As the Foodie capital of Texas (okay, it’s really the Live Music capital, but they really love food too), Austin is no stranger to the budding Food Truck scene. Considering the whole state’s renown for fellow city Dallas’ yearly fair, filled with gobs of acclaimed concession food, it’s not surprising the walkable food style has moved to the city streets. And Austin certainly started early, the trucks having started to roll in the early part of the century.
Nowadays the city streets are thriving with masses of the vehicles; courts are held and developed everywhere, weekly and monthly rallies gathered for the public’s access and enjoyment. A group called Food Trailers Alliance formed in 2010 to form the first (and still only) major association in the area for these businesses to gather. It’s safe to say that the struggle and question of whether this trend will stay in Austin or not offers a rather obvious answer.
With this the year-long accessible climate of Austin offers up an exciting network for successful businesses, supposing one can make it through. To which it’s best to look towards existing trucks, as we have today with one of the more recent members of the southern city’s truck culture. After opening up about a couple years back, Svantes Stuffed Burgers is still up and running and dishing out… well I’ll let them tell you. We’re talking with one of the owners today, Christopher Swensen, who’ll be giving us an amazing insight into the local truck scene!
Questions: Tell us a bit about yourself, your business, and how long you’ve been operating in your city?
Chris: Well my name’s Chris Swensen, I’m one of the owners of Svantes; my sons actually started the business in Austin Texas. It began in the fall of 2012, and by 2013 it really got operating. We’re all originally from New Jersey, grew up there, in 2012 my younger son Mike was in college in Austin and decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. He got a gig in the summer of 2012, decided he wasn’t going to go back to school and pursue the career, so they were trying to figure out a way to fund themselves, and they somehow came upon the food truck idea. The younger son would work the lunch shift, the older would work the evening shift; so they came down from New Jersey with a couple friends, found a place to live and went at it. I’m more the finance guy, business guy, they get all the credit, I’ve helped out with the truck a little bit, like when they catered a Spotify Event a while ago.
One of the impetuses for starting the truck, and the food we serve, is actually based off the fact we have a Cattle Ranch up in Northern Texas that my brother operates, I help out some, and it’s been in the Swensen family for 4 generations. It was started by my great great grandfather, name of Svante Magnus Swensen, he was the first Swedish immigrant in Texas in 1838. So along came my sons, in 2012, who started buying the cattle one at a time from the ranch, having it processed locally, turning it into hamburger, and selling that hamburger on the food truck. It’s all grass fed, all natural pasteurized, so it tastes really good, really high quality and is very healthy.
So we started the truck, called it Svantes after the grandfather, they’re doing the burgers stuffed, which means they’re cooking the cheese in the middle, they’ve hired very good chefs way back when (one of the most important things they did), and they’ve done well enough now that they’ve cracked profits to open a restaurant. Another thing we’ve done is sell the individual cuts of the beef, the filet and tenderloin and such, those pieces are all REALLY good, and we’ve started selling those online, go to farmers markets, and will be selling them in the restaurant, which should open in April.
Q: What exactly is the Austin Food Truck scene like nowadays?
Chris: There’s a long history of starting off here and turning into real empires here, going brick and mortar and expanding from there. Umm, we’ve found the scene hasn’t changed drastically since we’ve been here, still very vibrant. We find it frankly very collegial, you compete with other trucks but you’re actually cooperating more with them than anything else, you try to be in that area where there are other trucks as well and a lot more people. The one thing’s that’s really changed for us is how much corporate involvement there is, the boys’ truck really took off when they started getting asked, and they’re completely scheduled out until March, and every Monday and Friday where they go to a corporate parking lot, where they serve lunch to waves of this companies. The catering business has also taken off. So it changed for us from serving the late night bar crowd, and we do some of that staying open late Friday and Saturday nights in downtown Austin, servicing that crowd, but it’s amazing how well accepted the trucks are in the corporate world.
Q: When starting out, how did YOU and your sons learn to navigate Austin’s streets and run a food truck? What sort of resources, help, and guidance did you find and use?
Chris: A lot of it was getting out to other trucks and asking, where to go and what’s happening. We did a little research before we started, but it was really you had to get on the ground and get it done?
Q: Does Austin have any particularly unique food truck codes or regulations compared to other cities? Are there any that new owners should make sure to pay attention to that might be easily overlooked?
Chris: Well, the main thing is make sure to get your permits. Austin has a very established permitting procedure, and they have a place where you can drive your truck into and get it inspected on a certain day of the week, and you have to get it done annually, it can slow you down. But I’m glad they have it, because you don’t want someone getting sick on a truck, it can really hurt your business, the whole industry. So they’re pretty tough, but I think they’re fair, and I think they do a very good job of it; I wouldn’t try to go out without one of their permits at all.
Q: Are there any other common reasons you’ve seen Truck owners fail in Austin?
Chris: We’ve seen trucks fail, most of the time it I think they don’t have a unique theme, they try to be all things to all people. I don’t think the low-end trucks do that well, Austin is the food capital, you can’t be to splotchy, you have to look good and be clean. I think if you’re more unique and have a unique point of view rather than trying to serve burgers-tacos-pizza, if you try to serve as a diner-on-wheels, I don’t think it’ll work.
Q: What’s the parking situation like? Do you need a special permit to park or is it a free for all, how easy is it to find, and would you suggest any particular areas to start focusing on?
Chris: It is getting harder to find places to put your truck; there ARE specific truck courts, there are parking lots, there’s one that’s a caddy corner from the lot we’re in, but there’s less and less space right in the middle of downtown. We’re still downtown, but we’re really only there two nights a week now. So it’s tougher to find good places to put the trucks, it’s very tough to field and put it out on the street, you really can’t do that very long, have to have access to bathroom and things like that. You’re finding more trucks parking up at bars that don’t have kitchen facilities, we’ve done that a few times and have had more inquiries about that. But the open lots are becoming tougher to come by.
Q: Part of surviving and building a Food Truck culture in any city is event organization; what sort of Truck rallies are usually going on throughout the year, and what are good strategies for newer trucks to take part in them? Any particular ones they should start with?
Chris: Well there’s a LOT of good ones here, Truck Rally, Truck by Truckwest, Tuesday Night Food Trucks; Spring, Summer, Fall, there’s probably at least a dozen to fifteen festivals. Some aren’t just food truck festivals, there’s something called the Fall Guy System, which is a celebration that town has for harvest season, and we’re there in the downtown. Established festivals are sometimes hard to get into, but you gotta ask, just tell them you’re interested, some of them will have you go online, but they’re terrific ones and they do a really good job. If you’re brand new or a small truck, find a festival and just call to see if you can get in.
Q: Austin’s quite the tourist city, not to mention it’s pretty hot all year round, how do these factors come into play with business? Any particular strategies you’ve seen used to make the best of them?
Chris: Weather can always be an issue, particularly in summer, July and August it’s pretty hot on the lot we’re on. We’ve tried various things, we’ve actually brought out a portable tent or big umbrella, that seems to be okay. What happens is you get less business in the day and more business at night, people come out later.
When it’s raining it kills your business, doesn’t rain all that much here, but when we see a line of thunderstorms we won’t open up! Haha, it’s just a waste of money. But you’re right, we’re blessed with having weather that’s good most year round, this weekend it’s going to be 80 degrees here and we’ll have a good crowd downtown. Seasonality of the weather still plays a factor, but it’s pretty obvious what those down times are, you can plan quarterly.
Q: All that aside, what are the main benefits to operating in Austin? What’s been your favorite parts?
Chris: There are several. One it is a food town, which forces you to put your best foot forward, get the best food there, I don’t think you can be schlocking, you gotta be GOOD to succeed in Austin, it’s a challenge. If you do have good food, people really appreciate it, and that’s been very gratifying for all of us, is we get a lot of comments, when people like the food they really let you know.
The weather is good, and it’s all a real food truck culture here, the fact that so many corporations have no qualms in hiring your truck to come in and provide lunch for employees, even hire for a holiday party, that’s what gives business, as long as food’s good. That’s where we’ve been successful, and some other trucks have been successful too.
Q: To end things off, any last bit of advice that you would like to give to new owners starting up near Austin?
Chris: Have a plan and focus, you need to do the research, need to get out on the ground, but I think the most important thing is having a real focus on what you wanna do. If you’re good at Thai Food, do thai food, stick to one thing and do it well; the more focus, the better off you are.
A FEW OTHER RESOURCES AND READINGS
Austin Food Carts – a listing of all local food trucks one can submit to, links to commissaries, classifieds, and other things that can be helpful.
Food Truck Industry at Crossroads – a 2013 article that mentions a few interesting things concerning Austin
Food Truck Rental Space – Austin Food Park offering rental space for trucks and trailers
A much appreciated thank you goes out to Chris for sitting down with me for this interview, I know I had a good little time going over a few of the things in their city. Not to mention a little laugh as the subject of stuffed burgers was brought up to a good ol’ Minnesota boy like me (Juicy Lucy forever)! But overall it was very nicely enlightening about a few interesting factors in the Austin scene, for me and hopefully for any other budding truck owners in the area. I think I’ll have to look into a couple other Texas cities in the near future to get a better view of your options.