by Jamie Moses
“It’s truly amazing,” said Leslie Zemsky, Larkinville’s Director of Fun. “We started the Food Truck Tuesdays just after Memorial Day in 2013. There were five trucks and one of them sold clothing. And then that summer the crowds and the number of trucks just exploded. I can’t believe it.”
Food Truck Tuesdays just kicked off their fourth season on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. When you see the enormous gathering of people at Larkin appreciating the food, conversation, beer and live music it’s easy to question the widespread belief that people have lost the ability to socialize because they are living instead on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s more the case those media helped get them together to enjoy some actual real world socializing.
The food truck is what we might call a mini “disruptive.” While not disruptive on the level of the telephone or airplane, the food truck phenomena unexpectedly came out of nowhere and created a major change in the food industry. For years the food truck was a Mr. Softee ice cream truck prowling the neighborhood or the trailer that pulled up beside a factory with coffee and donuts. Now they are gourmet restaurants on wheels. And food truck festivals draw thousands of people in dozens of American cities large and small and all across Europe.
A gourmet food truck requires a very special vehicle. That’s where Dave Myslinski of OutFront Custom Built found opportunity. Dave’s company had been primarily fabricating refrigerated stainless steel and granite topped self-serve salad bars for large supermarkets. They routinely manufactured these in a 60,000 sq. ft. building off Bailey Ave. Then something changed. Larkin wanted a food truck and they turned to Dave.
The first food truck at Larkin was a converted Airstream camper named Square Sandwiches and it was run by Howard and Leslie Zemky’s son Harry, who now owns Hydraulic Hearth.
“I remodeled a 1964 Airstream trailer for Larkin.” said Dave. “They needed that totally gutted and made into a food truck. That was my first food truck and that was their first food truck, also. From there I built some trucks for Lloyd’s, Flaming Fish and others.”
That first year, 2012, Dave did $25,000 in food truck work. He now does $1 million a year in food truck work and the business is still growing.
“We’ve got 37 full time employees,” said Dave. “Three fulltime engineers who do the design work, four are fulltime welders and each welder is a specialist, a stainless steel welder, a heavy metal welder, a welder for trucks. This year we hope to hit $5 million in sales [food trucks and other business combined].
“Originally people would bring me a truck they bought somewhere that had a previous life as a Fedex truck, a UPS truck, things like that. I would strip it, cut holes in the side of it for serving, add flip up awnings, windows, and then I would build out the whole inside. Stainless steel custom counters, aluminum framed cabinets, generator, electrical work, plumbing, gas, the whole nine yards. Today I actually buy trucks at auction. I have trucks in stock.”
After Dave and his crew are done outfitting a truck it gets inspected by the Health Dept., the Fire Dept., and then a lot of them go to Streamline Designs in North Tonawanda where a wrap with the restaurant’s name, logo and colorful images images are applied.
“Our food truck business was unexpected, it’s just something we kind of fell into and now we’ve actually geared the plant to help produce them,” said Dave. “We do trucks for Rochester, Syracuse, Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Baltimore. So there’s no telling how big this could get.”
Many of the trucks at Larkinville last Tuesday came from Dave’s OutFront Custom Built. The original Airstream he worked on has been retired but Lloyd’s was there, Flaming Fish and others. The Rochester trucks were there, too. It was surprising that trucks would come all the way from Rochester.
“What happened,” said Leslie Zemsky, “was that first season we had more people than the food trucks could feed and we needed more trucks. My son Harry, who cooked up the whole Food Truck Tuesday idea, went to a concert one night in Rochester and went up to a food truck and introduced himself.”
According to Harry, who talked while tending bar at Hydraulic Hearth, as the operator of Square Sandwiches food truck it was easy to talk to the Rochester food truck people.
“So Harry said ‘hey we’ve got this little event we’re doing,’” said Leslie. “And then the Rochester trucks came and did well. I can’t believe that it was worthwhile to drive that far. I mean some of these trucks are…haha!.. they’re seniors so to speak and they don’t get great gas mileage. Some of the food truck operators that are more well funded they have very large new trucks, but most of the food trucks had a prior life or two.”
When Lloyd’s and other food trucks first appeared on the scene restaurants raged against them, demanding anti-food truck legislation and strict regulations. That someone could just roll around town picking off the best crowds or park in front of your brick and mortar restaurant seemed outrageous to those who’d invested in a building, invested in a neighborhood. That was then. Now several restaurants have joined the revolution. At Larkinville you’ll find food trucks from Ted’s Hot Dogs, Amy’s Place, Just Pizza, Chef’s, Sweet Melody’s and more.
In fact, back at OutFront, Dave is outfitting a gigantic 1971 bus for Anderson’s Custard and Roast Beef. Walking through the new stainless steel interior of the bus Dave points out the customization.
“That’s a100 amp generator there. That could run your whole house. Here, it’s tied into the fuel cell of the truck. Here are all the transfer switches, a full-blown panel box, LED lighting, transformers. There’s plumbing, pumps, custom stainless counters, stoves, fridges and freezers. Basically this is a fully equipped restaurant kitchen.”
Not every project is so excessive or grandiose.
“Over here you have Tuk Tuk,” says Dave, pointing to a bright orange vehicle that looks tiny next to the Anderson’s bus. “This is a new concept in Buffalo. It’s an electric three-wheel motorcycle, fully battery operated. We’re putting the sink in and the ice bin, all stainless. This is going to be a teashop. The vendor stands outside of it. The good thing about this is there no oil or gas so this can go right inside a convention center; it could go inside an arena or a stadium.”
Large or small, the proliferation of food vehicles and finding ingenious ways to make them do more continues. And food truck festivals continue to grow.
“I think we have 38 trucks on our registered list so to speak,” said Leslie Zemsky, “but there’s more that we’re trying to work into rotation, and there’ll be a few trucks parked down at Flying Bison. Because we welcome those trucks from Rochester, too, there are several more trucks that would like to be a part of it.
“To me the effect of the food trucks has been a whole economic development engine because since the start of food trucks so many people now know what Larkin is and the name Larkinville took off. We now have other developments, the Box Factory Lofts at 500 Seneca and Seneca Street Lofts at 550 Seneca, all of those. I think those came about because there was confidence that ‘Oh my God, this really is a growing area.’ It gave other developers confidence to invest in the neighborhood. We can’t do it all so it’s really exciting to see other people investing in the neighborhood, too.”
She’s right, the Zemsky’s can’t do it all themselves. But Larkin is their family business and it’s that sense of family warmth that has made them and the Larkin area successful. For Leslie Zemsky, Director of Fun, Food Truck Tuesdays is like putting on a very large dinner party and they’ve asked 40 food trucks to come help serve the guests.
And we’re all invited to dinner!