When a food truck pulls up next to a locally owned brewery, cidery or distillery in Northern Colorado or the Boulder Valley, it’s a win-win-win proposition.
For the region’s scores of craft brewers, whose foamy head of steam has gone a bit flat in recent months because of market saturation, being able to offer hot food without the expenses involved in opening and running a restaurant provides a powerful draw.
For owners of the food trucks, it’s an opportunity to test their culinary skills on an appreciative market without having to build a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
And for the brewery’s customers, who get some yummy eats and wash them down with a selection of IPAs, stouts and porters crafted onsite, it’s the best of both worlds — or, as Jeff Crabtree puts it, “new and dynamic brews and food at their favorite place.”
The co-owner of Crabtree Brewing Co. in Greeley loves the synergy the two businesses create.
“If I weren’t in the brewing industry, I’d think about running a food truck,” he said. “You’re not losing thousands of dollars to rent and utilities and labor; you just pay your sales tax to the local municipality and that’s it.”
Well, not quite, but close.
Ocean Andrew, who along with partner Hunter Andersen runs On the Hook Fish and Chips, based in Laramie, Wyo., has four food trucks — one each serving Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.
“Colorado is for sure the hardest state to deal with,” Andrew said. “Every city is home rule, very independent. We’re licensed to 30 cities in Colorado, and I have to pay an accountant to log into every city’s system and file and pay sales taxes. Every one of those cities, every month, 60 hours a month on our stuff — and 70 percent of that is dealing with Colorado.
“Three of us spend most of our time dealing with the government. It’s very hard to deal with all the inspectors who think they’re smarter than all the other inspectors in all the other cities.
“But with the health department, your license is good anywhere. That’s the one saving grace.”
Crabtree admits his eight years of experience dealing with food trucks isn’t perfect either.
“Some of them are not as reliable as a business should be,” he said. “They’ll tell us they’re coming, and we do a lot of front-end advertising on social media — ‘Hey, this food truck will be here’ — but if they have a chance to go to a big event they may cancel on us with no notice.
No one will do a contract. They’re truly an independent contractor. They will chase whatever large event that’s going on. They’re at the will of the consumer. If that happens to us, we just don’t invite ‘em back. They just burned a bridge on us.
“But most of the time they do show up — and those food trucks that show up every week are a benefit for the consumer.”
Davin Helden, one of three owners of Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co. in Lafayette, believes he has that cancellation problem figured out.
“Hey, it’s a mobile restaurant. Things break and make them immobile and not able to show up. Maybe their starter went out,” he said. “That happens a very small percentage of the time. But if it does, I can generally get another food truck within 15 minutes or a half hour if I post it on Facebook on one of those food-truck pages, like ‘Denver Food Truck.’ Those pages are perpetually full of just brewery owners saying, ‘Hey, I had this happen with a food truck. Can anybody else show up?’ Or it’s the food-truck owners saying ‘Does anybody need a food truck?’”
Helden manages much of Liquid Mechanics’ food-truck booking, dealing with 20 to 30 food trucks a year, so that “we have food trucks every night, unless they break down or there’s two feet of snow. But we have just one at a time, outside of special events like our anniversary party, where we might bring in two.”
But Helden sees dealing with food trucks as “a perfect symbiotic relationship. We know beer and don’t know food. They know food and don’t know beer. People who come want both, so that’s what makes the relationship so perfect.
“We don’t have to build out extra square footage for a kitchen. We don’t have to spend money on kitchen equipment. And if food trucks had a restaurant, they’d have to pay for that square footage. But for a night, we’re their restaurant.”
And even their busboys.
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“Our staff even goes out and picks up the dirty plates,” Helden said, “because we want our tasting room to always look nice, so we clean it up for them.”
He even has figured out the most profitable time for him to have a food truck show up.
“We try to schedule them from 4:30 to 8:30, from before dinner hours start until after they end,” Helden said. “We can catch people just getting off work who come here and have a beer or two, and if a food truck shows up, we become a great dinner option versus going to a restaurant or even going home. The food trucks retain customers for us for a longer period of time.”
About the only downside Helden has found is that, “occasionally the people will think the food truck is part of what we’re doing. If somebody has a complaint about the food at Liquid Mechanics, typically they come to us first to complain. We pass on the information to the food truck, but it takes time for me to do that.”
Still, he figures the presence of a truck boosts his business by as much as 10 percent. “People come to breweries for beer,” Helden said. “Having food is kind of nice to have, but not a necessity.”
He tries not to book the same food truck too often, though, and adds that the food-truck owners think that’s a good idea too.
“It’s the same thing with bands,” Helden said. “If there’s a good band around, you don’t want them to play here every weekend because people won’t show up. They already saw you.”
That’s the business model for On the Hook Fish and Chips. His truck might show up only once a month, but Andrew says that when it does, the draw of that tender, line-caught Alaskan cod has fans lining up.
That’s how his company achieves a return on its investment despite traveling long distances — as far as Sterling, Lone Tree and Steamboat Springs — to set up. It’s also why he’ll only show up at one location per town. In Fort Collins that means only Odell Brewing Co. In Windsor, it’s Mash Lab. In Wellington, it’s Old Colorado. In Estes Park, it’s Elkins Distillery. In Longmont, it’s Left Hand. In Loveland, it’s Verboten. In Greeley, it’s Patrick’s Irish Pub.
“They only go to one place in each town, and we’re their Greeley stop,” said Greg Farnsworth, Patrick’s owner. “People come up just for them. I’ve never seen anyone so loyal.”
On the Hook will be at Patrick’s on June 8 for the Greeley Blues Jam, Farnsworth said, then again on June 29, July 27 and Aug. 28.
“I don’t know if I can quantify return on investment super well,” Andrew said, “but we do really well in cities when we don’t come so often. We’re not a staple. So it’s kind of a treat when we show up. Even in bigger cities, fish and chips is something there’s not a constant demand for. It’s not something Americans normally eat, so they do it for a special occasion. People line up, and we can sell hundreds per day.”
For Crabtree, the food truck doesn’t even have to be a major operation to be a plus.
“Sometimes a little broken food truck shows up and they have the best food. Sometimes they show up on a cart, and they make phenomenal food. It’s like finding a gem,” he said. “I like to stay away from the big, flashy food trucks. I like trucks that are a little rugged, show some blood, sweat and tears. They invested all they could and are putting all their energy into it.”
One of those ambitious startups, Greeley-based Average Joe’s Grill and Chill, began hitting the road in April.
“Setting up at breweries was kind of my main idea from the beginning,” said owner Joe Bergman. “Our first day of being open, we actually set up at the Greeley Beer and Spirits Festival. We set up with Crabtree every Sunday and when they have events.
“We actually use some of their craft beers in some of our recipes. We boil our brats in a west coast IPA from Crabtree, and use their oatmeal stout in our funnel cakes. That’s a different flavor than you’d get from a regular carnival funnel cake.”
And yet it was the lure of carnival food that led Bergman to start a food truck.
“I went to the Greeley Stampede ever since I was 12 years old, and I loved that carnival food. I always hated how it only lasted two weeks or however long the fair was. I always wanted to have it year round. I wanted to create a restaurant where you could go and get it.
“Unfortunately I don’t have a few million in my pocket, so I had to start small. I started with a food cart with an 8-foot grill and a canopy over it.”
Bergman has benefitted from that synergy between beer and food as well. “Especially with craft beers, people really go to enjoy the beer,” he said, “and if they can have some good ol’ American food to go along with it, it’s even better.”
For Crabtree, the cost of opening a restaurant was “not even worth calculating,” he said.
“I talked to Doug Odell (at Odell Brewing) and he said, ‘Why don’t you have a kitchen?’ But I started thinking about it, and thought we don’t want to pull people in for food and give them poor beer. I’ve seen some really good brew pubs that had exceptional food but their beer was bad.
“The two things I’d never want to mess with are their food and their money. That’s why I’ll never own a bank and I’ll never own a restaurant.”
Crabtree gave kudos to several Greeley-based food trucks including The Slawpy Barn — “She (co-owner Dee Welp) understands the business, and they’re adding on to their fleet” — which also sets up at WeldWerks and Wiley Roots, and Ben Fusco’s Everyone’s Table and Zoe’s Cafe.
At Patrick’s Irish Pub, Everyone’s Table “did Irish fare for us — bangers and mash and corned beef and cabbage — on St. Patrick’s Day,” Farnsworth said, adding that that truck is scheduled to be at his place on June 1 and 15, July 13 and 20, and Aug. 10 and 17.
“Usually Fridays work best for us to have them because it coincides with carrying your beer around, and I can set up tables outside.
“I give out free sodas if a truck shows up for lunch and we do a special open for them. It’s cool to get different meal options, because our focus is just on doing beer and whiskey really well.”
The unique aspect of the relationship is that no money is exchanged between the businesses. The tasting-room owner doesn’t pay the food truck to come, and the food-truck owner doesn’t pay the brewery to park there.
“Many food trucks use partnering with a brewery to test their concept for a brick-and-mortar store,” Helden said. “The next step for them might be a full restaurant, but we’re their restaurant for the night. They can go around and talk to our customers to see what foods work and don’t work. Maybe we can help fulfill their dream of opening a restaurant someday.”
“I like to create that partnership, that relationship with the business so we both can grow and become bigger businesses,” added Bergman said. “We’re all small businesses. None of us are big corporate businesses. You know the owners, it’s a nice feel. Especially in Greeley, I like to see small businesses make it and do well.
“We’re all just following the American dream.”