You may have heard food trucks deemed "roach coaches," but in the past few years, meals on wheels have become increasingly gourmet. They've even inspired a show on the Food Network, The Great Food Truck Race, which premieres on Sunday. Seven trucks, specializing in a variety of cuisines, will embark on a cross-country road trip -- and the winner will cruise to a $50,000 grand prize. (Hey, they could open a real restaurant with that cash!) These parking-lot purveyors will heat up the competition (and their grills) with gourmet burgers, grilled cheese, crepes, banana pudding, Vietnamese fare, escargot and Cajun cuisine.
Matt Chernus of Grill Em All, based in Los Angeles, plans to char the competition with rock 'n' roll-inspired burgers like the Molly Hatchet (seared fennel smoked sausage gravy, applewood smoked bacon, maple drizzle) and the Blue Cheer (cranberry gastrique, Maytag Blue spread, Munchos potato chips). For Chernus and longtime friend and business partner Ryan Hawkins, it's been a wild ride behind the wheel of their pimped-out truck, The Beast.
There are lots of burger joints out there. Why did you put yours on wheels?
We've always wanted to open a gastropub and we were looking at real estate in Cleveland and LA. Basically, it just came down to the fact that we could probably get a loan for the initial rent, but all the equipment we would need -- our heads started to spin. I read about a taco truck that set up in LA, texted Ryan the idea and he responded in 30 seconds with, "Let's do it. I'm totally in." We couldn't start a Midwest truck, so we went to LA. We didn't get the wheels in motion until November. It took a month and a half from signing the lease for the truck to actually hit the road on Dec. 17, 2009. We had to get a seller's permit and a business license and permits for all the neighborhoods.
Why "Grill Em All," aside from the Metallica reference?
We definitely wanted a marketing edge to keep us separated form the other trucks, and since we couldn't have a bar inside the truck, we decided to blare music and be loud and be boisterous. Ryan had been cooking for a little more than a decade -- it started as a means to an end and then he developed a passion for it.
Why do burgers and heavy metal go together?
I don't know. Why don't they go together would be a better argument.
There are a lot of food trucks in LA. Would you say there's an oversaturation?
Yeah, if you had asked me three months ago, I would have said yes. Now it's out of control. It's getting to be like the medicinal marijuana stores in my neighborhood in Silver Lake -- they're everywhere. I think a lot of people wanted brick-and-mortar restaurants but didn't have the startup money, so they jumped on the bandwagon. A lot of people think it's easy work and fast cash, but I haven't seen fast cash or a day of easy work. It's extremely difficult and I don't think they realize that, but the strong will survive. The trucks with the best food and the best concept will still be here in a year or two, and it'll probably be whittled down to 50 or 60 trucks.
With all those trucks, parking spaces are hard to come by. How many parking tickets have you gotten since you hit the streets in December?
Believe it or not, we've only gotten one.
What was filming The Great Food Truck Race like?
They take all the food truck elements and put them to the test -- marketing, business sense, etc. There were food challenges every week, but every episode comes down to the team that sells the most and makes the most capital. You're allowed to mash up your menu to appeal to the locals, but we're pretty adamant about being a burger joint.
Why will you grill the competition?
Because we rule. We have two wizards on the truck -- one is levitating the burger, one is levitating the fries, and that will levitate us to success.
What are you hoping will come of your appearance on The Great Food Truck Race?
We hope it's a catalyst for something else. We're still eying a gastropub where you can grab a beer and watch the [Cleveland] Browns. Another LA truck is definitely a possibility -- as it is, we've had to cancel gigs because we're already booked.
How do you make sure you succeed in a competitive market like food trucks?
We did market research. And when you take away the "Grill Em All" name, what we have is a catering truck, so we cater events and commit to things that we know will be profitable. Last week, we were at a metal festival. We've done private parties. On Fridays, we pull up to offices, and we know in advance how many people we'll feed, so we know if we can cover gas, propane, employee and food costs.
What's been the hardest part of building a business?
Having the courage to do what I wanted. Whether you succeed or not is not the issue. It's having the courage to try. Ryan and I were definitely not meant to work for anyone else.
Name: Matt Chernus
Company: Grill Em All
Location: Los Angeles
2010 Projected Revenue: Undisclosed
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/15/10.