Meals on the Wheels: The Permits and Planning of Austin’s Food Trucks
By Samantha Reichstein
In 2010, ice cream lovers Tim and Corey Sorensen purchased a food trailer after their motorcycle business could no longer bring them revenue.
Known as Cow Tipping Creamery, their truck serves specialty soft-serve flavors on a rotational basis, while providing homemade baked goods and toppings to its everyday menu.
One of the 875 permitted trailers in the city, the mobile food establishment business in Austin is both prevalent and numerous.
However, as rules and regulations increase, permits have dropped an average 11 percent since 2013.
“Having a mobile food establishment in Austin is stricter than having one elsewhere in Texas, “ said Environmental Health Supervisor Marcel Elizondo.
Elizondo works in the Environmental Health Services Division of the Austin and Travis County Health & Human Services department. He knows first hand about each regulation, since he issues permits to potential food vendors twice a week.
“If you’re going to be making more than pre-packaged food, you pay an additional annual fee; if you have propane, you require an additional fire department fee,” Elizondo said. “But it’s more than just money. The city requires permitted kitchens, accessible employee restrooms, extensive training and valid Texas IDs for each worker.”
Elizondo said Austin wants to tighten rules for these establishments, due to the restaurant industry’s concern over food truck success.
“We tried to regulate mobile food courts, but the city council said they are small business owners who do not need additional restrictions,” Elizondo said. “When compared to a storefront, fees and hours are significantly less, but there’s not much more we can do to appease the issue.”
Though the Sorensen’s experienced some hardships at first, their passion for eating local ice cream on every vacation gave them the drive to work around the regulations.
“Soft serve is hard to maintain in a trailer because it’s extremely temperamental,” Sorensen said. “The space is small, inspections are tightening up and a need for creativity is vital to get your foot in the door.”
The Sorensen’s took their idea of gourmet soft-serve ice cream and ran with it, after ruling out another hard-scoop venue would be white noise in the city. However, even with creativity, Sorensen said the market for food trucks is hard to break into, and the climb to success is not easy.
“I see a lot of people that do not have solid ideas and it tough to get around,” Sorensen said. “If you don’t have a strong plan, you will not survive; new trucks are popping up in this city every day.”
Cow Tipping Creamery recently moved to West Campus by popular demand. Since the move, the trailer has increased its annual revenue by 33 percent. This success has allowed Sorensen to make plans for a brick-and-mortar location in the near future. Sorensen said he hopes to own both a storefront and a trailer, since each brings different and unique opportunities.
“Owning a trailer, you get to experience personal interactions with your customers every day,” Sorensen said. “It allows you to be very flexible and try things that you may think twice about in a permanent setting.”
Twenty two-year-old Matt Dumfries fell into the food truck business while searching for a roommate after graduating Texas State University with a business degree this past spring.
His roommate, Matthew Doherty, is one of three brothers who bought the food truck Holy Cacao in 2013. The business serves coffee drinks and frozen hot chocolate, and its success brought a second trailer to West Campus this semester.
Dumfries said 99 percent of their customers are college students who frequent the lot regularly. However, he said concerns are rising since winter break is approaching.
“Everyone is going home for a month and that is the majority of our cliental,” Dumfries said. “Hopefully, catering private events with our drinks will help compensate for this area being a ghost town.”
Currently Director of Marketing for Holy Cacao, Dumfries said his favorite part of the job is the camaraderie he experiences every day.
“You gain incredible people skills from this job, and all of us in the lot help each other,” Dumfries said. “When work is slow, I’m sitting at the tables with the other owners hanging out.”
Dumfries said he does not know if Holy Cacao plans to expand beyond trailers, and is unsure if that is what the owners want.
“We just want to get our name out there, and are continuing to try every day,” Dumfries said. “Our trailer has made a name for itself in Austin, and we hope to stay in the food trailer culture as long as we can.”