Food trucks have become an accepted way for chefs, or even would-be chefs, to get into the catering business. In some cases the food truck has become the launch pad of a restaurant empire. The best examples of this new trend are also fierce artisans who strive for total authenticity.
Pizza Pilgrims is a classic tale of a good idea turned into a smart business. Two brothers went to Italy to buy a three-wheel van to use as a mobile pizza oven and ended up learning more than they had anticipated and achieving far more than they could have dreamed.
Suzette, a galette van, is one Frenchwoman’s quest to recreate the classic food of Brittany that she loved so dearly but couldn’t find in London.
Engine is a refitted 1959 Citroen Fire Truck that now sells hot dogs and is run by a jobbing actor.
Pizza Pilgrims was founded on the principal that if the product is good and the price is keen then all you have to do is be patient and work hard. And find a place to park.
At the beginning, brothers James and Thom Elliot, the pilgrims themselves, wanted to get into street food somehow. Their original idea was to do burgers, but that had been done. Pizza was the next idea and that seemed to fit perfectly.
“We needed a van do the street scene,” James told us. “Italy had nutty vans. We knew we wanted one of the Piaggio Ape three-wheel models but it was going to cost £2000 to ship it over. So we decided just to go to Sicily and get it.
“A two-week trip turned into a six-week trip. We both had had good jobs and we both decided to give them up. I was working in media and I sold the idea of a mad pizza trip to a TV company, so they sent a crew with us. That opened doors and every pizzeria we went to was very welcoming as soon as they saw the camera.
“The long and the short of it was we ate a lot of pizza on the way back. Naples was the best and we fell in love with the chewy dough and the simple toppings. I managed to get a job as a KP in a Neapolitan pizzeria for a week, and that gave me so much. We’ve kept true to their methods, and nothing will change it. Pizza is Cucina Povera (poor food) and it should be simple, but good and cheap.”
What’s so interesting about Pizza Pilgrims is that authenticity is the root of the business. The pizza had to be as good as it could be. All the food truck did was take away the fuss of sitting in a restaurant.
Authenticity is also key to the success of Suzette. Karen Mahe, a property developer from France, decided that she’d had enough of the crêpes in Britain. She had grown up in Brittany watching her grandmother cook classic pancakes the traditional way, on wooden logs in a chimney. The London ones, however, simply didn’t come close to how good they could be.
So, unable to resist the temptation any longer, she went back to France and bought a 1979 Renault Estafette.
“I’d always loved the idea of travelling the country,” she said. “But I knew I had to find the right ingredients: organic buckwheat for the galette and crêpe batter. I was lucky to find a family-owned mill near to the village where my grandma lived.
“They pass the flour through fine silk during the process. I have my own specifications for the flour and they keep that a secret. Funnily enough this is also a Brittany tradition. Every galette maker has their quirks and secrets.
Last month, set up in Borough Market on Bastille Day amid a backdrop of French flags and accordion players, London swarmed Karen’s Suzette mobile creperie. All of the four different crêpe and galettes were in demand, as was the current special – a goat’s cheese galette, with raw honey, fresh figs and pine nuts.
Her Galette Complete, made with 24-month Comté cheese, free range egg and country cured ham, is one of the most popular, with many of her customers taking the French in London’s lead and buying one of her sweet crêpes at the same time for dessert.
Made with organic wheat flour, these crêpes are simple and clean, ranging from a lemon and sugar to a homemade salted caramel with freshly beaten cream.
“It’s a simple food menu that I can really keep an eye on,” Karen told us, “Fresh, interesting and with the most traditional of foundations.”
Actor Richard Shanks wanted a business that would allow him to close when he was busy acting. A moveable food truck was the perfect idea. For him the calling was hotdogs but they had to be the right ones – again, authenticity.
He travelled across America looking for the right style and taste. The bun has to be right and the dog has to be right. He doesn’t share who his suppliers are but admitted to us that he used a Jewish bakery and a local butcher who double smokes for extra flavour.
His menu consists of seven hotdogs, with the Bacon Cheese, ‘Beef Richard’, and German-style ‘Best of Ze Wurst’ headlining daily. Inspired by Richard’s love for takoyaki octopus balls, the peculiar ‘Yoshi Dog’, with crispy onions, homemade wasabi mayo, takoyaki sauce, and chopped seaweed, has also been a big hit.
But while Engine has caught on like wildfire, Richard’s story is about stability. He is an actor, having graduated from acting college in 2005, and joined up with the National Theatre soon after. His frozen yoghurt venture came from a desire to create an outlet, to subsidise his path into acting.
“Engine creates the perfect balance,” he said, “I’m completely committed to both my acting career and the perfect hotdog. Too much of a step in one direction would throw things out of kilter. I pick the number of dogs every day depending on where I am with Engine, I also am lucky enough to be able to pick my lifestyle.”
A recent event out of London saw Richard start at 5am up north, head down to London for an audition during lunch, get the role, and shoot back up to Engine to finish the day’s servings. Richard is a man full of commitment, and Engine is further proof that the simplest way into the business can often be the best way in, for everyone involved.
All three of these “trucks” have done a very clever thing: they’ve taken the time to get their product right. All three have real emotional attachment and all three are super-busy.
The moral of the story is that authenticity pays. Customers today want artisan products that have integrity and a story. What these new-wave food trucks show is that none of the items on sale are at all ‘cheffy’, in the modern sense. For the good trucks, ingredients have to be original and finely sourced and the cooking has to be technically sound.
The rewards are enormous. The Eliott brothers followed up their Berwick Street market pitch and turned Pizza Pilgrims into a restaurant group of the same name.
“After a while we knew we had a real business and a loyal following and we started to think about opening up a proper restaurant. We didn’t know how so we tweeted Russell Norman of Polpo and asked if we could come and see him.
“Through him we found our Dean Street site and then we put a business plan together and took it to investors. My brother is a whizz with numbers and he bamboozled the money men with great-looking spread sheets. Our secret was to get lots of investors who put in a small amount.
“If we thought we’d worked hard doing the market, the restaurant was completely different. It was seven days a week for three years and we made every mistake possible. But with us, you are still able to get a pizza and a beer for £10. The product has always been good and cheap and we believe that we are not your night out but a part of it.”