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Food Entrepreneurs in Santa Barbara On a Roll with Mobile Trucks

The small-business owners say they can cover a lot of ground while passing on the savings of low overhead to their customers

In an effort to avoid the high cost of rent and to increase their geographic coverage, food entrepreneurs in Santa Barbara have found the value of taking to the streets with food trucks — mobile restaurants to serve the community.

“The overhead is so much lower with a gourmet mobile food truck that we can pass the value on to our customers,” said Liz Bradley, president and CEO of O Street Truck. “The only difference (from a traditional restaurant) is that we’re going to be on many streets as opposed to just one.”

Bradley has been a gourmet food manufacturer and pastry chef with Olive Street Table for the past eight years, manufacturing food for establishments including Costco, Williams-Sonoma and Bristol Farms. She said the Santa Barbara-based gourmet retail food business has been hit hard during the past two years.

“We needed to adapt and survive, look at other channels of trade and re-create ourselves as a small business to meet the needs of the 2011 customer. Hence, O Street Truck,” Bradley said. “We’re taking our gourmet Provencal fare to the streets at street prices.”

Michael Gardner, who owns the Burger Bus with his wife, Cheryl, said the biggest advantage of having a mobile restaurant is cost, and that the biggest difference in operating a mobile restaurant is that everything needed for the day must be in the vehicle before departure.

“We pay rent for our commissary, but we do not have the high rents of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. We also have the opportunity to take the food to the people and cover as many areas as possible while still only having one restaurant,” Gardner said. “Everything you need for the day needs to be with you when you leave. If you forget an onion, you can’t just run to the fridge for one.”

Neither Bradley nor Gardner found it too arduous to acquire health permits from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

The chicken Banh Mi sandwich from the O Street Truck.
The chicken Banh Mi sandwich from the O Street Truck. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“Dealing with a bureaucracy — especially in California — is a difficult proposition. They are not necessarily small-business friendly,” Bradley said. “The paperwork, fees, etc., are daunting and don’t encourage entrepreneurs to move forward. That said, my experience with Santa Barbara County was pretty positive.”

Gardner added: “The permit process with the city was not difficult. It just required lots of patience and a few calls to get all the required information.”

Lovers of Mediterranean-style food can choose from O Street Truck’s Italian, French and even French-Vietnamese foods. Menu items include French pasty pizza, Provencal soups and salads, and French Banh Mi sandwiches.

Gardner said he savors the simplicity of the hamburger, but the Burger Bus has added falafel, sweet potato fries and onion rings, and it supports seven local businesses in producing its menu items.

“We considered many different types of food, but when all was said and done, burgers are just something lots of people enjoy,” he said.

The Santa Barbara School District is also turning to the food truck as a cost-effective and efficient means of food service. Its Department of Nutrition Services has purchased food trucks to serve nutritious meals to students. Menu items include tacos, hamburgers, burritos and salads.

The first Mobile Cafe launched in August at Montecito Union Elementary School District. The second Mobile Cafe is stationed near the flagpole at Santa Barbara High School. The district’s third Mobile Cafe will be placed at San Marcos High School during the spring, and Dos Pueblos High School expects to have its own food truck later in the school year.

“It’s a multi-tiered goal and vision,” said Nancy Weiss, director of nutrition services. “First, we’re trying to get healthier and more exciting food options to schools during the lunch hour so kids don’t leave campus for their lunch. Because the department has launched these mobile cafes, my goal is for our Summer Food Service Program to serve the community and feed low-income kids during the summer.”

It seems the Santa Barbara community has responded positively to food trucks.

“We have been open for nearly 20 months, and people seem to enjoy our food,” Garnder said. “The one thing that really makes me feel good is when someone comes back to the window after their lunch and tells us that they love the food and will return. It makes this whole process totally worth it.”

O Street Truck hopes expressed a similar sentiment.

“Santa Barbara is such a lovely town, and we have had nothing but support from pretty much everybody,” Bradley said. “We also want to give back to this community, and have had a great response from the Boys & Girls Club and the Pacific Pride Foundation. Seriously, in all my years in the food business, I’ve never had so many people say ‘yes.’”

Weiss said the school district has reached out to the community by sponsoring the food served at Child Abuse Listening & Mediation (CALM) and the Storyteller Children’s Center. The Mobile Cafe also will be at this year’s Earth Day festival.

“Any kind of profit we make goes back into the department of food service, which I turn around and buy organic produce,” Weiss said. “It’s a very sustainable program that we implemented this year.”

Bradley said she sees the economic climate as a good opportunity to grow her food truck business.

“We look at the recession as an opportunity to grow our business in Santa Barbara with a concept, product and price point which has already captured the imaginations of consumers in Los Angeles, Portland, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Santa Barbara boasts a very sophisticated population.”

O Street Truck plans to launch later this month once its food truck is assembled. Burger Bus stations include the City of Goleta parking lot on Cremona Drive, the Mac Mechanic parking lot, 216 E. Gutierrez St., and the Santa Barbara Airport parking lot. Click here for a detailed schedule of Burger Bus’ route.

Noozhawk business writer Taylor Orr can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @NoozhawkBiz, @Noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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