Hittin’ the Streets with Chef Joe Youkhan


January/February 2011

By Kelly O’Quinn

We all know why gourmet food trucks are sky-rocketing in popularity among foodies – reasonably priced, delicious food that meets you there – but why are so many chefs switching over to the mobile eatery craze? Chef Joseph Youkhan, who recently made the switch from restaurant to food truck, took some time to answer our seemingly endless questions on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into starting a gourmet food truck.

Great Taste: Why did you decide to start a food truck instead of a restaurant?
Joe Youkhan: I always thought that I would own a “brick and mortar” restaurant. However, with the way the economy has been for last couple of years, the lower start up cost and fixed costs of a food truck were the first attraction. When I started to dig deeper into the idea, other reasons solidified it. For instance, restaurants spend tons of time and money to draw in customers. When you are mobile, you can actually go to where the customers are. As a chef, the most important thing is the ability to create a menu that represents what you love to cook. To be able to do so, actually prep, execute, and serve the customer all yourself, is very satisfying to me. It’s a very unique way to get in touch directly and get an immediate response from people.
GT: How did you go about getting investors?
JY: I first started looking into finance companies that would lend the money for a five year term. It was challenging to get that type of lender to give a chef money for a food business, let alone a food truck. The interest rates were ridiculous and they held all the cards; it seemed like if you made one wrong move they’d own everything you were working so hard for. I pulled from my past 12 years of relationships I had developed and showed my business plans to close friends and family. The amount of support I was shown was truly amazing!
GT: What was the very first thing you did in starting the process?
JY: Six years ago, when I knew I was going to start a family and wanted my own company, I developed my concept: name, menu, logos, etc. When I knew that I was taking my concept mobile, it was time to start securing my investors. The first thing I did was file for my Articles of Organization with the state and look for a truck builder.
GT: Why did you go out of state to get your truck?
JY: The builder is located in Los Angeles. Because there are very strict regulations which are not standard that have to be adhered to for my specific equipment, I had to work closely with the truck builder to find the perfect truck. It just happened to be out of state.

GT: What special health and licensing hoops did you have to jump through?
JY: The paperwork process is the most tedious part, but if you work with a reputable builder, they submit all the plans that are required by the State and Health Department.
GT: Where can you park and serve food?
JY: Currently in Orange County there are events that are being built around food trucks. There are also partnerships with other businesses that do not sell food and will allow you to be on their property so you can help drive customers to that establishment as well. There are some common sense rules of not blocking traffic and not parking right in front of a restaurant.
GT: How do you find a place to park and serve? What does it cost? What does it include? Are there many to choose from? Is there competition for popular spots?
JY: A lot of it is common sense. If you see a bunch of executives coming out of a huge office building and there is public parking, then that’s where you give it a shot. There are a handful of official spots that event planners are putting together to host food trucks. I think in Orange County the popular spots are just being developed and the competition becomes a revolving schedule.
GT: Where do you park at night or when you aren’t driving around? Is there a storage area you use? What does it cost/entail?
JY: There are official sites which the State and County regulate. There are several in Orange County and a good amount in L.A. It’s where your truck gets clean inside and out. Most of your storage happens right on the truck. You plug in your refrigeration where your parking spot is.
GT: What are the differences between outfitting a kitchen and outfitting a truck?
JY: They’re pretty similar except you have some major space restrictions you are dealing with in a truck. Also, your power sources are coming from a generator and gas from propane tanks.
GT: Is there anything you need for a truck that you wouldn’t need in a kitchen?
JY: Not really, pretty much the same.

GT: What’s your menu focus going to be?
JY: Mainly rustic Italian cuisine; I will be drawing from all my experience which is totally global.
GT: Do you plan to expand to more trucks? How many?
JY: Yes, I plan on having multiple vehicles.
GT: What area will you cover?
JY: All of Orange County and some special events in L.A.
GT: Does the equipment have to be a special size or do you stuff regular sized equipment into that space?
JY: Both, most of it can be regular sized equipment. There might be cases where a unit will have to be custom built.
GT: Do you just serve out of one window?
JY: Two. One for ordering and one for pick-up.
GT: Can you serve out of both sides?
JY: Yes.
GT: How big will the crew be and what positions will they hold?
JY: Probably myself and one other person to be the point of sale and help prep.
GT: How many people can fit in the truck?
JY: Around three comfortably, but it’s a small space regardless.
GT: Will you have special menus for mass events to enable quicker service?
JY: My menu is pretty small and streamlined to begin with, but for large events I will have less offerings.
GT: What does it cost to get a truck on the road?
JY: An average range would be anywhere from $150k to $500k.
GT: What is the estimated monthly cost (not food) of keeping it going (insurance, labor, event, etc.)?
JY: There are too many factors involved to say with any certainty at this point. It depends on if you have a budget for marketing, graphics, how many events you do, type of premiums you pay, etc.
GT: When/if you have to pay an event fee, how much does it typically cost?
JY: Some venues want a percentage of your sales or a flat fee, which is typically around $100.
GT: What was the biggest surprise to you?
JY: The genuine outpour of support from friends and family. It is truly amazing and inspiring!

For more behind-the-scenes info on starting and running a food truck, check out “How to Start a Food Truck” by Amy Reinink of Entrepreneur.com