Food trucks are popping up all over the country and consumers love them! From Miami to Los Angeles, Philadelphia to Sacramento, America’s appetite for inventive mobile food is growing. The food truck business has quadrupled in only 4 years. Gary Koppelman is on the cusp of this trend as editor of Mobile Food News and owner of the country’s only indoor food truck commissary, USA Mobile Commissary in Philadelphia.
I had the opportunity to chat with Gary about his business and the future of food trucks. Gary’s knowledge and ingenuity in this expanding market is new and exciting. I must say, this is one of the coolest interviews I’ve ever conducted!
Iceologist: USA Mobile Commissary is a great idea! How did you decide to start this business? Were you in the restaurant/food truck business previously?
Gary: I owned gourmet burger restaurants in South Beach and in Philadelphia, but my background is not really about food service — I’m an entrepreneur.
4 years ago I wanted to start a food truck. But the costs of buying a fully-outfitted food truck were really high — around $125k — and it’s difficult to get a loan for a food truck. I was searching for information and resources, but there’s not much out there. One day I was reading the Wall Street Journal and it occurred to me that there’s no mobile food truck trade publication. That’s when I decided to launch Mobile Food News and it just blew up! People went crazy for the content and advertisers were calling me.
Iceologist: Find a niche and fill it, right? Smart! How did you go from publishing a trade journal to opening USA Mobile Commissary?
Gary: I became friends with food truck owners in Philadelphia and learned about the obstacles food truck operators faced. They needed a quality commissary for food preparation, which most cities require, and it needs to be licensed. Food truck owners were sharing or renting small kitchens for prep, but that’s not sustainable. Another problem food truck owners faced was food costs and supplies. As individuals, they were paying top dollar for their food products.
We (myself and my friend/business partner, Ilan Hayon) wanted to come up with a solution to their obstacles: costs of buying the food trucks, access to top-notch prep facilities, and costs for supplies/food. So, we looked for the biggest place we could find in Philadelphia to accommodate a state-of-the-art industrial kitchen where food trucks could park in the facility and it’s all indoors. Surprisingly, there is nothing like this anywhere in the country. Ilan is not involved in the day-to-day operations, but I couldn’t have put this project together without him.
Iceologist: What a cool idea! Tell me about your USA Mobile Commissary facility.
Gary: It’s a 30k square-foot, all indoors facility. If you own a food truck, you just pull right inside. The owners can use the industrial kitchens, walk-in coolers, have access to ice, etc… And I set up a partnership with Sysco and other preferred vendors so the food truck owners could buy products at better rates. This is the first time Sysco has worked with food truck owners because previously the food trucks couldn’t meet the minimum order requirements and had nowhere to store their food.
Now the food trucks I work with have access to a full line of food and beverage distributors and high-end suppliers, which they never had access to previously.
Iceologist: How many food trucks use your facility?
Gary: 24 currently with another 16 coming on board this month. We’re already adding space and will have room for 60 food trucks by year’s end.
Iceologist: You don’t just serve existing food trucks, you’re helping entrepreneurs start their food truck businesses, correct?
Gary: Yes. We bought a fleet of food trucks — initially 14. We rehabbed and cleaned them and installed all new equipment. And I put out the word that I had food trucks for rent. No one else is doing this. Literally, within 10 minutes the phone was ringing off the hook! 8 weeks later, all trucks were leased and I’m buying more.
To start up a food truck business or a restaurant, you need at least $100k. We’re offering leases on my food trucks with a start-up cost of only $15k. Leases include the food truck, licensing fees, start-up food purchases, and custom graphics for the trucks. We’re empowering people to become entrepreneurs!
Gary: What’s really amazing is the amount of interest we’re getting from other cities, as well as investors, to bring this idea to them. Here in Philadelphia, I already have the support of Mayor Michael Nutter.
Iceologist: Wow… all I can say is Wow! Ok, I have to ask you about your ice supply. You chose Easy Ice as your supplier. How did you come to the decision to subscribe to commercial ice machines instead of buying or leasing ice makers?
Gary: I found you online and liked the idea. I didn’t want the added expense of making another large equipment purchase. Plus I really respect Robert Irvine and his endorsement sold me. As I was considering Easy Ice, I ended up sitting near Robert on a flight home from the Miami International Franchise Expo. It just made sense.
I went with one ice machine to start and will be adding another one soon. It’s funny because your inside sales rep tried to convince me to get a bigger ice machine, but I resisted. Ends up he was right.
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