The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 6, 2013

Meals on wheels

Food trucks offer choice

BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL bhuchel@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — HOOPESTON — Food trucks and trailers can usually be found catering to throngs of customers in the biggest cities, such as Chicago, and even larger local cities such as Champaign, as well as serving the masses who pass through area fairs and festivals each year.

But now, new eating options have rolled into Vermilion County in a whole new location — Hoopeston.

In August, Varela Taco Wagon and Smokin’ Joes BBQ became the latest mobile food trailers licensed in Vermilion County this year, obtaining food permits from the county in June and August respectively.

For husband-wife owners Joe and Chris Mullen, Smokin Joe’s BBQ promptly set up along Illinois Route 9 in Hoopeston. Sitting in an open four-acre lot, the food truck set up stands out to passersby driving east and west along the state highway. Circular picnic tables with red umbrellas offer an eating area for customers interested in remaining on-site to enjoy the food.

Along Hoopeston’s other main thoroughfare, area residents can find the newest supplier of Mexican food with Doris Varela of Rankin and her daughters supplying a variety of tacos from their brightly colored trailer parked in front of the Dollar General Store parking lot.

For Varela, a longtime interest in the restaurant business attracted her to make the move of opening the food trailer.

“The girls sold a couple hot dogs at town-wide garage sales and I’ve always wanted to do the restaurant thing,” he said. “I’ve just never had the money and the backbone to support anything.”

For the Mullens, setting up in one location is a new venture after traveling to a number of festivals around central Indiana last year.

“When we moved back here we were going to bring the trailer back and our full intent was to do the Sweet Corn Festival, other festivals around here,” Joe said. But a conversation with his cousin, who owns the land they are using, brought the idea of being a stationary vendor to the forefront.

“We like the point that we’re a mobile kitchen, but we’re offering something different to people in Hoopeston and surrounding communities and your passerby going home to Indiana a couple days a week,” he said.

A survey conducted of the food vendor industry by IBIS World indicated the business is steadily growing across the nation. The 15,500 vendors in the U.S. in 2012 is up from 2007, growing at a rate of a little more than 8 percent annually.

According to permit records for the Vermilion County Health Department, 11 owners have permits for a food truck, otherwise known as a mobile units. Those numbers are up from 2012, according to the health department. Last year, there were seven mobile units with permits in the county.

Mobile units, according to health department spokesman Doug Toole, are not restricted to single public events can operate anywhere in the county as long as the vendor meets local ordinances. In Danville, for example, a vendor must be tied to a restaurant in order to operate, Toole said.

The five new vendors that obtained mobile unit permits this year all are located outside of Danville, including Westville, Muncie and Belgium as well as Hoopeston. In addition, city council members in Covington, Ind., approved in January the operation of the Taco Chicas lunch trunk in the city. The truck already had been operating in Attica, Ind., and Williamsport, Ind.

While a restaurant poses tougher hurdles such as finding the best location, opening Varela’s Taco Wagon did not. Getting permission from the Dollar General store management put Varela’s investment within several feet of Illinois Route 1, making is visible to local residents as well as motorists passing by.

“They love it,” she said of customers so far. “It’s fast food and fresh and the price is not outrageous.

“A lot of people ask when we’re going to be back,” Doris added.

Smokin Joe’s BBQ has limited its schedule to lunches and dinners on Fridays and Sundays up to this point and has seen an increase in business in each of the five weekends it has been open.

“The first Friday I said ‘If we do anything close to $800-$900 our first day we’ll be happy,’” Joe said. “We did twice that. We even sold out of food; we didn’t even have a hot dog, we had nothing left. On Sunday, the same thing happened.”

Whether in a building in in a mobile food trailer, the food business isn’t always smooth sailing. Varela said they have some “hit or miss” days while the Mullen’s keep their eyes skyward to determine how much business will come in.

“Weather is a killer in this business,” Joe said. “That one of the things that will destroy your business in something like this, weather.”