As the Franklin couple prepared to serve the daily lunch rush, the most important part of the process was driving their food truck into town.
George and Jenny Reinacker used to own the Courthouse Saloon in downtown Franklin. They sold the bar in 2006 but wanted to get back into the food business. Now they’ve taken their show on the road, literally.
“You can go to the people with this,” Jenny Reinacker said.
For now, the food truck stops in Franklin on a daily basis but in the future could make trips to the county fair or festivals or Camp Atterbury.
Food trucks have become a recent trend nationally, popularized by TV shows such as Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” they said. About 100 food trucks operate in Indianapolis now, so people in central Indiana are getting more familiar with what food trucks offer, they said.
The recent popularity of food trucks played into the Reinackers’ decision, but other benefits such as lower operating costs, mobility and seasonal work also got them interested in starting a truck.
While food trucks have sprung up around downtown Indianapolis, including monthly food truck festivals during the summer since 2011, the Reinackers are one of the first food trucks trying to run on a day-to-day schedule in the county, Johnson County Health Department environmentalist Bob Smith said.
The health department has licensed 13 mobile food units this year, but those permits also include hot dog carts and ice cream trucks as well as the Reinackers’ Kitchen Little, Smith said.
Having a restaurant on wheels can allow Kitchen Little to open daily for lunch but also serve food at events such as weekly farmers markets, Smoke on the Square or the Johnson County 4-H and Agricultural Fair. For now, the Reinackers set up daily near U.S. 31 south of Franklin Skate Club, where they feel they’re visible to a lot of daily traffic and near some of the city’s largest factories.
The brown and tan truck, Kitchen Little, is truly that, a little kitchen. The back of the truck can hold no more than three people, but in that tight space the Reinackers can cook just about anything, using a commercial-grade stove, oven and griddle.
For now they’re starting simple, slinging freshly grilled burgers, coney dogs and an old Courthouse Saloon favorite, chicken salad, for lunch. But on Saturday mornings in downtown Franklin, they’re baking biscuits and cooking sausage gravy in the truck.
Like any other kitchen, food trucks are subject to the same kind of health inspections any restaurant could expect. Food trucks have to meet minimum requirements, such as having hot and cold storage space and running water for hand-washing, according to the Johnson County Health Department. Food trucks also undergo the same surprise inspections, where inspectors check for possible food contamination or improper practices.
In order to get a permit, a truck or cart needs to meet several requirements including hot, running water, a three-compartment sink for dishes and separate storage areas for hot and cold foods. Mobile units also have to have a permanent location where food items are stored, such as a restaurant or church kitchen, Smith said.
Mobile units are also randomly inspected, where a health department employee will test food temperatures and look for possible contamination such as dirt, grime or cooks handling food improperly, Smith said.
Those requirements are similar to any sit-down or fast-food restaurant, Smith said. Restaurants or mobile units that have violations are required to fix the problems, otherwise the health department could close them.
In Marion County, food trucks may even be inspected more often, since health department staff schedule inspections based on risk. Since food trucks are exposed to the weather and kitchens can get hot during summer since they’re in an enclosed space, some trucks are being inspected every 120 days, according to Janelle Kaufman, Marion County Health Department food and consumer safety administrator.
Since food trucks can move around, conducting a pop-in inspection isn’t as simple as visiting a permanent location, but health department staff track down food trucks the same way customers do: by using social media.
“To reach their customers, they do it through Twitter and Facebook about where they’re going, so that’s how we follow them. It’s a challenging program as it gets larger, but we’re trying to be ahead of the game because it changed really quick,” Kaufman said.
The number of food trucks in Marion County doubled from 50 in 2011 to about 100 in 2012, Kaufman said. Then the number dipped slightly this year to around 90, but the health department is currently reviewing applications for 10 new trucks.
Kitchen Little opened this month and isn’t doing much traveling yet, since they’re trying to attract new customers in Franklin.
But they’ve taken the truck to Saturday morning farmers markets in Franklin to make breakfast and may start moving to downtown Franklin or Camp Atterbury in the future, Jenny Reinacker said.
Aside from being able to take the truck around the county, the food truck also is cheaper to operate compared to their old restaurant. The staff is much smaller, and taxes and insurance are lower on the truck compared to a building, George Reinacker said.
It took about a year of research, bargain hunting for deals on equipment and labor to get the truck up and running. The Reinackers put about $40,000 into the truck. That figure is low because George Reinacker installed the equipment himself.
The food truck will be a seasonal job because the semiretired Reinackers plan to spend the winter in Florida. On an average weekday, the Reinackers work from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m. to prepare and serve lunch and clean up afterward.
Kitchen Little is attracting about 30 customers per day, which isn’t yet covering food costs and salary, Jenny Reinacker said. But the truck hasn’t been open for a month yet, and right now they’re staying mobile so that people can get used to seeing the truck in Franklin.
The Reinackers plan to keep Kitchen Little in Johnson County, since they’d have to get another license for the truck if they moved outside the county.
“There’s enough food trucks up there. I’ll stay in this county,” she said.