NEW YORK -- Putting the cart before the store was the right recipe for Buck Buchanan.
Back in 2001, Mr. Buchanan was a stay-at-home dad using his training as a chef to give cooking lessons to supplement his wife's income. Boredom set in and he decided to start a gourmet ice cream cart. Later, he added a truck -- and drove to concerts and sporting events to sell his cold, tasty treats. In March, he opened a Lumpy's Ice Cream shop in downtown Wake Forest, N.C.
"My thought was to build a clientele, build a customer base, so when I actually opened the store, people would flock to it," he said. After about five years, "people started hollering and screaming on Facebook: 'I love your ice cream, but I can't get it anywhere.' "
Mr. Buchanan waited until he was sure he had enough customers to support a store. He found a spot in the city's downtown, which is being revitalized.
"The goal is to be the ice cream king of North America," Mr. Buchanan said. But he wants to be sure first that there'll be even more demand for Lumpy's chocolate, vanilla, and specialty flavors such as Jamaican Joy -- which includes pineapple and raisins soaked in rum. In addition to the cart, truck, and store, Lumpy's sells ice cream at special events and to restaurants and stores such as Whole Foods.
Lumpy's is part of a small but growing trend spawned by the proliferation of food trucks and carts in cities and suburbs across the country. Entrepreneurs who thought it would be cool and lucrative to sell gourmet tacos, barbecue, ice cream, and other food from trucks are opening stores and restaurants to build on their success. They're proving that taking an idea and trying it out on a small scale -- and in this case, putting on training wheels -- is a prudent way to start a company.
The experience of running the cart and truck also taught him a lot about how to run a business, Mr. Buchanan said. "We grew what I called smart. … We'd get a new contract and we'd figure out how we'd work the contract. We wouldn't grow any further until we figured it out. You never want to promise something and not be able to deliver."
Food trucks and carts have been around for generations. Most are sellers of hot dogs and ice cream bars or are canteens on wheels that take staple breakfast and lunch items to factories, auto repair shops, and other businesses. What's different about the mobile-food vehicles that have cropped up in cities and suburbs the last few years is that these serve trendy fare such as Korean barbecue, Jamaican jerk chicken, and cupcakes. They travel from one spot to another, often congregating in high-traffic areas like downtowns and state government complexes. Some have Web sites or Facebook pages so that fans can find out what day and time they'll show up.
Street food has flourished as people seek inexpensive meals. And for entrepreneurs who dream of opening a restaurant, it's a cheaper and less risky way to get into business. If a cart or truck is at a location where it's not doing well, it's driven elsewhere. But an owner with a store in a bad location is stuck -- usually with a lease. Restaurant failure rates are high -- studies generally put it around 30 percent in the first year of operation.
Most of this new generation of street-food purveyors want to open a restaurant someday, said Jim Ellison, a food court coordinator with the Economic Community Development Institute of Columbus, who helps truck operators set up their businesses. "I work with nine trucks and 14 carts, and all would like to have a brick-and-mortar store."
Flirty Cupcakes, located in Chicago, started its first truck in May, 2010, and added a second one that December. The $60,000 start-up cost for each was less than the $150,000 it took to open a bakery and restaurant in February. The low cost of operating the truck allowed owner Tiffany Kurtz to use the money she made to save up to open the store.
But running a mobile food business isn't a drive down easy street. A Flirty Cupcakes truck often makes six stops a day, and each time it has to be set up and then broken down.