Hot dog! Food trucks add sizzle to go-local menus

Food trucks made their presence known at the 2012 National Restaurant Association trade show in Chicago.

With the sunshine of spring comes a huge craving to fire up the grill and plop on the brats. Such simple, brown-and-sizzle pleasures turn extraordinary about 1,000 miles south.

For breakfast: hot skewers of sausage doused with pancake/waffle batter, sprinkled with brown sugar and kissed with a syrup whose artisan flavors change with the season.

For lunch: the Cajun Yankee (andouille sausage plus pastrami and fixings), Santa Fe Sunset (a chipotle-cheese-chicken sausage plus fried jalapenos, black bean salsa and extras), The German Connection (bratwurst with currywurst sauce and a side of tots, as in taters) and much more.

Add lime-flavored fries, then Black Gold (fried Oreos) for dessert.

Biggest talker? Probably The Dead Elvis: Nutella, bacon and peanut butter on a brioche slider roll.

All of this comes from The Butcher’s Son, two gourmet food trucks that traverse festivals, parks, corporate events and more in Dallas. Why should you care? There’s a direct link to Wisconsin’s Johnsonville Foods, and a strong possibility that similar menus eventually will show up at events and street corners here.

Project founders are Jonathan Wagner, son of sausage kingpin CEO Ralph Stayer, and Dain Pool, son of Dan Pool, whose Pool’s Restaurant Group (Petro’s Chili and Chips, Gandolfo’s New York Deli) has franchises in 17 states.

The sons are quietly determining five sites for expansion and intend to enlarge their venture noticeably during the next 48 months. “We continue to stay focused on areas with great opportunity for mobile food,” Jonathan says.

Coming home soon? He’s non-committal:

“We know that the people of Wisconsin appreciate great food. They insist on high-quality and great flavor, and we will certainly look at areas in Wisconsin as possibilities for future food trucks.”

Although he emphasizes that The Butcher’s Son is separate from the parent businesses, trade publications describe the endeavor as an effort to establish the first national food-truck brand.

Menus change seasonally and options are based on the flavor preferences of specific geographic areas. “We are much more than just a brat truck,” Jonathan says, and the food trucks represent a growing-hotter dining trend, especially in urban areas.

In Madison, we call them food carts and this month’s inaugural Isthmus Ala Carts food cart festival, with music and samples of ethnic to vegan grub from at least 18 vendors, was a rousing success. Tickets ($15 each) sold out a week in advance.

The mobile food concept is not new in Madison, but offerings are getting more exotic and plentiful. Think Laotian curry, fried Snickers, empanadas, from-scratch Peruvian and Thai cooking, slow-simmered barbecue.

That’s a long way from Karleton Armstrong’s Loose Juice cart, which he operated about 30 years, after release from prison for his role in bombing UW’s Sterling Hall in 1970.

Today Madison has 42 licensed food carts, and big gathering spots are at the ends of State Street downtown, at the University of Wisconsin’s Library Mall and near the State Capitol.

Other Wisconsin cities with mobile food businesses include Milwaukee (American Euros to Streetza to Jeppa Joes) and Appleton (Kangaroostaurant).

Follow the growth and movement of The Butcher’s Son at “For me, the easy choice would have been to work at Johnsonville,” Jonathan says, but the food trucks are his way to “do my own thing” and “I couldn’t be happier” to work with Dain and bring the Johnsonville heritage “to food lovers around the country in a whole new way.”

Food trucks had a noticeable presence at this month’s National Restaurant Association conference in Chicago. As promo material for California-based Mobi Munch suggested: “Just because a food truck rides around on Michelins, doesn’t mean it can’t produce Michelin-level cuisine.”

The association’s research concludes that restaurant operators have mixed feelings about food trucks, but most think they are here to stay.

About 45 percent of restaurateurs say food trucks add new competition, and 33 percent say they’re a good way to expand business. About 60 percent of chefs say they would consider launching a food truck as an entrepreneurial business venture.

What limits success? The cook’s talent, his mobile equipment, weather conditions, other dining choices and city ordinances. Chicago, for example, doesn’t allow food to be prepared in mobile kitchens, so all an operator can do is distribute it. That affects quality.

“The food has to be good and be the right price,” says Storm Hodge of the University of Washington, Seattle, during a restaurant association workshop about food trucks. His unusual campus food service feeds 30,000 people per day at 40 mobile locations, and the average purchase totals $4.47.

The street food movement there accelerated in 2010, after the largest food court on campus closed for renovation.

Want to learn more about food trucks around the United States? Check out: – More than 2,300 food trucks and their locations are listed. Ross Resnick, originator of this online effort, predicts the food truck business will grow another 260 percent by 2014. He thinks the top growth spots are Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Raleigh and Tampa. – Although an industry source for news and startup assistance, the “events” link includes food truck maps.

Gary Koppelman of New Jersey launched the site in late 2010 because “we saw this as a trend that was building.” The investment is less than a bricks-and-mortar building, he notes, although successful food truck operators sometimes end up opening traditional restaurants.

“You can bring your food right to the people,” he adds. The addition of private catering also often factors into the profitability of a mobile food business

Biggest misconceptions? “That they’re dirty – food truck operators have to meet the same, if not more, regulations as restaurants,” Gary says.

What else? “They serve a lot more than hot dogs – this is about fresh sushi to handmade pastas.”