Adam Singleton was standing in line for more than food. He was hoping for a taste of the culture where he had once studied abroad.
“Food trucks bring a lot of variety that previously you hadn’t really seen in Abilene,” Singleton said.
In line for the London Express food truck, Singleton had not tasted true London cuisine even when he studied abroad. On Saturday, April 23, he finally got to taste authentic fish and chips at the new Abilene Food Park where the London Express joined several other food trucks
The national food truck trend is coming to Abilene as food truck owners provide cost effective, healthy, and homestyle cuisine.
Jessica Adams, co-owner of Vagabond Pizza, started a food truck with her husband in 2012 when food trucks were new to the area. Big cities like Austin had food trucks for many years, but only three of these mobile businesses parked in Abilene in 2012. Now more than 12 trucks roam the streets, catering at events or parking at the new downtown Food Park.
Vagabond Pizza will launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant soon, which was the goal all along for Adams and her husband. The low overhead cost of the truck helped them test their ideas while building credibility with the bank and local customers.
Terry Gord, owner of the London Express, moved to Abilene with the intention of starting a food truck with his wife. He said he was bored with his “suit-and-tie” job in London, so when his wife wanted to move to the town she grew up in, he put his savings toward owning his own mobile business.
Although he always loved cooking, he didn’t have much experience with food trucks because London has food markets instead. He started with the purchase of an old truck for just $1500 in a border town. Gord continued to cut costs while meeting Abilene codes by being “thrifty.”
Several months of planning and two weeks after launching, Gord said he spent about $15,000 on his truck. Some unexpected costs included overcharges from his fabricator and $1200 on electricity to meet city codes. But Gord said the bulk of the money is used on wild Alaskan cod and unbleached flour so his food is fresh and unprocessed.
“We all offer food, but we’re really good at food,” Gord said. “If you go to a food truck, we care.”
Besides social media, the biggest marketing strategy for Gord has been the fact that he’s English. He said many customers are excited to meet someone from England and some even come to the back of the food truck just to meet him.
Gord said a good food truck owner is someone who wants to be their own boss.
“Someone who’s free spirited, open-minded, driven,” Gord said. “Someone that loves food and people.”
Keith Sproles, owner of the Cross-eyed Jackalope food truck, started his truck in March, 2016 as a way to bring home-cooked Cajun food to Abilene. He worked in the restaurant business, then the construction business for years before deciding to start his own food truck.
“This is my calling really,” Sproles said. “My construction business was very successful but I just missed being here.”
Although he’s worked many jobs in the restaurant business, Sproles said the food truck proved the hardest because of the cramped space.
“We’ve got this little space for a fryer, this little space for a grill, how can we combine those things,” Sproles said.
Another problem is fitting food into the small space while still having enough to feed every guest. It can be costly to purchase small quantities of food because cheaper bulk packages won’t fit in the space. One lunch the Cross-eyed Jackalope sold 48 sandwiches, but that night at dinner they only sold four of the same sandwich. Sproles said the key to success is finding a formula of labor, food costs and menu plans to make it work in a small truck.
Sproles said food trucks often take the place of catering because, as a mobile kitchen, food trucks can make food fresh. At the same time, he sees his truck as a stepping stone to one day start a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Sproles likes to set up in the food park because of the fun “vibes” and the effectiveness of being able to plug the truck into an outlet rather than using a generator. It also helps bring in customers because people know the park is open every day. Guests have more options at the food park so one friend can eat at one truck while another eats at a different truck.
“We tend to do better fiscally when we’re here,” Sproles said. “We’ve all learned when there are more of you around then you’re gonna have more sales.”
Cuisine for the people
Forrest and Jennifer Harmel, owners of A People Party Productions, founded the Food Park with the goal of encouraging community. The Harmels saw similar food truck parks in other cities and wanted to bring the same culture to Abilene.
After sending out a survey in Abilene, the Harmel’s found 75 percent of people said they would prefer a centralized location for food trucks. Forrest Harmel said what makes the Food Park better for many food truck owners is the free seating, promotions, lighting, electricity and more customers.
“All in all this is what people want,” Harmel said. “We’ve created an environment that I think benefits them.”
This trend in Abilene shows the growth of art and culture in the area, Harmel said. He said he believes this growth is happening as more young people choose to stay in Abilene rather than moving away to a bigger city.
“Not seeing Abilene as a dry, washed up place, but seeing it as a place that has so much potential,” Harmel said. “You can do anything because there was nothing like this here before.”
At the same time, because Abilene is small, Harmel said it’s easier for food truck owners to build connections, forming a collaborative community with people in the area.
Sproles grew up in New Orleans, where he made and ate authentic Cajun food. One of his top menu items in the Cross-eyed Jackalope is shrimp and grits. Another special menu item included a pulled pork sandwich made with Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce.
“We want to teach people some of that southern Louisiana food,” Sproles said. “Everybody is just trying to find their niche.”
Many customers tried grits for the first time at the Cross-eyed Jackalope, Sproles said. He said coming out to the food park is an adventure for people, giving them a chance to try food they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
“When someone can connect with something and it's something they grew up with, it can bring back the memory,” Sproles said. “Food is our soul.”
After standing in line at the London Express, Adam Singleton finally got to eat the fish and chips he waited for.
“It was absolutely worth the wait,” Singleton said. “Come by here for lunch while you’re out and about. Hours are great, it’s fine parking and come get food.”