The tires of the converted camper—now painted silver, with the name Hotbox on the sides—crunch over the gravel as the food truck pulls into the driveway of Mini Mac Farm in Long Valley. We’re a long way from the streets of Hoboken and Jersey City, where upscale, gourmet food sold from mobile vans has won many young hearts and gullets. Out here in semirural western Morris County, customers are a little harder to find, forcing chefs like Michael Christiansen, who lives in Long Valley, to be creative.
“There’s a learning curve for people out here,” says Christiansen, speaking of his customers. “At first people think I’m selling hot dogs. But when they see my lobster salad with Peruvian pepper sauce on a flatbread, they can’t believe it.”
During the week, Christiansen, a CIA graduate, works as principal research chef for Unilever North America in Englewood Cliffs, developing recipes for Unilever brands such as Bertolli, Ragu, and Knorr. On weekends he sheds his corporate toque and gets behind the wheel of the Hotbox. Since Long Valley doesn’t have a significant town center, Christiansen has scoped out spots with just enough critical mass—a place on Route 46, for example, near the OutCast Sports Shop in Hackettstown. He also parks at outdoor festivals.
In June, he began setting up at Mini Mac Farm, where the ingredients he cooks include produce harvested that very day. On his first day, 65 people found him in a few hours. On one Saturday, he featured Mini Mac fresh eggs in a rigatoni carbonara with pancetta and parmesan ($5), as well as tacos made with Mini Mac Berkshire pork, roasted wild garlic, tomato salsa, and queso fresco ($3).
“This is the farm-to-table movement,” he quips, “just without the table.”
The upscale food-truck craze—which began in Los Angeles several years ago with Mexican taco trucks and quickly spread to major cities across America—has redefined street food for a new generation of customers. In New Brunswick, Rutgers students still swear by their infamous “grease trucks,” but the siren call of the gourmet food truck involves not just fast, cheap eats, but stand-up dining in which words like fresh, local, sophisticated, natural, organic, and sustainable are not out of place.
“The connection between cook and customer is direct,” says Christiansen, 33. “There are no waiters or intermediaries. The chef, the craftsman, hands it to you. It’s a very pure connection—without any formalities to get in the way.”
In New Jersey, gourmet food trucks first caught on in Hoboken and Jersey City, where they are still concentrated. In Hoboken, for example, Adam Sobel, 28, sets up his Cinnamon Snail truck to serve vegan organic entrées, like chipotle-grilled tofu over lime-spiked arugula, mashed red beans, and creamy roasted-garlic dressing ($14), or breakfast items like cranberry Brazil nut granola with soymilk and blueberries ($4). At the Grove Street PATH station in Jersey City, Louisiana native Jessie Dardar, 39, offers temptations such as brisket with balsamic-onion fondue ($9) and jambalaya ($8) from his white Louisiana Spice truck.
But increasingly the gourmet trucks are venturing into the suburbs, some alerting their patrons with posts on Twitter and Facebook. On Sundays, Sobel sets up at the farmers’ market in Red Bank. At lunchtime, Lynna Martinez sells Cuban sandwiches, savory and sweet empanadas, and her “value meals” of marinated chicken or braised pork with rice and beans and fancy sauces ($6-$8) from her turquoise-and-maroon QBA (Quick But Authentic) truck in Manhattan or Exchange Place, Jersey City. On a good day, she will serve about 100 customers in two hours. Then she heads for her hometown of Montclair to catch returning commuters.
Business in Montclair can’t rival the volume in Jersey City, but it serves a larger purpose. Martinez, who has an MBA and is a former investment banker, is building brand recognition for the day when she can open a brick-and-mortar restaurant and, she hopes, eventually parlay that into a chain of QBA restaurants.
Michael Natiello’s Taqueria Autentica truck (with its slogan, “Simple. Fresh. Real.”) parks in Newark on weekdays near offices that let out droves of white-collar workers for lunch. On weekends, he heads for the farmers’ markets in Montclair and Summit, where he and his wife, Alyssa Aiello, serve excellent tacos of pulled pork, slow cooked with orange rind and offered with a vibrant salsa verde.
What got gourmet food trucks rolling? “Some people are saying that the truck trend came from the hard economy and people wanting cheap food,” says Christiansen, who launched the Hotbox in June 2009 and operates it from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “But I don’t think that’s it. It’s about authenticity.”
Locally, some gourmet truckers are born after an eye-opening experience. Christiansen’s came in the fall of 2008 on a trip to South Africa. He watched an Indian street vendor prepare roti—a simple flat bread. “It was about the experience—watching the guy fold the bread and fry it on a small griddle,” he says. “When the bread was ready, he filled it with curried bean salad and added lime. Then he handed it to me, piping hot, wrapped in a napkin. It was so fresh. All these people were sitting on the curb, eating this roti and completely taken with it.”
The memory stayed with Christiansen when he returned home. “I always felt like I wanted to have a restaurant,” he says. “But I have a wife and kids, and the food truck was a way to get all those things in without stress on the family. And I can change the menu all the time and be creative.”
Christiansen enjoys his day job with Unilever, but for others, a food truck offers the chance to break with the past. Natiello had spent nineteen unfulfilling years as a commercial litigator when he heard people complain that there was no good Mexican food on the East Coast. Having visited Mexico and lived for six years in San Francisco, where he frequented taco stands, Natiello figured that he knew a good taco when he bit into one, and that he could make them himself, the ingredients and techniques not being complicated.
Natiello and his wife tried to borrow funds to start a restaurant, but lenders would have nothing to do with them. (“They laughed at us,” he says.) It was his wife—a public-interest lawyer—who suggested he do a trial run at the Montclair farmers’ market on Saturdays. (The couple live in neighboring Bloomfield.)
Investing $4,000 in outdoor stoves, a tent, coolers, and a generator from Home Depot, he set up a taco stand last summer.
“People went crazy,” he says. He noticed that customers actually thanked him when he handed them a taco. “No one ever thanked me when I was a lawyer,” he says.
Within a year, Natiello gave up law completely and hit the road with his truck, Taqueria Autentica. He spent $31,500 on a grill, a four-burner commercial stove, a four-bay sink, a small fridge, a stainless-steel sink from Ikea, and the vehicle itself. He was the first gourmet truck to go to Newark and compete with hot dog and pizza trucks. White-collar workers flocked to him.
Now Natiello speaks of his truck with the zeal of the newly converted. “The food is fresher,” he says, explaining that he can sell only what he cooks on the truck each day. “The cleanliness is the same. [Licensing standards mirror those of restaurants.] And because I have such low overhead, I can offer a lot for a low price.” Natiello and his wife decided at the outset that they would use only the best ingredients: USDA prime meat, hormone-free chicken breasts, Niman Ranch chorizo sausage, and, wherever possible, organic produce. Yet two tacos and a drink cost about $7. “A restaurant can’t offer this quality for the same price,” he says.
And there’s the rub—not a spice rub, either. Each municipality in the state sets its own vendor-licensing and zoning laws. Local restaurants don’t necessarily appreciate the undercutting competition. Cognizant of tax-paying restaurateurs, not every town takes a welcoming view of food trucks.
Paul Fried, who lives in Asbury Park, found that out the hard way. Fried, 47, who was developing condominiums with a partner until the real estate market tanked, invested $100,000 in buying and outfitting his striking turquoise Chow Haul truck. When he launched in January of this year, Fried set up near the Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, a teaching hospital where thousands of students, teachers, staff, and visitors pass each day.
Business boomed; then the police showed up. It turned out, according to Fried, that the hospital management had called to complain—not, he says, because he was violating any ordinance, but because his $7 chicken schnitzel over mesclun greens and his $8 meatloaf baked in muffin tins were so good he was hurting business in the cafeteria.
Food trucks are not allowed in Asbury Park. Even though he lives in town, Fried has been unable to persuade officials there to let Chow Haul park and do business. He says he has told them he is willing to park far from restaurants and has suggested that the town set off a concession area for food trucks.
“I try to explain to them that the gourmet food truck is an attraction that draws people,” he says. “I even welcome more upscale food trucks. They will bring more people to our beach towns.”
Diligence, however, has brought Fried some success. He reached out to landlords of corporate office complexes in Long Branch and West Long Branch, where there were no cafeterias, and suggested that his truck would prove a valued amenity to workers.
To increase visibility, Fried participates in local events such as Iron Chef-type competitions. He has brought his truck during the school year to a middle-school wrestling tournament. And he has catered events such as a realtors’ open house for a multi-million dollar residential property.
Most gourmet food trucks have to work urban turf at lunchtime to find sufficient crowds and pick up catering jobs at other times. That has created a party trend: chefs serving upscale food from their trucks at public and private events.
That’s how the Nomad Pizza truck got started. In 2004, Tom Grim, one of the founders of the successful Thomas Sweet ice cream chain in the Princeton area, got interested in pizza-making as a hobby. He took three research trips to Naples, installed a wood-burning oven in his home, and began throwing pizza parties for his friends.
After awhile, he and a business partner, Stalin Bedon, decided that having a weekend pizza business would be fun. Bedon saw an ad on eBay for a 1949 REO Speedwagon truck, and on an impulse bought it for $5,000. With an additional investment of $80,000, the partners outfitted the truck with an 800-degree, wood-burning pizza oven.
“We didn’t do it for the money,” says Grim. “We didn’t need the money. We just wanted to make the best pizza we could make.” Doing street food was never the plan. “If you parked your truck here in Princeton, the police would come in fifteen minutes,” Grim says.
Instead, the plan was to make the truck available at private parties. For $1,100, the eye-catching Nomad truck would pull up and make unlimited pizza for 50 people. For $1,350, everyone would also get an organic green salad and, for dessert, Nutella, banana, and strawberry pizza.
“Some people said it was the best pizza they’d ever had,” Grim says. “But they didn’t want to have to always pay $1,100 for it.”
In 2009, two years after their mobile venture began, business was so strong that Grim and Bedon made the leap that many food truckers dream about—they opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Their location: a Hopewell carriage house where, each weekend, a line wends out the door.
Tracking Down The Trucks:
Owners: Paul Fried and Rosalie Nunez-Fried
Food: Upscale comfort food such as chicken schnitzel on mesclun and meatloaf baked in muffin tins.
Locations: Long Branch and West Long Branch beaches; corporate parks, local sporting events, and private parties.
Owner: Michael Christiansen
Food: Approachable, creative fare, from tacos to handmade pasta.
Locations: Long Valley area, Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 2 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Contact : 908-887-1710
LOUISIANA SPICE TRUCK
Owner: Jessie Dardar
Food: Traditional brasserie and Louisiana comfort food.
Locations: Hudson and York streets and Grove Street PATH station, both in Jersey City.
Owners: Tom Grim and Stalin Bedon
Food: Authentic Naples-style pizza, baked in wood-burning oven.
Locations: Private parties and NJ festivals such as the Jazz and Wine Festival in Farmingdale at Allaire State Park, September.
Owner: Lynna Martinez
Food: Authentic Cuban: pulled pork, rice and beans, Cuban sandwiches.
Locations: Exchange Place in Jersey City or Lower or Midtown Manhattan for lunch; Montclair train station occasionally; lunch at Glen Ridge community pool on weekends; and occasional festivals.
Owners: Michael Natiello and Alyssa Aiello
Food: Tacos and quesadillas with quality ingredients and authentic flavors.
Locations: Newark near Gateway Center, Monday to Friday lunch; Montclair farmers’ market, Saturday; Summit farmers’ market, Sunday.
Contact : 201-988-2539
THE CINNAMON SNAIL
Owner: Adam Sobel
Food: Vegan, organic
Locations: Thursday through Saturday, Hoboken; Red Bank farmers’ market, Sunday.
Contact : 201-675-3755
Laura Schenone’s latest book, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, is available in paperback. She lives in Montclair.