Keep on Truckin'May 01, 2022 ● By Joshua Baethge
From Korean tacos and excellent empanadas to authentic New England clam chowder and over-the-top French toast, seemingly any culinary creation imaginable can be ordered these days through the window of a food truck.
Variety is the literal spice of life for these ubiquitous rigs and their owners. With the help of huge social media followings, they can (and often do) attract crowds of hungry diners who stand in parking lots and on busy sidewalks – any place where food trucks park - to order and enjoy fresh-made, gourmet-style entrees, side items, drinks and desserts.
Look for this scene to play out at the 10th annual Frisco StrEATS Food Truck & Music Festival, scheduled May 7 in Frisco’s Rail District at 4th and Elm Streets. (Visit friscoraildistrictmerchants.com/streats for additional details.)
Today’s food trucks are a far cry from the so-called “roach coaches” of yesteryear, best known for selling prepackaged sandwiches, bagged chips and can of sodas to workers at construction sites and the like. Instead, on many modern food trucks, you’re likely to find a highly trained, experienced chef behind the grill crafting innovative dishes with complex flavors that rival those served at traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.
If it seems as though food trucks – most with catchy names and splashy graphics - are everywhere these days, it’s because they are: Nearly 33,000 of the vehicles are currently operating throughout the United States according to Restaurant Engine, a website for independent restaurant owners. It also reports that more than 2.5 billion people eat items from food trucks daily.
Meanwhile, food truck parks – including the Frisco Rail Yard – have become popular dining destinations, with some boasting bars, live entertainment, outdoor games and other activities that complement the rotating selection of trucks that drive in, prepare, cook and serve their signature dishes.
Frisco STYLE caught up with the owner-operators of five North Texas food trucks that frequent Frisco to learn how they got their start in this red-hot industry, what the best-selling items on their menus are and what they enjoy most about feeding folks.
Kristy McDonald knows a thing or two about the food truck industry. In 2016, she and her husband, Greg McDonald, and business partner, Tamme Leff, opened the Frisco Rail Yard at 9040 First St. The family friendly food-truck park hosts a rotating lineup of rigs (usually a couple at a time) that roll in, set up shop and serve a wide variety of cuisine to hungry customers.
The Rail Yard is also home to a couple of permanent food trailers serving such traditional fare as hot dogs, pizza and ice cream. Other draws include live music performances on its stage, special events, recently installed sand volleyball courts and other outdoor games.
Among the food trucks that frequent the park is Cactus Café. The McDonalds, along with business partners Jose and Diana Zamora, co-own and operate with the eatery that is a colorful 1990 Chevrolet Step Van.
“We do more authentic Mexican (-style food) than we do Tex-Mex,” Kristy McDonald explains of the menu, which is largely devised and prepared by Jose Zamora. “Our salsa will kick your butt, it’s very spicy. We use corn tortillas for everything.”
True to its name, one of Cactus Café’s signature dishes is Steak and Cactus tacos, featuring a marinated cactus salad, melted cheese and a spicy jalapeno salsa. Other offerings include the Loaded Quesadilla featuring steak, chorizo sausage, onions, mushrooms and jalapenos; Spicy Shrimp Tacos served with a marinated coleslaw; and the Loaded Tater Tots with queso, bacon and green onion. “Obviously those aren’t a Mexican item, but it’s pretty darn yummy,” Kristy says.
Besides the Frisco Rail Yard, the Cactus Café truck frequently is parked at the Truck Yard in The Colony as well as at other spots in Frisco and Plano. It also is available for hire to cater private parties and corporate events.
For several years, the McDonalds owned and operated the popular 5th Street Patio Café in Frisco, where Jose Zamora served as head cook. One advantage of the food truck over running a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Kristy says, “is that you don’t have to be open every day. You work it as much as you want to work it.”
On the other hand, she says she has seen plenty of people purchase their own food trucks thinking that the business would be a breeze. “They quit their jobs and they take all of their life’s savings and put it into a truck and they think that’s gonna be all they do. That can be awesome if you work your tail off.”
Food trucks typically are busiest during the spring and fall months, she explains, when the temperatures in North Texas are mostly pleasant. But, at any point, inclement weather can cancel an event and send anticipated profits plummeting.
“If it rains, you get canceled. If it’s too hot, people don’t want to be outside necessarily. … If it’s too cold, (diners) don’t want to stand in line at a truck in 35-degree weather,” Kristy explains. “We’ve seen so many trucks come and go because people think it’s a regular job.”
Nevertheless, Kristy says she wouldn’t trade the food truck business for another. “I think it’s something that’s awesome if you are prepared to not only work hard, but to take the lows with the highs.”
As the sales manager for a commercial construction company, Mike Luttinger spent many days on the road.
During a trip to Los Angeles, he visited a farmer’s market and noticed that one stall seemed to get more attention than others. It was a restaurant with an egg-centric menu.
Always on the lookout for a side hustle, Luttinger thought it was a concept that he could successfully operate and consulted with his brother-in-law, who was the head chef at an exclusive New York restaurant. The chef advised him to instead keep his good-paying day job.
A few years later, in 2016, the company that Luttinger had worked at for 15 years let him go. At age 57, he received a sizable buyout offer but had no idea what to do with his life. He submitted resumes but good job offers failed to materialize.
“I was sitting at home for about a month and a half driving my wife crazy,” he recalled. “Finally, I decided that I just had to get away for a couple of days.” To clear his head, Luttinger visited Las Vegas and, while riding up a hotel escalator, he spotted a location of the same egg restaurant that he had seen years earlier in Los Angeles. “I literally ran up to my room, got a pen and started taking notes,” he recalled.
After about two hours of observing the restaurant, he had seen all that he needed to see and determined it was a business that he could run. Despite having grown up helping in the kitchen of a deli his parents had operated, his chef skills were a bit rusty.
Nevertheless, he secured a food truck in Austin and drove it home to North Texas despite being nervous about what the future held for him and the business. His first big break came when Nebraska Furniture Mart in The Colony allowed him to set up shop.
People loved the food, Luttinger said, and before long he was parking the truck at a variety of events. Those eventually led to invitations to set up at the Frisco Rail Yard, the Truck Yard in Dallas and on the campuses of Southern Methodist University and UT Dallas.
Luttinger said one of Egg Stand’s best sellers is its signature sandwich called Da Boss. It’s a hamburger made with Angus beef and topped with gouda cheese, mac and cheese, bacon, hash browns, onion strings, chipotle ketchup and, of course, an egg. The truck also offers an assortment of other specialty burgers, side items and fresh-cut French fries.
“Everything is made to order, so if someone is allergic to eggs or just doesn’t like them, that’s not a problem,” he explained.
Egg Stand frequently parks at locations in and around the Metroplex. “That makes it fun for me and the guys I work with because we’re always going on a new adventure,” he said.
The Caribbean Cajun
After spending more than a dozen years managing locations of some of the world’s best-known chain restaurants - Olive Garden, Chipotle and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina among them - Shawn Jeffers decided it was time for a career change.
About four years ago, he and his wife, Jandris (who goes by JJ), started a catering company. They enjoyed the work so much that the following year, the couple purchased a food truck.
The Caribbean Cajun has been rolling through Collin and Denton counties ever since and frequently serves diners at the Frisco Rail Yard as well as the Truck Yard in The Colony, among other area locations.
The rig’s name and menu nods to the Jeffers’ respective heritages: He is from the island nation of Antigua in the Caribbean and her family has roots in Louisiana.
As caterers, “We came up with all of these recipes based on our cultures, things that we ate growing up,” Shawn Jeffers says, “and things that we made together as far as recipes that we invented ourselves. … We put a lot of heart and soul into it and people loved what we did, how we did it.”
JJ had no culinary industry when the couple, who reside in Prosper, started their business. “I was very hesitant at first because I didn’t understand it. … So for him to say he wanted to do the food truck full time, it kind of caught me off guard.” However, she says, “I pride myself on being his helpmate … and if that was something my husband wanted to do, I was going to support him 100 percent.”
Thankfully, the venture has been a successful one. JJ oversees marketing and logistics duties for the truck, a 2002 Chevrolet Workhorse Van, while Shawn (with the assistance of hired helpers) cooks the majority of the dishes on the menu including Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo, Jerk Chicken, Fried Plantains and Pelau, a traditional rice dish of the West Indies. “We have a little bit of everything,” he says.
But don’t be mistaken: “We’re not fast food. We make our food fresh,” Shawn says. One of the biggest challenges they face is convincing diners to order items they may not have ever eaten before. “Tacos and barbecue you can make anywhere. But when you come to a truck like ours, you are basically stepping out of your comfort zone. What you are getting is a quality product by people who put time and effort and love into what they do. ... We love what we do, and it translates to the customers.”
The Jeffers say they most enjoy the social aspect of operating a food truck. “We love meeting new people and going new places,” Shawn says. “We’ll go to festivals, we’ll go to corporate events, we’ll go to food truck parks, we’ll go to breweries and we make all these friendships and meet all these people and we network. If our kids are with us, they get to see all these great things and experience all these great places. It’s just fun.”
Eloisa’s Kitchen celebrates its first anniversary this month. The food truck is actually helmed by two Eloisas: mother Eloisa A. Scheffler and daughter Eloisa E. Scheffler, who came up with the concept during the dark days of the pandemic.
Both Eloisas are chefs. Mom was an executive chef for a Dallas country club before COVID hit. Also, she had surgery around the same time that the younger Eloisa was injured at her job. “We were both at home trying to figure out what happens next,” the mother recalled.
Mother and daughter attended culinary school together. The younger Eloisa said it was an experience she’ll cherish for the rest of her life. “When you go to school, you are kind of alone. But when you have a parent with you, you have that one person who has your back the entire time,” she said. “That’s the same way I feel about the food truck as well.”
The family eventually invested everything it had to purchase a used food truck. Daughter Eloisa, a talented artist, created all the graphics for the truck.
Family patriarch Julio Scheffler is also heavily involved in the business, prepping food, washing dishes and driving the truck – all of the duties that mom Eloisa said she and her daughter can’t perform.
On the road to opening the business, there were some setbacks including the death of a close family member. However, by May 2021, the food truck was ready to roll.
“We have been very blessed because, from the beginning, people have seemed to like our food,” mom Eloisa said. However, she soon discovered that “being a chef and working in a restaurant is a lot different than having a food truck. … We were basically learning as we went, but finally I think we have our menu down. It’s not that large, but sometimes less is more.”
The menu aims to offer something for everyone. One of the most popular sellers is the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which is served on a toasted brioche bun with a secret sauce. Also available is a shrimp po boy with an original, homemade Cajun aioli sauce. Tacos are also favorites including a version called Da Bomb Shrimp Tacos that’s served with a creamy, sweet-and-spicy sauce as well as slaw.
“Whatever we have, we put a lot of thought into it,” the elder Eloisa said. “Almost everything we put in the truck is made from scratch — the sauces, batters – just about everything.”
Eloisa’s Kitchen frequently parks at Cidercade Dallas, a restaurant and arcade near downtown Dallas; the Truck Yard locations in Dallas and The Colony; and at the Frisco Rail Yard. The truck is also is frequently reserved for private and corporate events.
In advance of the first anniversary of Eloisa’s Kitchen, the elder Eloisa said, “Food brings people together. … “I love the fact that we can bring something to people that makes them happy.”
Grilla's Grub TX
Eric Lokke remembers the first time he tried standup comedy: When he grabbed the mic to head onstage, he knew he would either tell a joke or throw up in front of the audience.
“Luckily I told a joke and they laughed,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Lokke to figure out that he loved comedy. He and his then-girlfriend made the move to Los Angeles, where they resided for five years while he worked at clubs including the Hollywood Improv as both a performer and a show-booker. He also performed at the iconic Laugh Factory and The Comedy Store.
Family has a way of changing one’s priorities: Lokke and his girlfriend eloped, marrying beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. “Once we decided to have kids, we knew that we didn’t want to (raise) them in L.A. – at least not in the neighborhoods that we could afford.”
The couple moved to North Texas and settled in Little Elm. Knowing that his comedy career wasn’t going to pay the bills, Lokke enrolled in culinary school and, in 2009, graduated at the top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts.
He said the transition from comedy to cooking was an easy one. “I like immediate gratification,” Lokke explained. “When I tell a joke, I know right away if it’s good based on how the audience reacts. … It’s the same thing when somebody takes a bite (of food). I immediately know if it’s good or not.”
Lokke started Grillas Grub food truck shortly before the pandemic took hold in 2020. At first, he and his former business partner frequently set up outside of area breweries. Business was good catering to hungry people who stopped by following a few hours of drinking.
When breweries were forced to close in the wake of the pandemic, to keep things afloat Lokke and his business partner changed their business model. They found success working with local homeowners’ associations and would park their trucks near neighborhood pools and amenity centers around dinner time when entire families would come out to eat.
These days, Grillas Grub TX (as it is now called) parks at numerous public and private events. Lokke is active on social media, which helps spread the word about where the truck will be situated.
Among its most popular items are birria tacos, which feature shredded beef that has been cooked for several hours. The juices from the cooking process combine with peppers, chilis and other spices to create a tasty dipping sauce.
Birra tacos are “a TikTok sensation,” Lokke said. “I have 12-year-olds coming up all excited that we have birria tacos. Then they go tell their parents. … It’s crazy, but I love it.”
Other popular items on the truck’s menu include several varieties of fresh, hand-cut French fries. Grillas Grub TX also recently started serving birria ramen that is cooked in the birria consommé with the addition of shredded beef, Monterey Jack cheese, diced red onions, sliced radishes and cilantro.
“It’s straight-up awesome,” Lokke said.
Joshua Baethge is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in publications large and small across the country.
Lisa Sciortino is managing editor of Frisco STYLE Magazine.