Last year, Rob John, who spent more than 20 years teaching first grade in Kensington, decided to leave teaching and try his hand at starting a small business. He loved food and enjoyed the fare he found at gourmet food trucks, so he raised money to buy an old courier truck (think UPS), found an outfitter in Hayward, and voila: the WhipOut food truck was born.
“Richard Branson chose to build spaceships,” John said. “I wanted a food truck.”
On a recent cloudless Thursday evening, John’s bright blue truck hummed in the parking lot of Catahoula Coffee. Inside, John and a small team busily prepared fresh, gourmet sliders – a type of mini sandwich. WhipOut serves American comfort food reimagined as sliders: chicken, split pea, pulled pork and beef, all served with homemade sauces.
Gourmet food trucks have taken over in trendy foodie places like San Francisco and Oakland. But John’s is one of the first to take the food truck revolution to Richmond.
John conceptualized the menu and hired a chef to assist him in bringing his ideas to the kitchen. Everything is prepared on the truck – including smoked bacon and cheddar for the sliders. Co-managers Neil Davidson and Brett Downey are both professional chefs and came to WhipOut after working at the highly regarded Ad Hoc in Yountville. When the truck isn’t slinging out sliders, they’re experimenting with the menu and are serving up their new ideas nearly every week. This week’s special was a Sloppy Joe.
WhipOut kicked off its service in late July and started coming to Catahoula Coffee about a month ago. As in the restaurant industry, profit margins are often razor-thin on food trucks. Maintenance costs are high and securing the many permits and city business licenses needed to operate can be daunting. Some places, like Emeryville, embrace food trucks while cities like El Cerrito refuse to issue permits. Despite having all the necessary permits to operate in Oakland, WhipOut was chased out of the upscale Rockridge neighborhood earlier this week.
“Some business owners just don’t want us there,” John said.
Ultimately, though, food trucks survive on the locations they serve. Finding consistently profitable places is difficult and when it happens, the vendors tend to stake them out. Richmond doesn’t have a gourmet food truck presence yet, but John and Catahoula owner Timber Manhart saw an opportunity.
Last week was the fifth Thursday in a row that WhipOut has set up shop outside Catahoula, and after selling completely out of sliders the first night, sales have leveled off. WhipOut uses social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to turn out its fans, but relies heavily on word of mouth. Many “regulars” are parents of John’s former students in Kensington.
“If we sell 100 sliders tonight, we’ll be doing pretty good,” John said. Traffic speeds past on San Pablo and people trickle in on foot. Next to the parking space, Catahoula has a couple of converted barrel tables and umbrellas.
“Tim creates a festive environment and it’s mutually beneficial,” said David Okubo, WhipOut’s baker.
Eventually, Manhart said, he wants three to five food trucks arranged around the parking lot. “It would be great if we could bring down a couple hundred people on a Thursday night,” he said.
But for now WhipOut is the only truck. “It’s hard to find a community in this industry because everyone is so competitive,” Okubo said. “But as long as the food is different, it should be OK.”
For the foreseeable future, WhipOut is considering this spot staked. The food truck is at Catahoula Coffee every Thursday from 5-8 p.m.