Truck to Table

How Providence’s mobile food businesses are putting down permanent roots in the city

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On a given day in Providence, you can find any of the city’s nearly 60 food trucks rolling down the streets, serving everything from tacos to vegan ice cream to French food from a Michelin-starred chef. They can be anywhere from College Hill to the Jewelry District, usually for lunch, but in the warmer weather, for dinner, too. It seems like every time you turn around, there’s another food business popping up, feeding Providence’s insatiable appetite for the new.

Over the last year or two, the food truck scene in the city morphed into something new. Mobile food businesses, whether they’re trucks, trailers, or pop-ups, have been transitioning into brick-and-mortar stores. Nitro Cart parlayed the popularity of their nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee into placing tanks at restaurants and cafes all over Rhode Island, and eventually opened The Nitro Bar inside Dash Bicycles on Broadway. Fully Rooted started their cold-pressed juices at farmers’ markets around the state, and now has a production facility/cafe in Pawtucket, and a juice counter in downtown Providence at Current State, the wellness center and fitness studio owned by Alex and Ani.

This past winter, Tricycle Ice Cream took over the spot once owned by North Bakery on the West Side, and is now selling 4,500 frozen treats a week in peak season. Randy Diantuono and Tom Wright’s Friskie Fries opened a truck to feed hungry customers leaving Randy’s bars (The Dark Lady and The Alley Cat) at closing time. The business quickly went from a single mobile operation to standing locations in Johnston, Providence, Barrington, and Newport, with 50 employees and an expansion into Massachusetts, Colorado, and California in the works for later this year.

The transition from food truck to restaurant seems like a natural progression, and in a way it is, but if you know anything about starting a business in Providence or trying to get it funded through traditional channels, you know the process is not nearly as easy as it seems.

Trying to jump into a restaurant is such a high startup cost. It just wasn’t going to happen,” says Adam Batchelder, who launched his Smoke and Squeal BBQ truck in 2017, serving 17-hour smoked brisket and pulled pork right out of his mobile smoker. The Johnson & Wales grad came from a corporate culinary background, so he understood what it takes to run a food business, not just in terms of money, but in terms of manpower and sweat equity, too. He knew there was no way he’d be able to finance a brick-and-mortar location – but saw possibility in mobile food service.

“There are some food trucks that I saw and thought, we could really be doing this,” Adam says. “A lot of the reason restaurants fail is the massive overhead. A food truck has less overhead and more control over those costs.” Fast forward two years – two challenging years of long seven-day weeks – and he’s gone from being the only employee to having four other people working full-time for him, and operating a commissary and cafe in Pawtucket that serves lunch and is also a prep kitchen for the truck. During PVDFest this year, Smoke and Squeal served 500 pounds of its signature smokey mac & cheese, which was being churned out of the commissary and sent to the truck as fast as it could be made.

A business that’s mobile, with its increased visibility and the ability to be present at different events, has its own kind of marketing. This is especially with food businesses, that create so much word-of-mouth and organic buzz from customers sharing photos on social media. A food truck is also proof of concept, a way to test whether your food works with customers’ palates.

The popularity of their Hawaiian-style poke bowls, which have a rice base and are traditionally made with raw tuna and salmon and toppings like tobiko and seaweed salad, proved to Hometown Poké owners Rebecca Brady and Tiffany Ting that their mobile trailer could transition into a business. “The cart really allowed us to test our market, since we weren’t sure if people would be receptive to this sort of food,” says Rebecca. She and Tiffany started serving poke in August 2017, and opened their permanent Mount Hope location last fall. “When we did open the store, we had a pretty loyal base of customers. That made opening easier.”

The two used the profits from their year of only having a food truck to fund the store’s buildout, and used personal lines of credit to finance the rest. “No traditional bank would give us a loan because food businesses are considered risky,” says Rebecca. “If we could have opened a store right away, we probably would have, but we didn’t have that sort of capital. It’s okay though, because it allowed us to be scrappy.”

The four months of bagel pop-up events that Milena Pagan held before opening Rebelle Artisan Bagels in 2017 definitely also fall into that scrappy category. Successful businesses like Borealis Coffee Roasters, PVDonuts, and Revival Brewing hosted events and did early collaborations with her, and Milena eventually had enough critical mass to support a Kickstarter campaign to open her East Side bakery cafe. Even with a solid amount of money from the pop-ups and a Kickstarter that exceeded its goal by $2,500 (the total was over $27,000), she still only had a third of the capital she needed for buildout.

Now, with the success of her shop and the help that got her to this place, Milena sees it as her role to support new food producers. “I definitely have a personal philosophy that part of my role is supporting other businesses,” she says. “You have to be really mindful of your costs up to a certain point, but past that point you have a little more wiggle room. This is the time to have fun and support other local producers, right?”

The Burgundian Coffee and Waffles started as a pop-up serving sweet and savory liege waffles at different locations around Rhode Island, and now has a food truck and plans for a double decker British bus that will be a mobile cafe with enclosed seating for 26 up top. It’s one of the businesses that has gotten a foothold in the local food scene with support from people like Milena, Brian Dwiggins at Borealis, and Jan Faust-Dane at Stock Culinary Goods. “They understand that there are so many people who have helped them start up,” says Burgundian owner Shane Matlock. “All these businesses were just ready to help someone else like they were helped.”

In other cities, Shane says, there isn’t that same level of support and collaboration. “Whenever I talk to pop-up food vendors in Boston, it’s not that way,” he says. “I don’t even think it’s necessarily the lack of desire, I think it’s just such a big city,” compared to Providence. “The community is really tight here,” Shane says. “We’re all trying to navigate everything that’s going on. From talking to other food vendors, it really is unique to Providence. It’s great to be a part of that.”