At 9:00 a.m. on a recent Thursday in Addison, Texas, Taylor McDaniel climbs into the nine thousand pound food truck. He turns the ignition and the engine roars, bringing the vehicle to life. A reverse warning beep echoes against the concrete walls of the large garage as he carefully backs into the parking lot. The 33-year-old manages Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe, a fleet of three food trucks that serve gourmet grilled cheeses and French crepes in Dallas. His boss, Ashley Kleinert, the mother of SMU students Tyler and TJ Kleinert, started the business to commemorate her grandmother Ruthie, who was known for the delicious melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheeses she would make.
Over the past couple years gourmet food trucks have swept through Dallas like an epidemic. They’re in CVS parking lots, on college campuses and outside bars waiting to feed hungry partiers after last call. With dozens of trucks, and each boasting a different theme to mirror the food it serves, these mobile kitchens offer Dallasites an on-the-go yet better than fast-food dining option. But as patrons are placing their orders or enjoying their meals, many have little idea of what goes into making these things work.
McDaniel flips a switch toward the back of the vehicle right next to an emblem that reads “Sweet and Savory”. Water spews out onto the pavement below. That water is what melted away the night before from the ice block that serves as the cooling mechanism inside the truck’s refrigerator. In order to keep the meats used for the grilled cheeses and crepes from spoiling, a Honda generator is attached to the back of each truck to ensure the ice block remains at or below 32 degrees.
The ice block also allows McDaniel and his team to leave the unused food from the previous day on the truck over night. This minimizes prep time and maximizes efficiency. At the end the day, the workers on each truck make a list detailing what items need replacing. After going over yesterday’s list, McDaniel and his colleague, Whitney Finkelstein, an aspiring chef from Dallas, head into the office where two large freezers and four refrigerators line the walls. They gather chicken, butter, fruitcups, Nutella and bananas and start restocking the trucks.
The trucks hit the road by 9:30 a.m. Each day, they venture to a different location in the city to serve empty bellies eager for sustenance. Their schedule varies by the day. If McDaniel and his team are just doing lunch, the trucks will be back in the garage by roughly 3:00 p.m. but some days the team will tackle multiple events. “If you do a double, like a morning event and an afternoon event, you’re on the truck for 12 hours,” McDaniel says.
Maintaining and operating a kitchen on wheels requires a good deal of shuffling around. McDaniel likens the experience to a game of musical chairs, “especially when you’ve got all three trucks going at once.” He is in charge of making sure each truck is fully stocked, which can be a dizzying process. One truck might be low on thermal paper used to print receipts from the touch-screen cash register on board because it isn’t an item that needs to be restocked on a daily basis. This can easily slip one’s mind with all the other duties that need tending. A tiny hiccup like that, however, can leave patrons without receipts for their orders.
Today McDaniel is manning the newest vehicle in the fleet, the Crepe Truck, which has been operating about two months. Before leaving the home base in Addison, McDaniel jumps out of the driver’s seat and runs into the stock room to grab one last jar of Nutella for good measure. He climbs back into the driver’s seat, the truck revs up, and the journey begins as he and his team barrel down Northwest Highway and onto the SMU campus, a market that Ruthie’s takes on at least once a week. These drives are the most stressful part of the job, McDaniel says. “It’s like driving a U-Haul every day, and you know how bad Dallas drivers [can be]”.
The truck is parked by 10:15 a.m. in the middle of campus. To the sounds of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” blaring through the radio speakers, Jessica Bradt, 23, McDaniel and Lesley Henry, 40, work methodically. With 100 pounds of food on each truck, and a capacity to make nearly 400 entrees per day, much needs to be done in order to serve customers efficiently. McDaniel lifts the retractable awning on the side of the truck, which opens up the area where orders are placed. A quote reading “Les Meilleurs Crepes de Texas”-French for “Best Crepes in Texas”-is printed on the truck below the bins holding soft drinks and bottles of water.
McDaniel makes sure the racks of Miss Vickies potato chips and the drinks submerged in shaved ice look neat and in order. Bradt begins spreading butter across dozens of pieces of bread used for the grilled cheeses and stacks them neatly on a shelf above the expo line. Henry starts placing green-checkered wax paper into red-stripped trays, called “boats,” and stacks them at a slanted angle. Bradt shifts over to the stove, hovering over the meats as they sizzle and defrost.
The interior of the truck is almost entirely stainless steel, with the look of a professional kitchen inside a gourmet restaurant. But the space is very limited. A flat iron grill and skillet station for cooking crepes and grilled cheeses take up the truck’s back end. A narrow walkway, about 4 feet wide, divides the sink, expo line, cash register and serving window that line the opposing walls. For Bradt, who is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College in Dallas and aspiring to be a chef, working on the truck puts her one step closer to achieving that goal. “You have to be able to get along with your teammates because it’s very close quarters,” she says. “It’s very fast paced so it’s a good stepping stone for me to be able to mass produce food [like this]”.
By 11:15 a.m. business is in full swing and orders start flowing in. “What can I get ya?” McDaniel asks a customer from behind the light blue Plexiglas that separates the truck’s interior from the customers standing in line below. Within what seems like seconds five order tickets hit the expo line. The chicken pesto crepe is the most popular item on this truck. Bradt goes to work heating the crepe, which takes about 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, Henry meticulously slices the chicken and provolone cheese at the prep station. Those ingredients, along with the pesto, are then placed on the crepe, which is still heating. Finally, the crepe is removed from the hot surface and handed back to Henry who then folds it, places it in a boat, and hands it to McDaniel, who hollers out the customer’s name-and off it goes to satisfy another empty belly.
The radio is still blaring classic rock. McDaniel is at the register, his lips appearing to mouth the words to “No Rain”, a Blind Melon song, as the sound flows through the speakers. It’s 12:15 p.m. and orders are stacking up. Henry and Bradt work in tandem to keep up with the orders while McDaniel continues manning the register. At times there is a sense of hurriedness; you’d think by the end of a shift, the inside of this truck would be a mess. But despite that, and by the end of this lunch shift, the inside of the truck is almost as clean as the moment it arrived on campus. McDaniel is taking an order for a “sweet crepe.” “Caramel instead of chocolate? Sure, we’ll do caramel,” he says to a petite brunette girl in a laid back tone. “No Rain” continues to blare over the speakers. “…So stay with me and I’ll have it made…”
By 2:00 p.m. the shelf Bradt had stacked the bread on is nearly empty. Much of the fruit has been used up. Three jars of Nutella have been scraped clean and pounds of meat are gone.
The grill is shut off, the unused ingredients put away and counter tops wiped down. McDaniel once again takes the helm in the driver’s seat. He turns the ignition and the engine comes back to life. Pulling out of SMU he heads toward the highway to make the trek back to Addison. Tomorrow, he and his staff will get up, head to the garage, and repeat the process again-just in a different location.