Durangos mobile-food business may not be as prolific as it is in cities such as New York City, but local entrepreneurs say what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in creativity.
Anything we can do to stand out, well do it, said Carol Clark, owner of Durangos newest green food truck, a solar-powered truck slated for a spring opening. Clark plans to allow tours of the truck and serve healthful, locally grown foods.
These days, a growing number of mobile-food venders are vying for spots on the streets of U.S. cities. It has led to what some have dubbed a food-truck revolution.
Durangos carts are green and clean. They arent the roach coaches that mobile kitchens of the past have been called. They welcome customers eyes in the kitchen. And some, including Clarks truck, offer tours.
Its not just market-driven either, Clark said. This is what our philosophy is.
Paula Ransford, owner of the Happy Cow Food Shack parked along the service road near Natures Oasis, concurred.
Ransfords husband, Darryl, built the trailer-turned-food-cart with plenty of windows.
You can see our kitchen, see how were cooking your food and see that we keep things clean, Ransford said.
She likes that the state applies the same rules, periodic inspections and regulations to food carts as it does to brick-and-mortar restaurants, unlike other places across the country where rules can vary for mobile vendors.
Its important that the rules are the same, Ransford said. Then you and the customer know where you stand.
Clark and Ransford have good company in the food-truck business. As many lose their jobs during the economic downturn, mobile-food vending has the allure of an entrepreneurship opportunity with low start-up costs and a chance to put smiles on customers faces.
Seeing the industry grow elsewhere, and facing harsh economic realities of their own Ransfords husband has watched his cabinetry business sputter through the downturn led to the Happy Cows creation. And Ransford, a longtime floral department manager for a grocery chain, saw it as an opportunity to take on a new challenge that didnt involve arranging sticky pine pieces or fragile orchids into vases and corsages during major holidays. The couple has eight children between them, and they wanted more time together, she said.
I wanted to get into something where the holidays dont rush by in a flurry of work, Ransford said. Lifes too short.
Happy Cow Food Shack, in its bright, fire-engine-red paint scheme, opened eight months ago, and has given the Ransford family much of what it hoped it would. Paula Ransfords mother and the couples children helped operate the business through the summer, giving the family more bonding time and academic and social skills for the children, she said.
She admits being a mobile-food vendor at the foothills of the San Juan Mountains during the winter isnt for the weak. Her first winter working has been tough financially. But a steadily growing customer base built on word-of-mouth has kept things going. A mild winter also helped.
Also jumping into the mobile-food game this spring is Mike Allen, who plans to operate from Five Dollar Meal Truck on East Eighth Avenue in a strip mall across from Sonic Drive-In. He hopes to operate the lunch truck year-round, offering low-priced soup, sandwiches and $5 homestyle daily specials made with only fresh and healthful ingredients.
This can be an expensive place to live and eat, Allen said, adding that he hopes to draw the business of locals who want to eat healthfully, but often find they cannot afford to.
Allen and Ransford are among a small number of vendors who try to make it in Durango year-round said local officials. Exact numbers were not available.
Joe Keck, director of the Small Business Development Center of Southwest Colorado at Fort Lewis College, said his sense from businesses is that few bring in enough revenue in the winter to justify cold-weather operations.
Clark, who plans to operate only during the spring and summer, said her research in preparation of launching the Green Machine this spring netted a similar conclusion.
Its too tricky here for a lot of reasons, said Clark. The cold weather, tourist patterns and a seasonally-fluctuating population make it difficult to expect financial success year-round with a food truck. Weather alone isnt enough to halt mobile-food businesses in places such as New York City, she said, because the sheer numbers there.
The vendors who remain open in Durango during the long winter months, Keck said, typically are situated in a sweet location or are tied to workers at specific companies or major construction projects.
Ransford and Allen are banking on Durangos loyal customers to keep their carts afloat during the colder months. Ransford points out that numerous popular Durango food spots now in typical restaurants began as mobile vendors.
It does take a lot more marketing to remind people youre still open, though, Ransford said.
Keck said despite the challenges, bad weather does not always squash success.
(A year-round operation) could be done profitably if all their ducks are in a row, he said.
Low debt, a good location and great food were among the ingredients that could be a recipe for success, Keck said.
Food is the focus for Ransford and Allen.
Theres a personal touch or a Southwest flair to nearly every dish on Happy Cows menu, Ransford said. Her breakfast burritos are a hit most mornings. And the green-chile cheeseburgers fly out the window at lunch. Kids love the homemade, not frozen, corn dogs. And visitors get a kick out of the cheesesteak meal designed to make Philadelphians cringe, made with southwestern spices and put into a tortilla rather than on a hoagie roll.
I really think (a year-round food truck) can work here, Ransford said. We havent had any negative feedback, and we feel like weve really been blessed so far.