Food trucks are everywhere
and growing in popularity
Several operate throughout Kentuckiana
at festivals and farmers markets
May 2018 Cover
(May 2018) – Food trucks: They’re not just for festivals anymore.
The burgeoning business – the fastest growing sector of the food-service industry in the United States, according to FoodTruckOperator.com – was projected to increase in annual revenue from $650 million in 2012 to $2.7 billion in 2017.
More than two dozen food trucks are listed as members of the Louisville Food Truck Association, offering a wide variety of cuisines – German, Greek, French, Mexican and even Japanese sushi – along with the regional standards of barbecue and burgers to gourmet sandwiches and roadside diner food.
In fact, they now have their own festival: The Louisville Food Trucks and Craft Beer festival at the Big Four Bridge on the riverfront, which this year is from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 19.
While the trucks are very popular at large outdoor events and festivals, including the Madison Ribberfest, RiverRoots Music & Folk Art Festival, Madison Regatta and the Swiss Wine Festival in Vevay, Ind., they are also becoming staples at Saturday morning farmers markets throughout the area – including Madison, Ind., and La Grange, Ky.
At Madison, Ken and Jo’s Concession and Lucille’s On the Go trucks will alternate selling breakfast food at the farmers market at the Broadway Fountain on Saturdays, starting May 5.
Sean Miller, marketing director for the market, said the vendors will be offering such standards as biscuits and gravy and breakfast sandwiches, using local ingredients including locally produced meat and eggs.
Jeff and Lainie Ford operate Big Papa’s East Coast Eats Food Truck in Oldham County, Ky.
“Honestly, it’s a huge draw for the market,” Miller said. “The farmers actually requested” that new food venders were added after Paradise Cove stepped away from the business after serving market patrons there for several years. “They were really successful.”
The La Grange Farmers Market this year, however, will not have a dedicated food truck at its Farmers Market and Artisans events, which begin May 12.
The family is taking the driver’s seat over business this year, said Lainie Ford, who, with her husband, Jeff, operates Big Papa’s East Coast Eats food truck that has been a fixture at the La Grange market. They plan to return to the market – and the road – next year.
Crossroads-La Grange Main Street director Karen Eldridge said she and market organizers are encouraging downtown restaurants to serve breakfast on Saturday mornings when the market is open.
Born and raised in Boston, the couple owned and operated a “brick and mortar” restaurant in Providence, R.I., for many years before moving to Oldham County.
Lainie was a stay-at-home mom for 20 years when she decided to try the food-truck business last year.
“I know food. I love food, and I consider myself a good cook,” she said, and with her sons both in high school now, “I needed to get out of the house. That’s why I did it.”
Their success in the first year, she says, is proof that she knows her way around a kitchen. “When we’re rolling; we’re successful,” she said. “But family is always first,” and she will be helping her sister’s family this summer instead of cooking for the masses.
Kyle Ford serves food from his family’s Big Papa’s East Coast Eats food truck.
Starting a food truck business is less expensive than opening a restaurant in a permanent location, costing in the vicinity of about $100,000 for the truck and equipment. Because most are family owned and operated, there usually is very low overhead comparatively, in terms of salaries, rent or mortgage payments, and advertising.
“In my experience, about 75 percent of what came in we spent on trying to get people inside,” Ford said. “When you add wheels, it’s so much easier” – especially with a good following on Facebook and word-of-mouth advertising from people who have experienced Big Papa’s East Coast Eats.
“We wanted to be known as something different,” Ford said.
“We’re not your everyday barbecue truck. We have Portuguese food and authentic Italian grinders” – think Italian sub sandwiches, but with real Italian meats and cheeses rather than American-style deli meats.
Her goal, she said, is to get people to step out of their gastronomic comfort zone with foods that aren’t common in the Midwest. You won’t find sausage and biscuits, but you will find 3-inch hog patties, seared on the grill then placed on a bagel and smothered with her own homemade Philly cheese sauce.
“Once people gave that a shot, they flew out the window,” she said. “They were like, ‘Wow, what was I missing?’”
Another specialty is something known on the East Coast as “gaggers” – a pork-and-veal mixture stuffed inside a thin hot dog, imported from Massachusetts. “They’re marvelous.”
While people are drawn in by the smells emanating from the truck, most don’t recognize the menu items.
A customer orders food from Big Papa’s East Coast Eats food truck last year at the La Grange Farmers Market.
“Jeff will go down the list and explain what each item is,” she said. There’s not a single item that people don’t like.”
“Most food trucks are cleaner than restaurants, and there’s only one person touching your food – and that’s me,” he said.
The other benefit of owning a portable business is flexibility. “Our plans are to move to Florida someday. What’s better than being able to pack up your business and take it with you? It’s good stuff.”
The portability of the business also appeals to Steve and Hillary Judkins of Madison, who, along with their daughter, Riley, own and operate Jughead’s – with more traditional barbecue and other smoked-meat dishes on the menu.
A veteran chef, Steve Judkins worked for 30 years managing kitchens at the Galt House in Louisville, at the Courtyard in Rising Sun, Ind., and even on a private island off the coast of Florida. He’s created food for the rich and famous, including Liza Minnelli and Barry Manilow, and even prepared food for an early 1990s New Year’s party that featured the rock band AC/DC.
When he started out with the food truck business over a decade ago, his early gigs were to serve food to the bands backstage at music festivals.
“This was something I wanted to do for a long time. We’re big festival-goers, so it’s a natural fit,” Judkins said.
“We’ve met a lot of interesting people, and we get to meet a lot of bands. That’s part of the thrill.”
Even though he’s operating his own trailer in the vendors area at Madison Ribberfest these days, Judkins said he still ends up feeding a lot of the musicians and had the opportunity to “hang out” with Jimmy Vaughan in 2015 when the blues guitarist and co-founder of The Fabulous Thunderbirds was a headliner at Ribberfest.
But he says the work itself isn’t as glamorous as it might sound.
“Without a doubt, this is the hardest restaurant job I’ve ever had,” he admits. “I’ve seen it all; everything that can happen has and will happen.”
Jughead’s now has a stationary location next to Diego’s Mexican Restaurant, near the intersection of Hwy. 7 and West Clifty Drive in Madison. That’s where Judkins will offer his menu of smoked meats and cajun-style cuisine starting May 5 for lunch on weekdays and lunch and early dinner on weekends.
“We’ve had a tremendous response there,” he said. “It’s a busy corner.”
Jughead’s also provides catering services, as does Chops Style Barbecue, a food truck owned and operated by Thomas Korfhage, aka “Chops.”
The Oldham County, Ky., native said he earned that moniker over the years working in steakhouses.
He, too, has also been in the food truck business for about a decade, and said he doesn’t think he’ll ever work for anyone else again.
He is a self-taught chef and an entrepreneur. “It comes natural to me,” he said, adding that he soon will be bottling his own sauce – something he plans to sell throughout Kentucky and hopes will bring in residual income in addition to his food truck and catering profits.
Chops taught himself to cook at age 12, shortly after his father died. It was therapeutic, he said, but also necessary “if I wanted something good to eat.” Soon, he was not only cooking for his own family but also for friends who would come by to eat, too.
“I love to feed people good food,“ he said.
He took to the grill and never looked back. “It’s a natural passion,” he said of grilling and smoking meats.
Before going into business for himself, he earned the nickname Chops while he helped to open and manage the grill for concept restaurants, including Outback Steakhouse, the Hard Rock Cafe in Louisville, Tumbleweed’s and others.
Though he often worked 80 hours a week at restaurants, he discovered that owning a food truck is more than just a job – it’s a lifestyle. And success can make it even more so.
From March to October, Korfhage sells food at least three days a week at his primary (though not permanent) location near the railroad tracks on KY Hwy. 146 just off of Interstate 71 Exit 14 in Crestwood. He also caters year-round, and said he has been booked to do as many as four or five events in one day.
It’s a lifestyle, “especially with barbecue,” which requires him to be constantly smoking meats and other foods even on days when he’s not selling. During the season, he said he works 60 to 100 hours each week. The flip side is that he has 20 weeks out of the year with downtime in between catering gigs – time he spends as a traveling “bourbon hunter,” collecting old and rare bourbons as a hobby.
While his enterprise is very profitable – more profitable, he says, than most “brick and mortar” restaurants – he is, for the most part, a one-man show, getting help from family and friends only for larger catering events.
But he has grown a very large and very loyal following over the years, most of whom found out about his truck simply by word of mouth.
“I’m very busy,” he said. “It can get hectic, and at times I can’t keep up with demand.”
Each day he’s open, he will sell out of everything in three hours or less. “I can serve 150 people in less than two hours. By myself.”
His signature food item – a smoked potato, dipped in smoked butter – is the most sought-after item at his truck. He makes 160 of these each day using his very own recipe, which he will not share. He said people have tried to copy it – and many have come close – but no one has been able to make them as good as his.
“Those are gone before 12:30 p.m. every day,” he said. “People just can’t get enough of them. There is a craze over these. If you don’t come early, you won’t get them.”
Korfhage said that anyone who may be leery about eating roadside food should be confident, especially with vendors who have high ratings from health-department inspections, which are frequent. HIs lowest score was a 99; the rest he scored at 100.
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