As a restaurant owner, Karen Simpson originally was concerned about the sudden arrival of food trucks around Traverse City in June. Today she's the proud owner of one, with the launch of "Harbor on the Side" this past weekend.
What changed her mind, and exactly what's involved for a restauranteur to add wheels to their existing brick-and-mortar eatery?
Simpson owns Harbor 22 in Traverse City, which opened in 2012 in the former Scott's Harbor Grill building on M-22. Early this summer, when the City Commission relaxed an ordinance, food trucks began popping up in increasing numbers downtown.
Simpson and others were concerned about the way food trucks would be regulated and if they'd have to play on a level playing field with restaurants. She soon became intrigued by the potential they offered - not only to expand into catering (a goal of Simpson's) but to extend the Harbor 22 brand beyond the restaurant's four walls.
"We first got the idea to do this because of the catering business," Simpson explains. "But in the process, we realized that having a truck would allow us to have a presence at events and festivals and downtown. We plan on 50-60 percent of our business coming from catering, with the rest coming from (food truck) sales."
To some, the words "food truck" summon visions of small carts selling hot dogs, yet many of today's mobile food vendors are significantly more sophisticated and complex - and expensive to operate. Simpson purchased Harbor on the Side's big box-style food truck, outfitted with a full-scale mobile kitchen complete with the same equipment found in Harbor 22's restaurant, from a seller in Miami for $50,000. (New, the truck originally sold for $85,000.)
That initial investment was soon followed by several more. Shipping the truck to Michigan cost $3,000; minor repairs cost another $1,000. Signplicity Sign Systems created and executed a custom Harbor on the Side design and full-scale logo wrap for the truck at an estimated $5,000 price tag. A permit to operate in downtown Traverse City will cost the company $1,200 annually; health inspection applications and reviews were another $185 and $350, respectively.
"We had a commitment to doing it right," Simpson says of her costly investment in the mobile venture. "There are some nice trucks in Traverse City...we think ours will be right up there with the best of them."
Other ongoing operational costs will include weekly fuel-ups for the truck's dual 68-pound propane tanks, food inventory and ingredients, and several staff salaries. Ryan Mateling, chef at Harbor 22, will split his time between the restaurant and the food truck; at least two other employees will be needed to run the venture, with four to five staff on-hand for major events and catering gigs.
Harbor on the Side will feature a mix of Harbor 22 staples, such as whitefish tacos and pork sliders, with more experimental ethnic fare, including Central American, Mexican and Pan-Asian dishes.
Given the considerable start-up costs involved in mobile vending, it might be natural for Simpson to worry about competing in Traverse City's increasingly crowded food truck scene - as well as with her own restaurant. But the owner believes the truck will complement the company's brick-and-mortar operations, acting as a "test kitchen" for the flagship, and says that if catering bookings and street sales meet expectations, she could recoup her investment in just two to three years' time.
"As a new restaurant, we want to build awareness and get our name out there," she explains. "Having a food truck will help us do that. Going to a truck and going to a restaurant are two different experiences, but we're hoping the exposure from one will help the other - and that in the end, they'll both be successful."