PORTLAND, Maine — This month, owners of the Japanese-themed Mami Food Truck announced plans to take over a vacant restaurant space in the Old Port. Across town in East Bayside, former falafel mobile food operator Clayton Norris is hanging lanterns over a zinc bar at his soon-to-open Middle Eastern restaurant Baharat.
Meanwhile, up in Belfast, chef Seth Whited, formerly of the globally inspired Good N You food truck, is luxuriating in having a kitchen at his new sit-down healthy comfort food restaurant, Neighborhood, that’s 10 times larger than he was used to. And in Scarborough, the owners of mobile eatery Bite Into Maine have rented space on U.S. Route 1 to sell lobster rolls year-round.
As more and more of Maine’s food trucks morph into bricks-and-mortar eateries, their owners offer a variety of reasons that shifting from four wheels to four walls suddenly makes sense: The “right space” became available, tight quarters came to feel too stifling, the initial venture was successful enough to bankroll a bigger, more traditional restaurant.
“Food trucks are a great incubator. You can perfect your cuisine and see who your customer is,” said Sarah Sutton of Bite into Maine, a lobster roll truck long parked during the summertime at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. “For us, it was a big learning curve,” she added.
Now in their seventh year as restaurateurs, Sutton and her husband, Karl, are cautiously moving ahead with a year-round space in Scarborough. The Suttons will keep their food truck just steps from Portland Head Light in the warm season and use their new 1,000-square-foot space as a commercial kitchen and year-round retail outlet. Located in a busy commercial strip near fast-food joints, it’s geared for traffic.
Starting out with a seasonal truck and little overhead allowed the couple to ease into the food industry. “It’s been a natural, slow progression,” Sarah Sutton said. “We are taking super baby steps.”
Like most food truckers transitioning to a restaurant, Bite Into Maine can expand beyond the state’s signature sandwich into lobster bisque and more. With increased menu items and the ability to take on catering jobs, the Suttons say they expect to become a viable year-round venture.
Gambling on trading in a truck for a restaurant is already proving to be a good bet for chefs Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy, owners of modern American restaurant East Ender in Portland. The former chefs from Hugo’s Restaurant and Miyake ran the city’s popular Small Axe Truck during the summers of 2013 and 2014. The bright orange vehicle selling breakfast sandwiches, smoked burgers and gourmet chicken sandwiches was a cheerful sight at breweries, cafes and Congress Square Park. But the pair always dreamed of opening a restaurant. In the fall of 2014, they sold their truck on Craigslist and announced plans to buy the East Ender.
“The food truck model is a great way to get your name out there and allow people to get to know who you are on an intimate level,” Deuben said as he moved around his spacious kitchen.
Upgrading from a food truck to a 56-seat restaurant with two bars is similar to graduating from a tiny house to a mansion: It’s exhilarating and fraught with new challenges. “You have to think of plates and decor. It’s much more expensive building it out. Even if you are walking in and taking over a lease, there are startup costs,” Deuben said.
They now employ 20 to 25 people and are pulling in 10 times as much revenue at their relaxed, two-story establishment on Middle Street’s restaurant row as they were making with their truck. Having banished worries about foul weather and about whether their truck might break down on the way to a catering job, the duo can focus on creativity and hospitality. “On a food truck you are more of a mechanic than a chef,” Deuben said.
On the midcoast, where food trucks thrive in the summer, the translation to bricks-and-mortar doesn’t always succeed.
Malcolm Bedell of ‘Wich, Please food truck test drove the concept last winter. Creating a popup model in an existing Main Street restaurant that only opened for dinner, he tested lunch traffic and soon backed off.
“I radically underestimated what a factor seasonality would be — particularly here in the midcoast,” said Bedell, whose indoor winter sales were half of his summer truck’s sales.
Still, the sandwich king from Cushing said he would one day like to run his own restaurant. For now he is doubling down on the lower stress model as he plans his third season of hand-crafted mobile fare.
“With the truck, I can focus 100 percent on putting really creative, affordable, quality food on the plate and not spend my time worrying about whether the beer delivery guy showed up or why the walk-in [freezer] isn’t holding temp or why my hostess was a no-show,” he said. “We’ve got next to no overhead, and the small size of the kitchen means staffing isn’t an issue.”
To Bedell, who is also a food blogger, good street grub has “democratized the food business.”
Instead of having to be supported by loans or investors, “new food ventures can start to build their brands on the back of a tiny truck or cart, based totally on the quality of their product,” he said. “It’s a great proof-of-concept for introducing a new food idea into a community. And if it’s a success, it’s [only] a matter of time before your volume exceeds what you can produce from a mobile kitchen.”
Building a brand is exactly what the Portland food truck CN Shawarma did. Now, after 2½ years roasting meat on a spit inside a bright blue Chevy Workhorse, Clayton Norris and Jenna Friedman are set to open their first restaurant together in February. Located at the corner of Anderson and Fox streets in East Bayside, hummus and kebab lounge Baharat would not have happened without their food truck experience.
“Many banks are not impressed with the financial history of a cook,” said Norris, who grew up working in his mother’s restaurant, Sarah’s Cafe, in Wiscasset.
Although the French-trained chef knows the ins and outs of the business, he said that running a food truck was a crucial step toward restaurant ownership. The rig allowed the couple to gain a solid reputation and develop a track record, which helped them secure a small business loan.
“We created a good fan base. And that impressed them,” said Norris, whose restaurant will anchor the ground floor of a new apartment complex steps from breweries and cafes. “This is our dream to do it together.”