Chef Chat, Part 2: Van Pham of Phamily Bites Food Truck
Yesterday we talked to Van Pham of Phamily Bites about how he grew up cooking with his mom and grandma. Today he tells us about the the rewards and challenges of owning a food truck in Houston.
Photos by David Stewart, Courtesy of Phamily Bites Van Pham of Phamily Bites and Tattoo Artist Mark Anthony, who painted "Sasha" the truck
EOW: So you were working in telecom, you came back to Houston. You said you wanted to do something different. But why did you want to open a food truck?
VP: The reason why is living in San Francisco, it became a lifestyle for me -- food truck industry. I would make my schedule daily just to visit certain trucks.
EOW: Which were...
VP: There was quite a few I enjoyed. Toasty Melts was a grilled cheese truck. Nom Nom came up to SF. I wanted to see it because it was Vietnamese cuisine and I wanted to compare their cooking with mine. And there was also Little Green Cyclo, there's a Bacon Bacon truck, Curry Up Now...
EOW: There's been a lot of press about how difficult the city makes it to run a food truck in town. Tell me some of the challenges that you face as a food truck owner in Houston.
VP: The challenge that we face in Houston is definitely we want to get in Downtown, but they have a ban on propane trucks in downtown.
EOW: Are all the food trucks propane?
VP: Yes, the majority of them. Now if they're electric, they don't have a problem. The city health department, when they come on your truck, they check to see if you have properly signed property agreements with the business owners where you park your truck, you have to have commissary receipts signed daily to show that you're cleaning your truck, they check the temperature of your meats in the fridge. But one of the major challenges is getting in downtown, and the 60-foot rule in between trucks. If we want to do an event, it can't be truck to truck, because there has to be 60 feet in between trucks.
EOW: Is the truck fully functioning on its own, or do have to park somewhere, have access to water...
VP: On the truck we actually have water, a full sink. The only thing we require is power, or we have generators that run the truck. But all the cooking equipment is propane. On my truck, we have a generator. Certain locations will have an electric plug for us, that way we can run quieter.
EOW: Do you find that businesses are receptive to you being there? Or does it depend on the type of business?
VP: It depends on the business, but lately, with the awareness that there's more trucks coming out, businesses are more open to having a truck at their location. They notice that other people are doing it and it affects their business positively. For me, I wanted to be the first to market a Vietnamese truck in Houston, because we have a big community of Vietnamese people here. But obviously that wasn't my demographic. I just wanted to be the first one so that I could set the standard, set the tone in Houston. But it was a struggle that year.
EOW: When did you start?
VP: I started last year.
EOW: How has business been?
VP: It was really tough for us, because one, we were very niche-y, we're strictly Vietnamese. We have a few items that are not Vietnamese, but I stay away from the fusion stuff like Korean taco, that's not what I'm about. I'm more about being innovative with Vietnamese food.
VP: Every day I get new people. And I have quite a few followers on Twitter and Facebook.
EOW: How important is Twitter and Facebook?
VP: It's very important, because we don't do any advertising. We don't put ourselves out there on any avenue but that. We consistently post daily. We tweet anywhere from five to 25 times a day where we're at. Our locations are pretty much set every week, we're just at different locations every day.
EOW: Where have you been?
VP: We have a pretty good schedule right now. Tuesdays, we're at the MFAH directly across from the main entrance. They had contacted us a few weeks ago and we jumped on it right away. They actually have a rotation seven days a week. So, I have Tuesday at MFA, Wednesday we're at Soundwaves, and then we have dinner service on Wednesday nights at Boheme. Thursdays we're temporarily doing lunch at an office building off of SW Fwy and Gessner. Friday we're at Soundwaves as well.
EOW: What happened to Bo Concept?
VP: We had to drop Bo Concept because we wanted to take the MFA. MFA was the more logical choice because it's so busy. There's a lot of students, there's the MFA staff, and they also run specials so if someone buys something from the truck, we give them a card that gets them free admission to the museum.
EOW: How is the food truck community? Are you guys supportive of each other?
VP: Yes, we are very supportive of each other. We have group meetings about once a month. Joe from Oh My Pocket Pie goes to the City Council meetings to speak on our behalf, about the changes we want, which is the 60-foot rule, the seating rule, and the downtown rule.
EOW: What is the seating rule?
VP: We're not allowed to provide seating, and we're not allowed to park within 100 feet of seating.
EOW: That's crazy. If you could start again, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
VP: I would spend more money on the build-out. Because the truck that we got was an old truck. We just found a good deal, found a builder that was relatively cheap and was willing to finance. We did it because we didn't have capital to start off and buy the whole entire truck. So we took the easy way out, but we sacrificed quality by doing it that way.
EOW: Do you mind telling me typical startup costs for a food truck?
VP: Startup depends on equipment and stuff, but generally is $30K and up. If you get a new truck, it's about $120K.
EOW: Have you made your money back?
VP: I completely paid off my truck within one year. We're pretty proud of that. This weekend is actually our one-year anniversary. Our truck, we named her Sasha. We're throwing a birthday party for Sasha here at Soundwaves on Sunday [note: this chat happened days before the anniversary bash]. It's exciting because we have other trucks that are coming -- Stick It, Happy Endings, and Goodie Box. They all work at Soundwaves, too, and we're trying to build it up as a lunch spot. We're going to have live DJs, Vitamin Water is donating water, and a good friend of mine, Mark Anthony, he's going to be painting the truck live. I plan on doing this every three months, get a local artist to paint the truck.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of the Phamily Bites grub.
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