The people know what they want. And they want it from a truck.
In the thick of lunchtime, the orders come fast at Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon.
Bill Irvin (left), leaning out of the truck, takes it at all in with a smile. Bison burger with cheddar; turkey burger with roasted red peppers and blue cheese; burgers with apple-smoked bacon or black bean salsa or Baja slaw.
“You’re doing it up right,” Irvin says when someone picks sauteed mushrooms and barbecue sauce. “Wooo!” he responds when someone wants a Charlie Brown. That’s the Chowhound’s one-pounder.
Irvin slides back the orders on a wire in the 18-foot truck, parked in the Inner Harbor at Commerce and Pratt streets. They go back to the two cooks, Jose Mejia and Alfredo Rojas (right), and the burgers are back to customers in about five minutes.
Irvin and crew have been at this spot for four hours, and there’s three more hours to go. Sweat stains his polo shirt.
So how’s he doing?
“Beautiful,” he says.
The hottest thing in food is on four wheels. But food trucks are not really new. They troll major cities, offering sandwiches, ice cream, hot dogs. Standard stuff. But as palates across the country grow more sophisticated, so do food trucks.
They’re now restaurants on wheels, gourmet specialties that come to you.
The Chowhound Burger Wagon, serving what Kooper’s in Fells Point is best known for — burgers — is the only mobile restaurant-to-truck spinoff regularly driving around the city. But it’s just the latest in a growing gustatory fleet that runs the streets in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington.
“You always have to be doing something new in the restaurant business,” says Irvin, 42. “But these ... it’s not an easy feat. Every day it’s a challenge.”
A year ago, Irvin and Patrick Russell, who own and operate Kooper’s, Slainte and Woody’s, wanted to open another restaurant. But they balked at the estimated $2 million price. They were familiar with the food truck trend, saw a void in the Baltimore market and went for it.
Total cost to get the truck rolling: $100,000. The truck now serves upward of 100 burgers a day, Mondays through Fridays for lunch at various spots, including Mount Vernon and Hampden, and sometimes late-nights Fridays and Saturdays.
“We had this great product, and we had faith it would work,” says Irvin, sitting at the bar at Kooper’s before the Chowhound Wagon was loaded at 9 a.m. “It bops around Baltimore. It becomes a game."
Social networking is the lifeblood of the food truck business. Lunch locations are tweeted and pictures and video are posted on Facebook. People tweet requesting that the truck stop near their place of work. When a special topping request is tweeted, the crew will make sure a single serving of chili or pineapple is on board.
“You can’t overestimate the curiosity of people who just wonder, ‘Where are you today?’’’ says Willy Dely, 28, who runs the Chowhound’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. As of Monday night, the Chowhound Twitter feed had 924 followers, and 1,287 people “like” the truck’s Facebook page.
One customer challenged himself to eat two Charlie Browns, captured it on video and sent the result to Dely, who posted it on the truck’s website.
But it’s not all fun. The food truck has the same challenges that many restaurants endure — staff turnover (a Chowhound driver recently quit mere hours before a shift; that’s the reason Irvin was at the helm recently) and competition (another food truck, Juana Burrito, was tailing the Chowhound wagon before announcing via tweet in June that it was leaving Baltimore).
But there are also issues specific to food trucks — generators blow; brake inspections are needed; weather is a factor. If it’s nearly 100 degrees outside, a box fan, tied with plastic bags to the truck’s ceiling, does little to alleviate the heat.
Then there’s securing prime parking spots. For the Downtown location, Irvin parked at 5 a.m., then had Dely ride over with the truck to swap spots.
“We want more locations, and we want more competition,” says Irvin. “But what we’re doing is working. We tweet where we’re going and people are already there waiting.”
There are several food options Downtown, but it’s still a popular spot for the truck. Many mark their calendars for Chowhound time.
“If it’s Tuesday, we confirm that they’re there,” says 28-year-old Julie Simmons (left), who works at the World Trade Center and crossed the street to place an order along with co-worker Russ Montgomery. Montgomery, 26, said he also wished there were more food trucks around. Irvin thinks so, too. He’s planning on starting another food truck next year, featuring fish tacos and tied to Woody’s.
Nook Nguyen, 26, who works at software company Metastorm in Downtown, is another regular. “We’re here every Tuesday, if we can help it,” Nguyen says of his co-workers. “They can do all sorts of stuff on a truck now.”
Like perhaps star on a TV show. During lunch, a customer asked Irvin if his food truck would be featured on Food Network’s new show “The Great Food Truck Race,” which features seven trucks competing across the country to make the most money.
“We tried out for Food Network, but haven’t made it,” Irvin says. “Yet.”