In one sense, the Rio Grande Valley has long had food trucks, if you count ice cream trucks, portable raspas stands and the food sellers who wheel into festivals and market days. But the national trend for food trucks has finally taken root here, proven by the six-spot McAllen Food Park which opened in June with the support of the McAllen CVB and Chamber of Commerce.
At least 75 compact food trucks operate in the Valley. Some are spinoffs of existing restaurants, meat markets or catering companies. Others are stand-alone food service businesses. As more cities allow food trucks, more people are enjoying meals on wheels in their neighborhood.
First the kitchen
Joe Sanchez should be called the godfather of food trucks. With $35,000 in severance pay from Levi Strauss in 2001, the mechanic built a hot dog cart, sold it and then built another one. In time, Sanchez Trailers’ employees in Mission were making fully-equipped kitchens on wheels that have been purchased by entrepreneurs in every state, including Hawaii and Alaska, as well as Canada, Panama and San Croix. A significant percentage of the food trucks in San Antonio and Austin were built in Mission. In the Valley alone, 50 Sanchez Trailers are serving food.
“What happens is we sell one to a certain area, and people start calling us for info, colors and prices. We modify the equipment to whatever they want,” said Sanchez. “Now we’re making two to three trailers a week. The biggest sellers are red and orange, because you can spot them a mile away.”
The trailers, ranging 12-40 feet, are equipped with stainless steel counters, refrigerators, sinks and water holding tanks, air conditioners, and usually griddles and fryers. The manufacturer tries to have one of each size on hand so people can walk through them. Some want to take one right away. Custom orders mean an 8-12 week wait.
“We make food trailers that meet all health department requirements and then some. We guarantee they will pass inspection,” Sanchez said. That attention to detail is a component of the customer service that has helped them garner so many referrals from satisfied buyers. He advises novices about what has worked for other customers and about the importance of keeping the menu limited.
Sanchez clarified that he makes trailers, which are pulled by pickup trucks, while food trucks technically are motorized. But the public tends to clump both together as food trucks, less concerned about the platform than what they supply. The mobility is appealing to chef/owners, letting them adapt to seasonal demand, special events or location problems.
Previously, about 80% of Sanchez’s sales were outside of Texas. But as cities like South Padre Island and Mission allow food trucks, the local clientele has grown. One Brownsville couple purchased eight Sanchez trailers; all the food trucks at the Brownsville Flea Market are Sanchez products; three have been ordered for Island businesses. Having outgrown its current space, Sanchez Trailers is relocating to San Juan later this year. Giving back, the business contributed to the Food Park awning and was a sponsor of the Food Park Block Party.
Gerry Sanchez operates Zarah’s, McAllen’s first permitted food truck, which features fajitas and burgers from Zarah’s Meat Market. Zarah’s has three food trucks, one at the market on Ware Road, one in Mission (“a hit from the day it opened”), and the third which struggled to find a place to park. Then Sanchez talked with Robert Lopez of McAllen CVB who came up with the idea of a food truck park in the chamber’s parking lot. The proposal, with the support of city commissioner John Ingram and with restrictions on distance to existing restaurants, etc., became a city ordinance. In early June the city installed picnic benches and permanent shade.
The chamber leases spaces with electrical hookups for 20 days per month, although food trucks can opt to be there daily. “Zarah’s has been the anchor from the beginning. They love being here,” said Lopez.
“People really like the concept,” said Sanchez. “It’s better for all of us when people have a choice of menus.” Of course, he is partial to Zarah’s signature dish, the fajita taco. “We probably don’t have the prettiest trailer, but we have the best food.” He has incorporated technology into the mix, using a mobile POS to take orders and credit/debit card payments. “The POS helped me to get more organized. There’s less confusion in the kitchen. Everybody works more efficiently.”
The food park was established as a model and catalyst for private food parks around the city. Sanchez himself is interested. “We’re looking at doing something like this on our own. It’s a boost for the economy. It creates something new.”
During the summer, evenings draw bigger crowds than lunch time does. Families come out around sunset, while on the weekend, the food park has become popular with people leaving downtown clubs after midnight.
In contrast, the early morning crowd discovered Carlos Ponce’s Nectar Avenue mobile juice bar on its opening day. “I did my research and saw the trend in big cities, so decided to go mobile,” said Ponce. Shaded tables offer a cool spot to sip refreshing, flavor-filled, fresh fruit drinks (blackberries, strawberries, pineapple) along with fruit bowls, and wraps between 7 a.m. and 5ish.
Moving the food truck every day is a fact of life, and it can be time consuming. But Ponce looks at the positive side: people see the colorfully wrapped truck going by and want to try the menu.
Nino’s Rio Pizza started as a catering business and farmers’ market vendor four years ago. Two years later, Alberto Gulino had enough capital to buy a larger food truck, complete with a well-insulated wood-burning oven that can bake Nino’s nine types of pizza in 7-8 minutes. “On a busy Saturday night, we’re not keeping anybody waiting more 20 minutes,” he said.
During the summer, Nino’s crew makes the pies for Thursday and Friday lunch patrons, too. “In October, once it’s cooler, we’ll be open for six lunches and six dinners a week.”
The Quattro Stagioni pizza, which reflects Gulino’s Sicilian heritage, shares the menu with Valley-influenced pies featuring San Manuel chorizo, nopales and Gulf shrimp.
Gulino said the logistics such as deliveries are different for running a mobile restaurant. “And it’s hard to find somebody with food experience who can back up a trailer.”
Country Cafe on the Road is the mobile unit of the Edinburg restaurant. Under the awning of a new, red 16-foot Sanchez trailer, Chef Andres Vera said, “People tell us they like our food. I like that.” He posts weekly specials on Instagram.
Ruth Reza’s moved her Takos el Tarasco food truck from Second and Nolana to the Food Park to be part of the food truck scene. “There’s a very nice turnout especially from 6 to midnight and later, when all the people come out from the clubs.” Other Food Park vendors are La Caravane, Sno Bro Raspas and Mighty Truck.
July 2015 cover story by Eileen Mattei