published Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Chattanooga’s growing fleet of food trucks adds to national trend

Keith Roscha orders a turkey sandwich from Lindsey Rieman from Famous Nater's World Famous during an event at the Crash Pad behind Niedlov's.  Food trucks, which have full service kitchens, are a growing trend.
Keith Roscha orders a turkey sandwich from Lindsey Rieman from Famous Nater's World Famous during an event at the Crash Pad behind Niedlov's. Food trucks, which have full service kitchens, are a growing trend.
Photo by Jenna Walker.
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Most food trucks let their customers know where they are via Facebook, Twitter and their websites. Famous Nater's World Famous can be found at www.famousnaters.com, while Southern Burger Co. posts at www.facebook.com/SouthernBurgerCo

With a revving engine and sizzling grill, Nathan Flynt is fully joined to a growing fleet of food trucks cruising Chattanooga.

But after spending months building his Famous Nater’s World Famous truck from the ground up and just after he started serving, he had to step on the brakes when his generator broke.

As he works out the kinks and gets the business completely up and running, Flynt plans to post his truck’s weekly schedule on Facebook, Twitter and his own website, merging into the growing national trend of full-service kitchens inside trucks, feeding the hungry masses wherever they may be.

“It was a challenge. It’s the unexpected problems that come up with building anything,” he said. “There’s unexpected costs and unexpected time constraints. You think you can do things faster than they’re actually going to move, so that’s a big part of it.”

Last week, Flynt had had enough of waiting. Famous Nater’s food truck was finally out serving sandwiches and salads using a rented generator.

Though there are several food carts in Chattanooga, Famous Nater’s is one of two full-fledged, full-kitchen trucks in the area.

The mobile food stand serves a variety of gourmet sandwiches, including “Fidel’s Cousin,” a sliced pork sandwich with special mustard, pickles and Swiss cheese on Niedlov’s bread for $9 and a Nutella PB&J, which consists of nutella, Rice Krispies and toasted marshmallows on Niedlov’s sourdough bread for $6.50. Bacon costs an extra buck.

The trucks’ hybrid of food, convenience and social networking has been gaining popularity across the country, but the idea of mobile kitchens is nothing new.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department has been licensing mobile food units for practically as long as fairs have been in the area. The trucks that serve funnel cakes, hamburgers, popcorn and chicken on a stick all must meet the same licensing requirements as trucks like Flynt’s and, for the large part, the same health codes as stationary restaurants.

“We inspect them just like a restaurant,” said Lowe Wilkins, program supervisor for the health department’s environmental health services unit. “We end up protecting the public and the restaurant quality.”

Mobile units must be fully enclosed, self-sufficient units with proper sinks, refrigeration, waste containers and power sources — just like stationary eateries. The average mobile unit is inspected multiple times each year and must pay a $210 annual permit fee, Wilkins said.

Christian Siler, owner of the Southern Burger Co. food truck, said customers are sometimes hesitant to grab lunch off of the back of a truck, but there’s no need for health concerns.

“That’s stuff I think about constantly. I don’t want anybody to have a bad experience at my place,” he said.

Siler started serving gourmet burgers in March and said feedback has been enthusiastic.

He started up his business for less than $100,000. Restaurants have a failure rate of 85 percent in the first three years, so he said he considers the truck a risky investment. But compared to the more than $500,000 he calculated it would cost to open a stationary restaurant, the truck option was attractive.

“It’s a great way to keep your overhead low in an industry that really needs it,” he said. “It’s a great way to get your food out and the best bang for your buck.”

Flynt said building his truck cost less than $70,000, a much smaller, more manageable investment than a brick-and-mortar bistro.

“I looked at it as a way to take a little smaller risk and learn the business, and learn how to run a business,” said Flynt, who has been a chef for 10 years. “Running a kitchen is difficult, but it’s way different when running a whole restaurant. We’re just trying to take it slow and do it right.”

In another plus to the small operation, Flynt said he easily can control the quality of his food. He is the only cook and, along with the order taker, one of two workers in the truck.

“When something’s not cooked right, I’m the guy that cooked it so I don’t have to look any further than the mirror,” he said. “The weight is on me, but there’s not a lot of parts to manage.”

Tesia Gorka, a 29-year-old Chattanoogan who works at “greenspaces” on Main Street, said she hopes the local trucks stay in the black. She has seen mobile eateries in other cities and said she’s glad to have the trend start up in Chattanooga.

“Seeing something like this in your own city, it’s just a taste of something different,” she said. “It’s nice to have more options on Main Street.”

Contact Carey O’Neil at coneil@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.

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