From Food Truck to Full Service

By Nicole Jennings  |  Photography by Karen Culp

 

As the story goes, the humble beginnings of the food truck industry can be traced back to 1872, when Rhode Island vendor Walter Scott parked his covered wagon outside of a newspaper office, serving up sandwiches and coffee to employees for lunch each day. The idea caught on, and others began to mimic his business model, launching fleets of lunch wagons in cities all over the country.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, when the modern-day food truck movement really got rolling. With inspiration from early industry adopters like LA-based chef Roy Choi, and the ability to use social media as an avenue for free marketing, aspiring but inexperienced or financially limited restaurateurs could begin their eatery in the relative safety of a truck. This route provided the opportunity to test their local market and give the restaurant biz a whirl, all without risking a large investment if it didn’t pan out.

By offering higher caliber menus than you’d expect from a restaurant on wheels and creating personal relationships between chef and patron, food trucks have continued to rise in popularity, and the trend seems to be here to stay.

But what’s the next step when you have a successful and lucrative food truck? Expand, of course.

Rather than mobilizing a fleet of trucks, food truck chefs often take what they’ve learned and make the jump to brick and mortar. They’ve developed their brand, their specialty, and a loyal following, so there’s no reason a well-placed stationary location couldn’t be just as, if not more, profitable.

Some of your favorite Chattanooga food trucks have done just that and done it well, learning the tricks of the trade along the way.

Taqueria Jalisco



Jorge Parra: co-owner
Maria Parra: co-owner/chef
Food Truck: 2005
Brick & Mortar: 2010


As an entrepreneur and self-taught chef, Maria Parra has spent her entire career in the food industry. First in Mexico, where she owned her own restaurant, and now here in town. Due to affordability and simplicity, Parra and her son Jorge elected to open a food truck when they moved to Chattanooga. “A food truck compared to a restaurant is a million times easier. We didn’t start the truck with the intent of opening a brick-and-mortar location, but we were very open to seeing where it could lead us,” says Jorge Parra, co-owner of Taqueria Jalisco.

The Parras spent years building name recognition and popularity by operating their food truck at local markets and developing a catering business. In 2010, they used their experience to open a restaurant on the Southside at the corner of Wilhoit and Main Street. After five years at that location, their building was sold, and they began looking for a place to relocate. “Behind our first location, there was this weird-shaped, boarded up and abandoned building. It didn’t have windows, there were weeds growing inside, it was in terrible condition. But it drew my eye,” Parra says. He called the owner to inquire about a lease, and the rest is culinary history.

Taqueria Jalisco’s distinctive Southside site has garnered support not just from previous food truck patrons and neighborhood residents, but also largely from word-of-mouth recommendations. “We are family owned and run. You will always find a family member working, whether it’s my mother, or me, or my aunt, or a cousin. I think that’s something you don’t often find,” reflects Parra.

With their success, the Parras were able to expand, adding a Taqueria Jalisco location downtown in 2014.

The Parras plan to expand their flagship location in the future by moving to a larger building across the street from the current spot. “We’re open to growing and continuing that growth. The sky’s the limit,” Parra notes.

2 Sons Kitchen and Market



Nathan Flynt:
operating partner/chef/take-out-the-trasher/doer-of-dishes
Food Truck: 2011
Brick & Mortar: 2017

 


Opting out of the traditional college route, Nathan Flynt instead elected to delve into the heat, the bad pay, and the long hours for which the restaurant industry has been forever infamous.

While working at a country club in Atlanta when he was younger, Flynt was often chided for spending too much time in the kitchen, given it wasn’t actually part of his job. The chef told Flynt he couldn’t be in there while on the clock, but he could make cookies for the clubhouse before his shift started each day. “The kitchen was run by an old French guy so they still wore the paper hats. They handed me the hat and the coat, and that was it. I loved it,” Flynt recalls.

That spark, among many, led Flynt to attend culinary school. His subsequent training under talented Atlanta chefs taught him to appreciate farm-fresh, local ingredients, and to understand the time and care it takes to grow everything properly.

Years later, working 80-hour weeks and ready to start a family, Flynt and his wife Katherine desired a change. “I can cook chicken anywhere,” he jokes. The two made the leap and moved to Chattanooga where Flynt spent time working in local restaurants until his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Having years of culinary experience but no business experience, Flynt opted to start a food truck.

Famous Nater’s World Famous food truck hit the road in 2011. Flynt used it to learn how to run a business, establish himself as a chef in Chattanooga, create recipes, and lineup vendors. “The learning, experimenting, and community part always came before revenue,” Flynt explains.

This past April, equipped with the business acumen earned from years managing his food truck, (and the inspiration for a rebrand to celebrate the birth of his and his wife’s two sons,) Flynt opened his brick and mortar restaurant, Two Sons Kitchen and Market. “We’ve got regulars from the food truck and a bunch of new patrons. The support is overwhelming,” Flynt remarks.

Southern Burger Co.


Christian Siler: owner
Food Truck: 2011
Brick & Mortar: 2013


After logging more than 75,000 miles on the Tennessee campaign trail for his candidate, an exhausted Christian Siler was ready for a change. His mother suggested a food truck. Though not a complete stranger to the concept, (he had worked professional concessions for a friend during college,) he was hesitant to make the leap.

Intrigued enough by the idea though, Siler visited the food truck scene in Durham, North Carolina one weekend. “A burger truck had a line around the corner and down the block, and they sold out. So, I went the next day, and again, around the corner and down the block. Soon, they only had one burger left, a mistake burger the proprietor was going to eat for lunch until a guy begged him to sell it to him instead. That’s when I knew,” Siler recalls.

In 2011, Siler opened Southern Burger Co. food truck. Not long after opening, the local news station called him for an interview. “With my background in politics, I knew how to set the stage. I called a bunch of people to come down, including several regulars, who gave rave reviews on camera. They aired the segment four times the next day. The day after that, we sold out in an hour and had to close for the rest of the day,” Siler recounts.

Due to food truck regulations, Siler opened a commissary kitchen to prepare all of the food for the truck. Realizing it wasn’t an efficient use of rent, he started looking for another option.

Growing up in Ooltewah, Siler knew it would be a great place for Southern Burger Co. “We asked a bank if we could put the truck in their parking lot and they said no, but told us to ask across the street. That was the future Cambridge Square. They were looking for local restaurants to go in their development, so we took a chance on them, and they took a big chance on us. It’s worked out beautifully,” beams Siler.

Chatter Box Cafe



Brandon Ellis:
chef/owner
Food Truck: 2015
Brick & Mortar: 2016


Chattanooga transplant Brandon Ellis started hauling his truck and smoker around to various breweries, office buildings, markets, and events in part to earn extra money, but more so because he simply enjoyed doing it.

When the food prep outgrew his garage, Ellis invested in a commissary kitchen. “I’d be prepping for a catering job, my smoker going out front, and people would stop by to see what was going on and ask if they could purchase my food. So, I turned my prep space into the restaurant,” Ellis recounts.

Transitioning from a one-man show into a staffed restaurant has its challenges. From creating basic employment policies to the complexities of learning how to effectively delegate responsibility, Ellis is learning every day. “It’s not everyone else’s business, it’s mine. So, I’ve had to find the balance between not expecting too much or too little,” he explains.

Since Chatter Box Cafe’s early days, Ellis’ passion for his craft and vision for the future have cultivated a loyal following. “People who ate my food on the side of the road are the people who’ve stayed with me. They used to ask why I called it a cafe when it was a mobile. I told them it was so I wouldn’t have to change my name when I opened a restaurant!”

Ellis, inspired by his upbringing, tries to locally source as many ingredients as possible. In the future, he hopes to begin growing his own ingredients and raising his own meat. “My grandparents grew their own produce and raised hogs. That idea always intrigued me.” The results of providing his own ingredients would be twofold – not only would it complete his goal of creating a true farm-to-table barbecue joint, but it would also give him an opportunity to give back to the community by employing youth and teaching them applicable farm skills.

Ellis works hard to make lasting impressions in addition to perfecting his food, “I try to find common ground with everyone I meet.”