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Athens food trucks owners discuss ingredients for success

Austin Ambrose
October 31, 2016

People are normally attracted to food trucks for the delicious cuisine they can find inside, but the Food Truck Roundup on Oct. 11 highlighted the hands and minds behind the food. Hosted by the Center of Entrepreneurship, a partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, the Food Truck Roundup gathered multiple Athens-based food truck owners to offer their insight to a group of students, staff and faculty. 

Presenters included Marla Rutter of the Burrito Buggy, Stacy Peters of Petru, Evelyn Nagy of Holy Guacamole, and Nasir Shaikh and Brenda (Safiya) Shaikh of Ali Baba’s. A sixth voice came from Elizabeth Dahlen, a lover of food trucks who has vast experience in the food industry, including helping to start Schmidt’s food trucks in Columbus.

The panelists began by describing how their food trucks began and the process of starting their businesses. Common factors that led to the creation of the food trucks included being able to be one’s own boss and not having another income. However, each truck also has its own unique story.

The beloved Burrito Buggy had been around since Rutter’s freshman year at Ohio University in 1984. She remembers eating there on dates with her now husband. In 2010, the Buggy closed and the owner put it up for sale. Rutter’s daughter was just graduating from culinary school at Hocking College and wanted to buy the Buggy. This began the process of the revitalization of the Burrito Buggy, and the creation of OMG! Rotisserie. Rutter eventually took over the Burrito Buggy as her daughter continued on to other ventures.

Mr. and Mrs. Shaikh paved the way for food trucks in Athens. They were the first to receive a license to have their truck parked uptown, which took 10 years to obtain. Not being able to find work in Athens after traveling the globe, the couple bought a shell of a trailer. Mr. Shaikh proceeded to build the entire buggy by himself, costing him very little money in the long run. The original menu: a burger with a fried egg, Rice Crispy treats, and soda. The name started out as White Flying Saucer, but evolved to Ali Baba and the 40 Fortunes, and finally Ali Baba’s.

Stacy Peters was lost on what she wanted to do professionally. She began to sell truffles at the Athens Farmer’s Market and slowly began to experiment with making chocolate bars. It took many tries to finally succeed, but then she sold her chocolate bars to any business she could. The business originally began as O’Chocolate, starting in her home. Peters learned that small business owners typically start by learning on their own, until they decide it is worth the investment to pay someone else.

Evelyn Nagy’s Guatemalan husband had difficulties landing a job. With loans from friends, Nagy and her husband began by selling shoes at a flea market out of a trailer. Once they had saved enough money, they opened up their food truck, using the husband's 15 years of culinary experience to make delicious meals.

Although she doesn't have a food truck, Elizabeth Dahlen has been surrounded by them for many years. Members of her family owned what she knew as “hot trucks,” which are a little different from the niche trucks seen today. Dahlen opened a restaurant in Columbus that was soon bought by The Ohio State University student housing. She decided build a food truck when Schmidt’s asked her to help open food trucks for their restaurant.

Dahlen realized that there was more to a food truck than just making the food that customers ordered. The entire truck was a sales operation, and she would go to businesses asking to use their parking space in front of their store or pitch the truck for events.

After the entrepreneurs shared their stories at the event, the floor was opened to audience members to ask questions about the ventures. Many audience members were students researching the food truck industry.

Questions included how much time is spent in the truck, the cost to get a truck up and running, and the competition in Athens. Panelists took turns answering from their perspectives, offering great insight into the variety of viewpoints and experiences in the industry.

Speaking on the amount of time the owners spend in the truck, Rutter discussed how important it was for her to be there. Rutter split her time between the truck in Logan and one and Athens, and saw the sales decline in Athens. Knowing there was more potential in Athens, she closed down the Logan truck and focused on Athens. Soon her sales returned.

“As the owner, you have to be involved,” Rutter said. “You’re the one passionate about the business and that shows in the quality of the food and the upkeep of the truck.”

Peters continued on this point to say how important it was for her to train her staff ahead of time, and the Shaikhs agreed that being in the buggy helps increase the sales.

Location is key in the food truck industry. Not only does it matter what city you are in, but also where in that city. Dahlen describes how the different cities have different competitive markets and how Athens was different from what would be found in bigger cities.

In terms of the competition between the trucks in Athens, the consensus was unanimous: It’s good to have all the different trucks. Mrs. Shaikh said that it was great to be able to get different kinds of foods, and Rutter said that it draws more people to the area of the trucks and helps business. Nagy sums up the competitiveness of the industry sweetly.

“We really have a lot of camaraderie between the trucks,” Nagy said. “If there is competition it is between the brick-and-mortar restaurants and the food trucks.”