Food Trucks in Knoxville
For Duncan Trout and Maria Vincent, starting a food truck in Knoxville was a labor of love. “It’s kind of like the epitome of the American dream,” Duncan says about why the couple decided to open Captain Muchacho’s, a food truck featuring Mexican-American cuisine. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Maria got a full-time job as a software engineer, but Duncan, who studied ecology, had trouble finding a local opportunity.
“We were both kind of stuck on staying in Tennessee, so we decided to create our own dream jobs,” he explains.
Those dream jobs were made possible by the American food truck revival, which finally rolled into Knoxville in 2014. That’s when the city launched its pilot program, laying the groundwork for food trucks to thrive in downtown and the surrounding areas. In April 2016, new regulations were finalized to create a more permanent process for Mobile Food Units, as the city calls them. The full list of Knoxville’s mobile food vendors currently includes more than 40 food trucks, trailers, and carts. (Captain Muchacho’s is technically a food trailer, but the terms “food truck” and “food trailer” are often used interchangeably, which we’ll do here.)
According to Duncan, the established food truck program has made starting a food truck in Knoxville a manageable process.
“Patricia Robledo [the City of Knoxville’s Business Liaison] spearheaded that project, working with brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks to try to figure out the best way that everybody could make money and not be interfering with each other’s customer base,” Duncan explains. “That legislation got set in stone, so I could pretty much go down the list of everything that I needed to know and I wasn’t involved in any limbo of what was gonna happen; it was already there. It was pretty tedious and detail-oriented, but it was pretty easy.”
The Highs and Lows of Food Trucking
Knoxville’s food truck regulations have taken the guesswork out of the start-up process. But, as with any endeavor, actually running and operating the business presents its own challenges. Fortunately, Duncan and Maria both previously worked in restaurants and knew a foodservice operation would require long hours and hard work.
“Actually treating it like a restaurant, trying to be open every day, is a lot of work, and there’s not that many people that do that,” Duncan says. “We’ve only been operating for close to two months now, and we’ve been working pretty much every day.”
There’s plenty to be done before Captain Muchacho’s can open up for business each day. Since theirs is a small operation, they focus mostly on dinner service or events, instead of trying to serve both lunch and dinner. Duncan says that’s a common practice in Knoxville.
“Most [food trucks] either do just lunches, like business lunches, or just dinners at breweries. Some people with the appropriate staff to handle it do both, and they double up on their day,” he explains. “During the day, I’ll do a lot of cleaning and prep, and manage our scheduling and labor, stuff like that.”
Although the food truck has become a full-time job for him, his co-owner pulls double-duty, still working full-time as a software engineer in addition to running Captain Muchacho’s. “Maria helps me during the nights and on the weekends, so she’s been working so much.”
The benefits of those long hours? “That keeps our overhead really low,” Duncan says. “A lot of times we can just do dinner service stuff, just us two, and we’re the two partners who own it, so we don’t have to pay any labor for that day.”
“It’s nothing that I wasn’t expecting,” Duncan says, but admits that staffing has been more difficult than they first anticipated. “I already knew a bunch of people that I thought would be interested, but it’s really awkward hours, and I kinda have to build a schedule month-to-month. When you do need labor, you have to let people know in advance, and check back up on them. If they no-show you, you could be [in trouble].”
Unsurprisingly, space can be limited on a food truck, which makes some tasks, like managing dishes, more difficult.
“In a kitchen, it’s so easy to just fill up a tray, hose everything off, and send it through the dishwasher. It’s just totally impractical to have a dishwasher on a food truck,” Duncan says, referring to the equipment and the employee. Captain Muchacho’s is instead equipped with a three-compartment sink and drainboards. “It’s definitely a lot more hands-on to keep everything clean in a food truck than it is in a restaurant. You have to think about it a lot more.”
In an industry in which location can make or break a restaurant, food trucks have one major advantage: being able to serve food wherever the crowds are, instead of waiting for the crowds to come to them. For instance, Captain Muchcaho’s was recently part of the third annual Punk Rock Flea Market in Knoxville, which drew hundreds of people looking for an eclectic outdoor shopping experience.
“That’s one of the most exciting things,” Duncan says. “If you have a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you’re not gonna be able to do stuff like that.”
In fact, taking the food truck to the people – to tens of thousands of people – is their goal.
“When we first figured out that this would be a good business to start, Maria and I were walking around Bonnaroo and realized that we could probably pull this off,” Duncan says. “Obviously that’s kind of like the Super Bowl for food trucks, but you gotta set your goals high.”
Until Captain Muchacho’s is ready to join the Bonnaroo food truck lineup, Duncan and Maria are more than happy to serve their fellow Knoxvillians at local venues.
“There’s a lot of taprooms and breweries that need food while they serve beer,” Duncan says. “Before I started a food truck, that’s where I would hang out. I think because we just have really good food and are pretty personable, it’s not been hard to get gigs places.”
Although they’ve concentrated on serving the downtown area, Duncan says they are currently looking into events and venues in other parts of the city, like west Knoxville.
“I think people anywhere in Knoxville are going to support entrepreneurship and they’re gonna support local businesses if it’s being done right,” Duncan tells us. “I don’t think the demographic really matters. Obviously you’re going to have a different demographic at a church’s fall festival at 11 o’clock in the morning than you are at a brewery at 10 on a Saturday night. I feel like pretty much anybody likes our food, and that’s what we’re after: hungry people who like the food.”