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Building a Restaurant on Wheels from Inside Out

  • June Soh

In recent years food trucks have proliferated in big U.S. cities. As the popularity of the mobile kitchen continues to grow, a small business in the Washington D.C. suburbs is also profiting. East Coast Custom Coaches is a builder of food trucks.

“You’ve got to come in, go around in this truck, and back out that window in three to four minutes, period,” says Lee Campbell, owner of East Coast Coaches who believes that is how long it should take for a chef to prepare food for customers.

“That is how we design our trucks to the chef. They are made for the chef," Campbell said. "Are you right-handed or left-handed, are you real tall ...,”

East Coast Custom Coaches is based in Manassas, Virginia, outside Washington. Over the past several years, his team of 15 employees has built about 200 food trucks.

Gauri Sarin sells Asian fusion food in downtown Washington. Her mobile kitchen, Something Stuffed, was built by Campbell's team.

“I love the inside of my truck," she says. "I am very happy with all the equipment and where everything is located."

Campbell says each truck has a different design depending on the cuisine. One of his biggest challenges is finding the best use of the small space.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven pieces of equipment [are] right here," he said. "We maximize every square inch of it. That is why I have a top-notch engineer on my staff.”

That engineer is Tom Mayhew. He met Campbell many years ago when they were working as volunteer firefighters.

“I have 26 years in a fire department. So I have a keen eye for safeties," Mayhew said. "When I look at a design or a drawing, I take safety in consideration first. Is it safe? If it is, then we can design the way they [customers] feel like they want to make it.”

Jeff Kelly, of the D.C. Food Truck Association, says the trucks must also comply with local government regulations.

"So working with somebody like Lee and East Coast Custom is important in that way because regulations are really hard to understand for someone just opening a truck for the first time," he said. "They know the rules, they know the regulations. They build quality vehicles."

That is why Carmen and Chris Morse came to East Coast Custom.

“We are going to serve gourmet mini-burgers,” said Carmen.

“We have worked in restaurants since we were young teenagers, things like that," Chris said. "This is our first venture on a mobile food truck. We are super excited."

Campbell says most food trucks in the Washington area are used vehicles from FedEx or the post office. The re-outfitting process takes two to three months and costs, on average, around $45,000 - a fraction of the cost of opening a regular restaurant.

"We have about 31 trucks to build," Campbell said. "We try to get four to five trucks out a month.”

Campbell expects to stay busy for many years to come, as the curbside restaurant industry keeps growing.
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