of a food truck kitchen, where workers have to make every inch count.
“We have learned how to organize everything better to make the most of the space we have,” Ortega said. “We have a hot station, cold station, refrigerator, freezer, grill burners, deep fryer, a three-compartment sink, a hand sink and shelving. We have our own work areas for the most part and are able to work well around each other. There is a lot of side-stepping.”
Bigger cities, like Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, have restrictions on where and when food trucks can operate. Because of their mobile nature, many food truck operators use social media to let customers know their locations and hours.
Facebook posts often serve as word-of-mouth for the mobile businesses, widening the travel range.
Milwaukee-based Marco Pollo Global Cluck Truck also was at Lake Lawn last month, but it has traveled to points as far as Madison, Racine, Sheboygan and Oshkosh for events, company parties and even a wedding.
“Food trucks are great for weddings and parties because guests get good food, personalized service and a fun atmosphere for minimal cost compared to traditional catering,” Stewart Lerner, a co-owner of Marco Pollo, said in an email. “Customers enjoy being able to talk with the people who create and cook the food they are eating, which doesn’t typically happen in a restaurant setting. And since our menu is limited, we can focus on making everything we serve the best quality possible for our customers.”
Marco Pollo’s internationally inspired menu includes gua bao --braised and spiced pork in a soft bun -- as well as egg rolls, crispy chicken and steak nachos.
Vanessa Lenz, executive director of the East Troy Chamber of Commerce, said one of the most popular food trucks featured at several of East Troy’s First Friday events on the square is Meat on the Street, a Milwaukee-based Filipino vendor whose menu includes marinated meat on a stick, rice bowls topped with meat and lumpia or egg rolls.
“Many of the truck owners specialize in one particular style of food,” said Gerard Prendergast, director of food and beverage at Lake Lawn. “Their fare has the allure of fast food, but still almost fine dining because owners put their own unique twist to it. A hot dog is no longer just a hot dog. They use different types of meat, sauces, bread.”
At Rodeo Wagon, whose menu Olds describes as “Southern dining with a foodie flair,” an optional topping for both burgers and salads is Texas caviar, a homemade blend of tomatoes, black beans, black-eyed peas and onions blended with oil and vinegar.
“Part of the appeal of food trucks and a trend in dining in general is that people are looking for micro-cuisines that feature local foods with a twist,” Olds said. “People want fresh food.”
Olds even has adapted her menu to customer requests.
“People asked if we could put bacon on the triple-cheesy mac,” she said.