Oklahoma Joe’s drives into the food-truck business
A rectangle of light spills from the truck window onto the pavement and shines down on a small group of men. The vehicle is parked in spot 846 at the American Royal. The men let their mouths drop open as though they’ve just seen a beautiful woman or a particularly choice piece of steak. One of them reaches out, his hand tracing, but not quite touching, the lettering on the side of the truck.
“You see lots of those,” a guy in a Chiefs T-shirt says. He leans back against some hay bales. “But that must have cost a mint.”
Half a dozen Elvis impersonators, their guts wrapped in sequined jumpsuits, raise their fingers in salute to the order window. A honey vendor halts his sales pitch to gape.
It’s Friday night at the world’s largest barbecue contest, and, in the shadow of Kemper Arena, Oklahoma Joe’s new Z-Man food truck has arrived.
Brad Carlson and Blake Fulton, the owners of MAG Trucks, stand close by. It has been only 48 hours or so since their Liberty shop finished work on the Z-Man. As they give impromptu tours, they’re also still absorbing the idea that they managed to construct and deliver, in little more than a month, a 33-foot kitchen on wheels, with a built-in Southern Pride smoker the size of a sidewalk mailbox.
Not long ago, novelty alone was enough. Locals weren’t used to being able to buy food from a mobile kitchen, so attracting a crowd wasn’t hard. But food-truck vendors today are in a four-wheel race to have the shiniest concept on the block. In a market where the trucks now matter as much as the food, the Z-Man was built to really matter.
“Oklahoma Joe’s won’t just be a player around town. They’re going to be nationally known for this truck,” Carlson says.
What he doesn’t say, but what he hopes, is that MAG Trucks can come along for the ride.
The National Restaurant Association recently estimated that mobile eateries — food trucks and carts — bring in $650 million in revenue annually. Emergent Research, in a December 2012 study conducted for Intuit, predicts that food trucks and carts will grow from 1 percent of the total revenue in the U.S. restaurant industry to between 3 and 4 percent by 2017. That would mean $2.7 billion a year for food trucks.
The culture’s appetite for food trucks is also on the rise. The Great Food Truck Race is into its fourth season on the Food Network — The Pitch‘s Charles Ferruzza was a guest critic on an episode filmed in Manhattan, Kansas — as is Eat St. on the Cooking Channel. And Richard Myrick, editor of Mobile Cuisine and author of Running a Food Truck for Dummies, says the trend isn’t going up on blocks anytime soon.
“Food trucks aren’t closing as quickly as restaurants because there’s a survivability factor,” says Myrick, 44, who plans to launch a food truck of his own next year in the Chicago area. “You don’t have a full staff and the same costs with a truck. It’s often just you or you and your family to start.”
The next wave of vendors isn’t mom-and-pop; trucks with corporate backing and upscale budgets are on the way, with construction costs approaching the price of a house.
“You’re going to see large chains use trucks as promotional vehicles for introducing new menu items or promotion for their brick-and-mortar stores,” Myrick says. “It’s a moving billboard. You can get a focus group on the street in a city where you don’t have a presence and do the market research to determine if you should.”
But even if Taco Bell, Applebee’s and McDonald’s learn to share the road with the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, no megacorporation is ready to outfit trucks for the journey. The nature of food trucks — the customized setup, the owner-operator model and the geographic distribution — means that the industry lacks a single dominant builder.
A trend exploding onto an imperfect marketplace — this essentially launched MAG Trucks six years ago.
A few miles from downtown Liberty, the shells of several dozen step vans wait in neat rows behind a beige commercial building. Step vans are the delivery vehicles that carry our daily bread and our dry cleaning and our overnight shipments. Over the next month, these old hulks will be stripped down, rebuilt, repainted and sold.
“Some men look at Ferraris,” Blake Fulton, 26, says in the lot next to MAG Trucks’ three garage bays. “Me, I look at step vans.”
Fulton and Brad Carlson were juniors in college when they turned that love of boxy vehicles into a business. They grew up together in Kearney, Missouri, and bought their first three step vans on the advice of Jeff Gowing, Fulton’s uncle, who runs Base Craft — a business that supplies equipment to movie sets. They had no trouble finding eBay buyers for the three used diesel trucks. But rehabbing the vehicles to those customers’ specifications was a different story.
“That first set of shelves took three weekends,” Carlson, 26, says. “Now, we can put them in in a couple hours.”
The sale of those vans provided the seed money and convinced them that they could have a future in trucking. Midwestern Automotive Group LLC — which has since been rebranded as the four divisions of MAG Trucks, MAG Capital, MAG Specialty Vehicles and MAG Transport — was born.
By the time they graduated, in 2009 — Fulton with a degree in finance from the University of Missouri and Carlson with a degree in business from Central Missouri State University — they had scored their first job. Toyota wanted a trio of marketing trucks to push a new color, Electric Wasabi, for its Scion xD. A truck had typically taken them from four to six weeks to make, but this contract called for three in one month. They found a body shop in Kearney and ran the job like general contractors.
“It was probably more of a precursor than we realized,” Fulton says. “With concession trucks you have to do things a little bit differently. Whether it’s the materials or layout, you need to stand out.”
At first, MAG was too small a shop to focus on anything but its main business. Fulton and Carlson had at first delivered their completed trucks themselves to FedEx contractors around the country. But sales have been good enough that MAG has hit $10 million in revenue without having taken a bank loan. Still, Fulton and Carlson weren’t ready to plunge into an unproven marketplace.
“Our niche is that we could take trucks that had no secondary use and make a use for them,” Carlson says. “It was about transforming swinging doors into rolling doors or whatever the drivers needed.”
Fulton had targeted the company’s online advertising toward delivery contractors, and Carlson’s truck designs had begun attracting a steady clientele. In 2011, MAG Trucks was named a preferred vendor for FedEx. That endorsement and a staff that had grown to 16 employees helped free up the pair to begin thinking about growing the parts of their business that weren’t related to carrying packages around the country.
“We have the trucks,” Fulton says. “That’s what drove us into it.”
MAG’s first food truck for a Kansas client was island-themed, with surfboards and blue-wave flames along the side. The next was for Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Café, who was developing a prototype Love All—Serve All truck for his nonprofit foundation. Then came a merchandising truck for the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks. (And one is in the works for the Philadelphia Flyers.) These trucks start at $50,000.
Fulton estimates that concession-truck sales now account for 4 percent of the company’s revenue. To grow further, Carlson figured that MAG needed a signature truck, something likely to go viral while becoming the centerpiece of a planned showroom. (The company has made an offer on a space in the Kansas City area that is 10 times the size of its current 5,000-square-foot location.)
Carlson set his sights on Oklahoma Joe’s. When a friend tipped him off that Jeff Stehney, the barbecue restaurant’s co-owner, would be at a Retail Grocers Association event in the parking lot of an area supermarket this past summer, Carlson showed up with three tricked-out step vans.
“People are really visual,” Carlson says. “I can show them a drawing, but in order for them to really imagine something, they have to be able to step inside the truck.”
Stehney, who had thought about opening a sandwich shop, found himself imagining the possibilities for a mobile kitchen. The Z-Man, his barbecue empire’s branded brisket sandwich that’s topped with provolone and onion rings, could find its way into birthday parties and weddings.
“I saw those trucks and I was sold,” Stehney says.
On the first Wednesday in September, Stehney is recalling an unfortunate incident involving a drive home from the American Royal in an uncooperative catering van. He’s standing in the middle garage bay at MAG Trucks, next to a former paper-delivery van — the stripped hull that will become the Z-Man truck.
“We get on I-35, and the back doors of the catering van open. Then both awnings come out, and this thing looks like it’s going to take off. We had to pull over on [the] 12th Street [viaduct]. So we had some new rules about what we wouldn’t do with vending. And here we are, breaking all our rules.”
Carlson has stretched the truck more than 40 inches to increase the amount of kitchen space and to accommodate what Stehney requires: a smoker to keep the brisket warm for Z-Man sandwiches.
“There’s a barbecue trailer with a patio on back,” Carlson says. “I’m not sure it’s ever been done before on a step van.”
As he and Stehney talk about where in the truck to put bread trays and refrigerators, a fabricator is busy soldering panels together. The finished truck will have more than 500 feet of electrical wiring and 30 circuit breakers. The generator powering the kitchen equipment weighs roughly 1,200 pounds. Even Stehney can’t help joking about the size of his truck. “Just a little space vehicle to run to the store,” he says.
The Z-Man sandwich is the only item the truck will share with the three Oklahoma Joe’s restaurants in Kansas. Director of operations Ryan Barrows says he considers this a “french fry truck,” capable of making hot fries and onion rings in a bank of three fryers nestled inside the main vending area.
The Oklahoma Joe’s team knows that the truck needs to be finished in time for the American Royal, and the other part of the plan is to park it in the lot at the original Oklahoma Joe’s location (3002 West 47th Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas) on Sunday, October 20. But the 33-foot-long, 11-foot-tall elephant in the room is what happens after that.
“We don’t know yet where we’re going to keep it,” Stehney says.
The Z-Man truck, which Stehney plans to deploy on both sides of the state line, is driving into a crowded field. The Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department has 358 active permits for food trucks and food carts (a number that jumps to 470 if you include ice-cream trucks).
The Truck Stop in the Crossroads, the First Friday event run by the real-estate firm Copaken Brooks in a lot at 21st Street and Wyandotte, has ballooned from seven food trucks in 2011 to the 50 trucks that rotate through the 12-16 monthly spots. This past summer, BMO Harris Bank started booking food trucks in its parking lot, at 11th Street and Walnut, for the Food Truck Invasion on the third Thursday of every month.
“The food-truck scene just continues to grow,” Sharon Ko says. She’s a marketing associate with Copaken Brooks and coordinates the Truck Stop. “And I think that’s because of the passion of the food-truck drivers.”
Adrian Bermudez, who owns Indios Carbonsitos and is president of the Kansas City Food Truck Association, knows that it’s getting harder for trucks to find eaters. That’s why he hired artist T.J. Daniels to give his three-year-old truck a makeover in September, replacing its plain white sides with an Aztec mural over bright-red paint.
“With all these new trucks coming out with really nice paint jobs and wraps, I knew we had to do something to get us back out there,” Bermudez says. “People were passing us by. They go for the bling. They go for the pretty.”
Food trucks have launched brick-and-mortar restaurants here: Port Fonda in Westport and Little Freshie on the West Side being the most high-profile examples. But the dynamic has reversed polarity, with trucks becoming mobile brand extensions for existing restaurants. KC Hopps has a Blue Moose catering truck, and Bread + Butter Concepts sent its Taco Republic vehicle to events while it was building a permanent restaurant across from the original Oklahoma Joe’s. Bermudez says these restaurants on wheels, and the arrival of trucks from national chains (McDonald’s parks at Arrowhead), should help the pool of existing trucks.
“They have the money and the pull,” he says. “They can make things happen that a Joe Blow like myself can’t do.”
The Food Truck Association, which launched in January and now counts a membership of 20 trucks, has been working with the city to identify additional areas downtown where vendors could park. The only designated spot for food trucks most weekdays is a stretch of 13th Street between Oak and Locust. Trucks can set up in other parking spaces, but there must be enough room, and the meters have to get fed before the customers do.
“The food trucks have to abide by the same rules as anyone else in that parking space,” says John Pajor, manager of the Kansas City, Missouri, Business Customer Service Center. “We don’t have a lot of flexibility to remove parking spaces for mobile vending.”
The Z-Man is about to become the biggest food truck on the road (the typical vehicle is about 26 feet long), and it could be at the vanguard of the movement toward more dedicated space for mobile vending. Some cities have permanent food-truck parks: San Francisco; Boston; Atlanta; and Portland, Oregon. Owners of parking lots, undeveloped parcels and existing businesses might find their holdings more valuable if they let vendors park their own six-figure investments nearby.
“I hope that somebody comes forward with a lot that is safe and well-lit,” Bermudez says. “And with a truck from Oklahoma Joe’s, maybe that’s possible. I’m getting older. I can’t drive this truck around in the cold and heat forever.”
The Z-Man seems poised to further elevate MAG Trucks’ profile. Carlson is talking to a Kansas City coffee company about creating a custom ride, and there’s a plan to build the Z-Man a sister: a working 33-foot model that would be MAG’s own mobile billboard. The showroom could be a destination for entrepreneurs nationwide. MAG is already building a chili truck for a client in Kentucky, and it’s retrofitting a container truck with doors that swing open to reveal a stone pizza oven.
At the American Royal, crowds continue to slow down when they glimpse the Z-Man truck. A small boy tugs his mother’s hand, leading her to the side of the Z-Man. He swings a glowing plastic cone, the kind sold at circuses and fairs, to highlight the comic-book-panel text. “Superheroes,” the boy says. His mom explains that the truck holds sandwiches, not crime-fighters. The boy continues to make flying noises.
A few feet away, Carlson is talking about the truck with a small knot of people attending the Oklahoma Joe’s party.
“You have to have something that separates you out,” Carlson says. “People are taking photos, and they want a story. The truck has to have a cool story.”