A couple of years ago Virginia Beach residents Jamie Hertz, 39, and Megan Ebert, 28, were taking a night off from their restaurant jobs, drinking wine and unwinding. Their conversation turned to future plans. Megan, like Jamie, had been working in and out of the food industry for years, and they both loved it. Before long, the conversation led to the possibility of starting their own food truck business. The idea clicked, and the women were off and running. “We found the truck on Craigslist and purchased it within the week,” Jamie said. The pair chose to name their venture “The Lucky Peach.”
Food trucks have come along way since chuck wagons and ice cream trucks. Patronized by health-conscious hipsters, moms on the go, and Boomers who like to buy local, today’s food trucks offer tasty gourmet cuisine sourced from local ingredients and have become fixtures in cities large and small across the U.S. Some say the rapid rise in the number of food trucks has been fueled by the poor economy. When the construction industry weakened during the recession, a surplus of food trucks became available. At the same time, high-end restaurant chefs were being laid off. It was a match made in food truck heaven.
And plenty of hungry folks were happy to welcome them. The trucks have been around in large metro areas for years, and here in Tidewater the numbers are growing. Local food trucks can be seen at craft breweries, festivals, and catering private events. Plus they’re on the street, meeting up in a variety of places, and hungry folks who follow them on social media show up to enjoy their favorite taco, wrap, or cupcake.
In Virginia Beach a few food truck owners and fans have been working hard to get a permanent location for the trucks at 8th Street between Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, and their efforts are paying off. The City Council recently approved a zoning change, but it’s not a done deal yet. If all goes well, the park—dubbed The Hub—will be run by “Eat the Streets 757,” a network of about 20 local food trucks. On a grassy lot a block from the ocean, The Hub would feature a rotating schedule of food trucks, craft beer, artists, and live music—a destination for both locals and visitors. Food truck owners and fans have their fingers crossed that The Hub will soon become a reality.
Meanwhile, let’s meet a few local food truck women, who have taken their passion for food to the streets and aren’t looking back.
PASSION OVER PROFIT
“The freedom of a food truck compared to a brick and mortar restaurant is incomparable,” said food truck owner/operator, Courtney Reitzel, 32, of Virginia Beach. “We’re not stuck with the same menu and our food is fresh. We can’t stockpile, due to lack of space. We make something new on the menu every day. We can cater our menu to where we are going—the people and the event.”
Courtney’s business, Wrap-N-Roll, was already established when she bought it. “It was one of those too-good-to-be-true moments,” she said. “I decided I wanted to find out about this food truck scene, so I reached out to the owner on Facebook. I couldn’t believe she wanted to sell!” Courtney, who had no previous restaurant experience, took over the business in 2013. She had been a retail store manager for seven years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. “I’ve always loved cooking,” she said. “My husband used to tell me to write a recipe down when I’d made something he liked. He’d tease me that I was going to open a restaurant one day.”
She had a lot of hobbies, including gardening and participating in Virginia Urban Homesteader Leagues. “That’s what made me want to source locally,” she said. “I feel like a farm girl truck in the big city. We live on Buchanan Creek. I’ve got my asparagus, grape vines, and seven chickens in the yard. I’m trying to create an awareness. Buy fresh, buy local! Farm-to-truck. I’m passionate about it. It’s not a fad anymore. It’s here to stay.”
Courtney loves having an ever-changing menu. If you buy what’s in season, it’s going to be less expensive and fresh. “If every few weeks you have something seasonal and different, people are going to want to find you,” she said. She might offer strawberry soup or whip up some kale and basil pesto with parmesan to top whole grain pasta. Wrap-N-Roll doesn’t have a fryer and always offers a vegan/vegetarian choice.
Getting through the red tape of starting a food truck business is hard, Courtney said. Fortunately for her, she said her job is more of a passion than a necessary income. She and her husband also own Reitzel Home Improvement. “My first year in business, I said yes to everyone and I was learning through trial and error,” Courtney said. “My husband calls it my expensive hobby.”
“Food trucks are not what they used to be,” she continued. “The variety of cuisine is phenomenal, like Latin/Asian fusion, kimchi on nachos, and wasabi with burritos.” She recently visited Texas and California and sampled her way through 17 food trucks in two days. “They were parked everywhere,” she said.
“Some of the food truck people are highly trained,” Courtney said. “The food is authentic and it’s good stuff. I highly recommend that you check it out. It’s not what it is used to be.”
She’s really looking forward to The Hub. They hope to have a farmer’s market, artisans selling crafts and artwork, local beers on tap, and the twinkling of lights strings at night, she said. With it, they hope to attract both locals and visitors to the Oceanfront.
“People like food trucks, Courtney said. “But we’re being tolerated, not accepted.” She’d like to see that change.
PAVING THE WAY
Hampton resident Kristie Johnson, 37, is the owner and operator of Tacos Bueno food truck. A licensed cosmetologist for 17 years, Kristie was raised on food trucks in California. “It’s a Mecca for food trucks,” she said, “with its easy access to a variety of locally grown produce, cultures, and religions. The area was just swarming with food trucks.”
Kristie and her husband, Aaron, are commercial farmers for Contadina and Hunt tomato canneries in California, but started looking for a new enterprise when they leased out the land. Kristie had some a little food service experience in high school, so starting a food truck was among their options. After they and Kristie’s mother moved to the area in 2012, her husband “stewed” on the food truck idea for two years, she said, before he became committed. They bought the truck last May. “He takes orders, payment, does a lot of lifting, but he’s not allowed in the kitchen,” Kristie said.
Tacos Bueno features Northern California-Mexican style cuisine. “We support locally grown organic produce and hormone-free products,” Kristie said. She’s a big believer in holistic health. They provide care for her mom who is in the advanced stages of muscular sclerosis. She was diagnosed in the 1970s and is medication-free.
“It’s rewarding that we’re helping people nutritionally,” said Kristie. “We don’t have a deep fryer. We try to focus on having gluten-, soy- and wheat-free products.” She may even slip in some garbanzo beans and lentils.
“We like to do a lot of soup. Chicken tortilla soup is a specialty,” she said. “People really like it in the winter. I’ve seen truck drivers drink it while they are driving with one hand,” she explained.
Kristie agrees there are challenges with starting a food truck business—dealing with permits and choosing the right locations and events. They are licensed in Virginia Beach, Newport News, and Hampton. There aren’t many food trucks in the area, Kristie said. “For us, I feel like we’re kinda the snow plow, paving the way for future food trucks in the movement itself.”
As a child, Kristie spent six years in foster care. She said most of those kids don’t know what they want to do for a living. She’d like to introduce foster kids to the food industry, which includes customer service, food prep, cooking, and accounting. She’s hoping other food truck owners will help create a plan with her.
“Aaron and I do the food truck once a week,” Kristie said. “We haven’t really had time to get the right events yet. We do it more as a luxury. We get to meet a lot of people and I definitely think that our product speaks for itself. It’s the best thing that we ever did. I think the truck would be our ministry to get out there and get to know the community a little better.”
BEANS AND BANANAS
After buying the truck and naming their business The Lucky Peach, Jamie and Megan had to plan a menu. They didn’t want to be tied to one food specialty and decided to offer a variety of foods. Although they do have a few menu items with peaches—like chicken salad with peaches, peach jam and peach ice cream—the women focus on fresh, seasonal items like crab cakes and fried green tomatoes in summer, sweet potato biscuits and pulled duck barbeque with apple slaw in fall. They source a lot of their ingredients from Pungo farms.
They’re also known for their black bean and banana brownies, Jamie said, which include alternatives to oil and butter. They enjoy offering healthier options, especially for school functions and catering. Their opening “gig” was the Thoroughgood Elementary School Fall Festival in 2013. Her daughter, Noelle, 16, had been a student there, and now Ava, 9, attends. “It was a lot of fun with people we knew,” Jamie said. Megan is also mother to son, Landon, 3.
Recently The Lucky Peach was among a few lucky food trucks to cater a wedding reception at a winery. Jamie said they also had the opportunity to cater for singer Luke Bryan. “We got to see the concert and meet new clients,” she said. They also attended a food truck convention in Washington, D.C., not long ago.
“Food trucks are not the roach coaches they’ve been known to be,” Jamie said. There are also more female owner/operators now. She estimates that about 40 percent of owners are females. “We’re a way to support your local businesses and get gourmet food,” Jamie continued. “I think the movement is fantastic. The more we’re seen or heard, the more people will know about us.”
Catering events with food trucks is becoming more popular, Jamie said. “We come to your house in the trucks, we cook it, and we take the mess with us.” They’ll be happy to work with you on the menu. Just give them a head count, and they’ll give you a price.
Jamie said keeping their food truck in good mechanical order is important. “Aside from a dead battery, we’ve been lucky,” she said. Getting permits to open a food truck can be also challenging. “There were a lot of hurdles to jump through with the city, and there’s always a lot of paperwork from everyone.” The Lucky Peach is permitted for Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach.
“It’s a feast or famine job,” Jamie said. Sometimes they’re double-booked: two events in one day. “By the end of the season, you’re tired.” Still, working for themselves allows both women time to fit in their kids’ events. Even though their husbands didn’t realize their wives might be working six days a week, they’ve been very supportive, said Jamie. “He said he’s fine as long as I’m happy.”
Like most food trucks, The Lucky Peach posts their schedule via social media the beginning of every month, so folks know where they’ll be. “Food trucks are so new,” Jamie said. “It’s work getting the word out there.”
But food truck fans are paying attention. They know that they can enjoy their favorite food truck dish—fresh and tasty and often sourced locally—while supporting a local business, all for an affordable price. Next time you get hungry for something new, check out a local food truck gathering. You just might find yourself in food truck heaven.
Eat the Streets 757
The Lucky Peach