"When we opened two years ago, the segment wasn't as insane or ubiquitous as it is now," says Nicole Portwood.
Intrigued by the low barrier for entry, the Portwoods began their journey by purchasing a 40-ft. 1955 Spartan Imperial Mansion travel trailer that was advertised on Craigslist. The vehicle was completely gutted and void of walls, floors and ceilings. Subsequently, Jeremy devoted six months, working day and night, building out his dream inside the trailer's tin shell.
Soon after opening for business, the challenges of Spartan Pizza's first chosen location took its toll. "We were in south Austin, and it felt like we hit a ceiling in terms of our business capacity," Nicole Portwood says.
After taking the trailer to the health department for its required annual on-site inspection, which is no small task for a 40-ft. mobile restaurant, the couple decided to relocate farther north. Spartan Pizza is now part of a growing number of Austin's mobile foodservice trailer parks.
The Portwoods are taking advantage of the trailer park's busier draw, while enjoying the camaraderie and information sharing with other mobile foodservice operators that include a chicken and waffle place, school bus barbecue business and fresh juice trailer bar.
FE&S spoke with Nicole Portwood about the challenges and successes Spartan Pizza has experienced in the last two years.
FE&S: What was your goal for your mobile operation?
NP: The biggest driving goal was to create incredible gourmet pizza at a reasonable cost. There are a couple of places that do pizza well in Austin, but not as many as in Chicago and New York City, which have thriving pizza scenes. We wanted to bring a signature style product to the marketplace. We planned to use our mobile operations as a starting point before investing in a more expensive brick and mortar operation.
FE&S: What were your biggest challenges?
NP: Working in a trailer comes with a lot of challenges. We are dealing with many obstacles that brick and mortar restaurants don't have to deal with. Finite water supplies are an issue. We need to work within a commissary structure and store product offsite to adhere to local health codes. Awareness of our operation also is a huge challenge. In the beginning, we did a lot of sampling and giveaways. Also, when we first opened in October 2009, it was really cold outside. We did the best we could to insulate the trailer, but physically the weather is a challenge. In addition, the pizza dough is sensitive to temperature variations. In the winter, we put the dough trays by the oven to warm up for 30 minutes, but we can't leave it out in the summer or it gets too soft. The trailer temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees in the summer months. We have air conditioners at each end of our trailer, but they are futile in hot weather. Last summer, we installed a 2 ½-ft. exhaust fan in the wall by where the oven opens to suck out hot air from the space. We had one of the coldest winters on record this year and had to shut down for five days when our water tanks froze.
FE&S: What are the biggest benefits of going mobile?
NP: The biggest benefit is the low cost of entry. This has allowed so many entrepreneurs with ideas and no capital to open mobile foodservice operations. Businesses like ours are creating jobs and infusing money into the local economy. There's still a novelty associated with mobile foodservice and customers enjoy it. With brick and mortar restaurants, operators take a huge gamble on choosing the right location. We can go where the business is and, if a location isn't working out, we can easily relocate. Also, people are surprised at the quality of food offered by trailer businesses. Many are run by chefs and people who are passionate about food and have found a way to enter the foodservice segment affordably.
FE&S: Describe your menu and how it has evolved.
NP: We decided to do pizza because it's a food we love. My husband Jeremy worked on perfecting his dough recipe for five years before we even opened the business. We specialize in thin New York-style pizza. We offer four bases to choose from, including marinara, balsamic garlic spread, roasted garlic olive oil and cilantro pesto, in addition to 23 different toppings. The menu includes eight specialty pizzas with names inspired by our vintage 1955 Spartan trailer. Our most popular variety, the Zeus, includes roasted garlic olive oil, bacon, fresh spinach, roma tomato and fresh mozzarella. Another popular pizza is the Agamemnon with cilantro pesto, chicken tossed with barbecue sauce, red onions and jalapenos.
FE&S: Describe your operation's major pieces of equipment and the logistics involved in installing it in a tight space.
NP: Our biggest and most important pieces of equipment are our antique ovens, which are stacked. The roasting oven on the bottom is used for our roasted garlic olive oil and roasted balsamic spread sauces. The top oven has two decks and we have custom pizza stones that fit perfectly on each. The 650-degree thermostats were converted from natural gas to propane. We knew the type of ovens we wanted from the get-go, but it would have been difficult to afford new units. Instead, we found someone who was converting an old bakery into a house. He had all the equipment in his backyard covered in tarps. The ovens were in horrible shape, disconnected with rusted panels and sitting on an incline. We didn't even know if they worked. Fortunately, they were mechanical and not electronic. We found an equipment refurbishing business to see if they could be salvaged. We had to pay for labor and new parts, including thermostats, but the ovens now operate like new. We also had the units improved aesthetically by removing the rust and repainting them. Along with the ovens, we use a huge 8-ft. pizza prep table that has a wide surface on top for our pizza peels. An upright refrigerator holds our dough trays overnight. When we're really busy, we also rise dough in the commissary. Other equipment includes prep tables, a two-bay sink and a handwashing sink.
Every big piece of equipment had to be forklifted into the trailer through its service window, which was removed during this process. This wasn't an easy task, considering the ovens weigh 600 pounds each. Due to the trailer's ceiling heights, we couldn't purchase a standard upright refrigerator. These units couldn't be angled or pivoted properly to fit it inside the trailer. We finally found a used refrigerator with a shorter profile. We literally had an inch of leeway to pivot it into place.
FE&S: How does your production process work?
NP: When we first opened for business, we utilized a downtown pizza restaurant for our commissary needs, but as our operation grew we switched to a shared commercial kitchen used by other mobile foodservice operations. We pay a monthly fee and have access to a full commercial kitchen and dishwashing area. We have an unrestricted permit, so we're able to prepare and cook food in the trailer but are required to store perishable foods at a commissary overnight. We also use the commissary for obtaining water and dumping waste water at the end of the day. During Austin's South by Southwest music festival, we reserve kitchen time to prepare bigger batches of sauce and dough that we can't produce in the trailer kitchen.
FE&S: What are the major equipment challenges in mobile foodservice?
NP: The biggest challenge was finding affordable equipment that we could fit into the trailer. We bought our sinks new, but everything else, from the ovens to the cash register, is used. The ovens operate on two propane tanks that are mounted outside the trailer. Also, the refrigerators get a workout, due to the trailer's temperature fluctuations.
FE&S: When purchasing equipment, what attributes are most important for your mobile operation?
NP: Equipment is so vital to our operation we don't want to skimp on it. If we weren't able to find used equipment that was in good working order, we would have purchased new units without hesitation. With such high turnover in the restaurant industry, there is a lot of recirculated equipment that we could source. Size also is a major factor.
FE&S: What changes do you have planned for your operations this year?
NP: The past two years have been about getting established. Now that we're more comfortable, we can begin branching out. We just moved to a new location and will hire six to 10 employees. We are currently a cash-only business, but will start taking credit cards soon. The business will expand into delivery services, since people expect this from a pizza place. We're also experimenting with new recipes and utilizing more seasonal ingredients. There are plans to increase our hours over the weekend, since we've had great luck with late-night business between midnight and 3 a.m.
FE&S: How do you see the mobile foodservice segment evolving in the years ahead?
NP: This segment will continue to grow in Austin, eventually reaching a saturation point and whittling down in terms of operator numbers. I wish everyone with a mobile foodservice business had a passion for what they do and incredible product offerings, but there are many who just see it as a cheap way to make money. I see successful mobile businesses moving into brick and mortar operations, and some will run both types of operations. Our city's regulations and permit procedures make it easy to open a mobile foodservice business. This is not the case in other locations, where it can be impossible to get a permit due to zoning. Other cities may see the potential of these businesses and decide to redraft their regulations. It's exciting to see all these entrepreneurs coming out of the woodwork to create jobs and industry using minimal resources. People who were out of work, tired of their job or fed up with working for others can make it on their own with a mobile operation.
FE&S: What advice would you give an operator who was considering getting involved in mobile foodservice?