Food trucks serving up mobile menus in the UC

UPPER CUMBERLAND – Slinging burgers and fries from the average 26-foot mobile trailer may not sound like the most appetizing eating environment, but foodies everywhere have taken to the food truck movement. It’s among the hottest trends in the restaurant industry, a combination of convenience and cool. It’s also proved to be a profitable business model for most with less overhead and expenses. Which is exactly why Michael Holland of Mike’s Munchies jumped into the game in the small town Lafayette.

While not technically a food truck – it’s actually a pull-behind trailer – Holland’s operation runs much like others across the state – and country. Some three million are cruising the streets. These restaurants-on- wheels, which go way beyond the mobile food carts of old, serve everything from pizza and tacos to bistro sandwiches and desserts, like Holland’s “Dessert Dog,” a hot dog with whipped cream, Hershey’s dark chocolate and cinnamon.

More prevalent in bigger cities – there are more than 30 active in Nashville, for example – there’s a smattering parked in various Upper Cumberland spots, from McMinnville to Cookeville and Macon County, of course.

“People do really get excited about it. I’m amazed all the time,” Holland said. “It’s really gone over very well.”

But is the Upper Cumberland to a point where it can support more offerings of this business structure? Maybe – but maybe not.

C.J. Gerndt, who operates the mobile catering unit Meadow’s Pharm, had a restaurant by the same name on Cookeville’s WestSide, but it closed in 2011. She purchased her food truck in 2012; this will be her third summer season selling lighter fare like chicken salad, casseroles and more. While there is expense, of course, food trucks are attractive because there’s much less start-up cost, no brick-and-mortar to maintain and less staff.

“The truck is a full commercial kitchen, so we basically can go anywhere,” Gerndt said. Gerndt’s business model is a little different than Holland’s. Meadow’s Pharm is seen mostly at private functions.

“I would love to be able to park at city hall or at the courthouse twice a week, that would be really super cool, but Cookeville’s just not there yet,” she said. “It’s really difficult; there are a number of issues you have to go through. We started out doing events like Fall FunFest but we never made any money off it. So we decided to only do private functions, and that’s how we want to operate. We can bring the food to you.”

Holland thinks Lafayette is to the point where it can support his business. He sets up almost daily on College Street just off Highway 52.

“Sometimes it’s hit or miss. We’ll be super dead, then one person will pull in and four other cars will follow,” Holland said

“We have all kinds of fast food here, (and) a few small places, but there’s not really an American-style restaurant in Lafayette,” Holland added. “The problem is people go out of town to eat, to Gallatin or Lebanon. I saw an opening there.”

Holland said he always wanted his own business. He has no idea what year-end sales may be – although one week in March did better than his whole February – but it’s good to be out on his own.

“A restaurant would be nice, but it’s a lot of headache, and it takes a lot of money to start,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of overhead, which is nice. There’s no rent payment, there’s no huge light bill. So I’m able to give more food, better food, and still be competitively priced.”

Plus, he joked, if the locals get tired of his cuisine, he can just load up and leave. He does plan on traveling to some area summer events. He even thinks a regional food truck festival, where a number of vendors could come together, might be possible.

“I think the business is definitely there for food trucks,” Holland said.

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