The happy-hour crowd on a recent Friday scarfs rosemary and garlic tater tots, grilled cheese sandwiches piled with pulled pork and other speciality items from the Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen food truck. The truck, however, stopped serving hours ago and is offsite getting washed.
These folks are instead being served at Republic Bar & Grill, a downtown sports bar that's become the brick-and-mortar home for Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen.
A fleet of other local food trucks has joined this trend. KrushBurger plans to open a restaurant north of downtown in December, and Wicked Wich serves its food at the recently opened Broderick Restaurant & Bar. Coast to Coast Sandwiches operates the food program at midtown's Pour House, while Mama Kim Eats opened its own restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard at the former Supper Club.
On the flip side, established local restaurants have jumped into the food truck business, including Willie's Burgers and Squeeze Inn. Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar plans to launch its own food truck next year.
For Andrew Blaskovich, owner of Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen, operating out of a brick-and-mortar space offers much-desired stability. While Sacramento mobile food vendors are currently limited to 30-minute vending times at a single location, and are often forced to move numerous times a day, there's no cat-and-mouse game for reaching customers via Republic.
"It's a great platform to show people who we are as a brand," said Blaskovich, in between bites of street tacos at Republic. "It's been a good fit."
Blaskovich subleases the kitchen facility at Republic and pays $2,000 in monthly rent. Along with serving food for the restaurant, the kitchen at the Republic also offers a place for storage and some food preparation for the truck. Between its mobile food and restaurant operations, Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen employs a staff of 21.
"I wasn't interested in doing a restaurant at first, but the owners (of Republic) approached me a number of times," said Blaskovich. "It's nice that people can come to a set location. I get to reach their customer base, and they can reach mine."
Restaurant industry observers say food truck operators opening their own restaurants is a natural progression of the burgeoning mobile food business.
Many local mobile food vendors already have roots in restaurants. Davin Vculek, owner of KrushBurger, was formerly a corporate executive chef with Guy Fieri's restaurant group. Blaskovich was previously a caterer and a hotel kitchen veteran, while Wicked Wich co-owner Matt Chong was a partner in the former Infusion Cafe at 17th and K streets.
"It's been very consistent across the state and country," said Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Association. "For a lot of truck owners this was the plan: to get the truck going, build a brand, and get that menu and capital flowing, and turn that into a brick and mortar."
In terms of finances, investing in a high-end food truck business runs upward of $100,000 roughly the same amount as opening a small-scale sandwich shop. Blaskovich paid $50,000 for his 24-year-old food truck which has since required a new engine and transmission and newer trucks can top $100,000.
Blaskovich's operating expenses include $350 a month for general liability insurance, topped with food costs, payroll and his monthly rent at Republic. Gas alone can run between $350 and $400 per week. Like other food truck owners, Blaskovich aims to gross at least $1,000 a day.
"It's not as easy as people think, and there's a lot of trucks that aren't doing as well," said Blaskovich.
The popularity of food trucks has led to a reverse trend: established restaurants launching their own mobile food operations.
Heavenly Dog started as a brick-and-mortar business in Elk Grove, but shut down in January to focus on running its own food truck. The popular Mexican eatery Chando's Tacos launched its food truck in 2011, while Mikuni recently retired its long-running sushi bus and plans to debut a food truck by the end of first quarter 2013.
The Squeeze Inn franchise on Power Inn Road launched its food truck in June, but approaches its business model differently. Instead of scrambling around daily and seeking crowds, the Squeeze Inn truck focuses on private events, fundraisers and festivals.
Founded in 1975 when some current food truck owners were just toddlers Squeeze Inn has the benefit of longtime brand name recognition. Launching a food truck reinforces that brand and doubles as a kind of rolling billboard.
"Ninety-five percent of our business is people calling us," said Ken Bourquin, a former Squeeze Inn employee who operates the truck. "Driving around felt like we were spinning our wheels. For a new truck, you have to go out and build a following. At events you have a kind of captive audience, and it's a way to reach people who wouldn't be able to visit your restaurant. You're basically broadening your customer base at that specific time."
Investing in a food truck still costs significantly less than opening a full service restaurant, which usually takes a minimum investment of $250,000. While hustling around the city to find hungry crowds remains a regular challenge for food trucks, working within a building requires a new set of duties and concerns.
"There are things on the brick-and-mortar side that you never have to contend with when running a truck," said Conway. "That's everything from maintaining a bathroom, to just the turnover and keeping tables clean. There's a rhythm of running restaurants, and a truck has its own rhythms."
Vculek said he's invested more than $250,000 in his mobile food business, which includes two trucks, warehouse space and a commissary. Next up: a full-service KrushBurger restaurant that will open in December. Instead of subleasing space within an existing restaurant or bar, he'll operate this eatery in the California State Lottery headquarters on North 10th Street. Plans call for an expanded menu, including breakfast items, and beer and wine offerings.
Opening a restaurant was always a goal for Vculek, who launched KrushBurger in January 2011. For him, the truck has been a crucial steppingstone to securing bank loans.
"I think the market's a little uncertain if the trucks are going to last, but we're overwhelmed with how well we've done," he said. "In a financial sense, it takes about two years before you can get loans in business. We're able to do that and take a little less risk."