Born on Wheels: From Food Trucks to Fixed Businesses

The immense popularity of Adelaide’s food trucks in recent years has spawned controversy and diversity in equal parts, but the success of those entrepreneurs who made the leap from pavement to bricks and mortar stands testament to the value of the budding industry.

An undeniable food trend of the past few years has been the emergence of a food trucks.

Adelaide has a long and storied history with food trucks, most notably the pie carts that rolled around town for the better part of 150 years, but these new ventures were something much more than steak and kidney on wheels.

They were experimental and fresh, nimble and innovative. With a relatively small investment, a food trucker could parlay their passion for niche food-styles like American BBQ, Asian fusion, or the food of their ancestral homeland into a quick, buzzy business. Rolling onto the scene at the beginning of the decade, food trucks quickly multiplied, parking along Adelaide’s streets, filling laneways, becoming fixtures at community events and growing large followings through word of mouth and social media.

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For many of those dozens of food truckers who have serviced Adelaide’s eaters since then, the goal was not simply to maintain their business on the footpath level, but to gain experience and grow into something else, something bigger: a fixed business. The most notable of these transformers is Burger Theory.

What started as one simple burger truck ballooned into a city-wide obsession. Initially their popularity saw queues whose size were matched only by the patient hunger of those lining up. Burger Theory opened its first restaurant on Union Street a few years ago, opened two more in Adelaide and one in Melbourne since and recently chalked up a massive deal to open 120 stores across China in the coming years. But there are a few others from the initial batch of Adelaide’s first food trucks that have made the jump from food truck to fixed business. Low & Slow American BBQ, Phat Buddha Rolls, Bodri’s Artisan Hungarian Bakery and Sneaky Pickle have each kicked off their own fixed hospitality venture in recent years.

These businesses share a similar foundation story in that they were inspired to bring something new to Adelaide’s dining scene. For both of the American-style BBQ slingers in this group, Sneaky Pickle and Low & Slow, inspiration came from trips to the US and discovery of the country’s rich BBQ culture.

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Sneaky Pickle’s co-owner and founder Amanda Griffiths says she was inspired after sinking her teeth the food culture of “big pastrami sandwiches and pulled pork” while Angus Henderson said he had “joked about opening a BBQ place” with his friend and business partner Angus Kiley after their own revelatory trip to the US. Both BBQ crews’ food trucks had humble beginnings.

Henderson says he and Kiley had found a caravan on Gumtree that they decided to refit and “started with cheese toasties with Little Big Cheese Co.” Sneaky Pickle found a similar route, selling their popular sandwiches along with moreish snacks like deep-fried mac and cheese balls. Developing a following was crucial for both businesses, which the high-visibility on-street selling helped them accomplish, along with appearances at the ever-popular Fork on the Road events.

“You’ve got to start somewhere building a client base. Fork on the Road built that client base for us,” says Henderson. After years of plying their trade, both groups have managed to set up fixed restaurant versions of their food trucks. Low & Slow opened up shop on Port Adelaide’s Commercial Road to “pretty much flat-chat” turnover with the help of Renew Adelaide, to whom he says he, Kiley and their third business partner Jim Morrison are “eternally grateful”.

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“Renew supported a six-month slot for us in the Port and we just signed a five-year lease,” he says. Sneaky Pickle has found similar joy on Goodwood Road having found a location that has allowed them to install fully fledged meat-smokers and see a storming trade since opening this year on the back of their own savings with no external support.

“We picked this building for the business to be sustainable. We looked at city buildings but there was no room for what we wanted to do,” says Griffiths.

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And while those groups are reaping the benefits of years of hard work and the surge in American-style BBQ’s popularity, Bodri’s Artisan Hungarian Bakery and Phat Buddha rolls are doing the same with their own perennial favourites.

Well before pie carts trundled down King William, Australia has had a fascination with bakeries of all sorts, and in that the Bodri’s owners saw an opportunity to establish its own Hungarian niche in the sprawling pastry market.

Owner and founder along with his wife Monika, Csaba Egri has “only been in Australia for six years” and wanted to show Adelaide his own style of Hungarian pastries soon after he arrived here.

“We saw only a few artisan bakeries with no preservatives in the food and saw an opportunity,” says Egri of his decision to make and sell traditional Hungarian pastries, “So we built a state-of-the-art food caravan to test the idea out.”

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After setting up at the 2012 Christmas pageant and “completely selling out” Egri knew there was room for Bodri’s to grow and soon became a side-walk staple in Adelaide as well as a regular attendee of Fork on the Road “which greatly increased [their] visibility”.

Now Bodri’s is part-way through their own Renew Adelaide contract in the Central Market Arcade, which Egri says “has been an almost perfect experience” and allowed the business to expand its offering with the extra preparation space a fixed location brings. Phat Buddha Rolls too has been able to capitalise on the increasingly popular world of Asian-fusion with their own blended Cambodian style. “We coincidentally came about at the same time as Burger Theory,” says Phat’s owner Sokha Khun.

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It is hard to believe now but Phat Buddha was rejected from many of the state’s markets before breaking in to the scene at a market in Uraidla years ago, and managing to build their own unique brand and reputation on the streets of Adelaide.

“We wanted to stay away from the stigma of carnival food and offer something really very unique,” says Khun. Now based on Flinders Street, Phat Buddha Rolls operates their fixed business offshoot Tmor Koul Cambodian Kitchen in conjunction with live music venue and cafe The Jade, running a strong trade while gigs are on.

After The Jade’s own relocation from Twin St to their big church premises on Flinders St, there was an opening available at the site for a food provider, which Phat settled into with help from a familiar face in the food truck scene. “Joe Noone from Fork contacted Zac from The Jade and we won the spot,” says Khun, who runs the shop with her partner and manager Joel Schulz.

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While the cuisine varies from location to location in these nascent hospitality ventures, one thing remains the same: they all agree they wouldn’t be where they are now without the opportunity to run a food truck. Henderson says that opening a restaurant right after his fortuitous trip to the US “was not feasible for us when we were 22, 23” and Griffiths agrees, saying “There’s no way I would risk my life savings to open a restaurant without the test run of the truck.”

“I think we would have struggled and bitten off more than we could chew,” Khun says, “It was small enough to handle without the major overheads a restaurant brings.”

Photos: Courtesy of businesses profiled

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