"I set the whole van on fire the first time I switched on the grill," Mark Koronczyk says. "I don't know what I did, but basically I turned it on and there was a ball of flames in the van." Fortunately, he's able to recount the tale of misadventure thanks to someone spotting the unfolding disaster – who knows what it was, the flames? the heat? the yelling? – and switching off the gas bottles.
Then there was the time they were returning from a festival and they heard a loud bang. "The whole door fell off the van. Like the serving door, so it's massive, it's the whole side of the van, and it's fallen off while we were driving. Thank god it didn't hit anyone or we would probably be in jail. And not only that, the only thing it said on it was 'Lord of the Fries' and my mobile number. So, hard to prove it wasn't me!" he laughs at the memory. "There's been a lot of learning, a lot of bumps, a lot of craziness that happens."
Despite looking like an American import, Lord of the Fries is a local business. Selling vegetarian and vegan fast-food in bricks-and-mortar stores at Flinders Street Station and Swanston Street, with another dozen takeaway and sit-down stores across Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Auckland, they originally began as a single mobile food van.
Long before MasterChef had added "food dream" to the lexicon and before the arrival of Instagram (#whatdoyoumeanyoudidntalwaysphotographfoodandpostit) they were setting themselves apart by selling hand-cut chips with "internationally inspired" homemade sauces at music festivals and community events. "It wasn't hip at all," he says. "They used to call us carnie folk."
Back then, food trucks were (gasp!) basic, in both aesthetic and culinary aspects. "Really just cheap sort of stuff selling for very high prices and there were no real options, but things have changed since then," says Koronczyk, who has come full circle and will be putting a Lord of the Fries food truck out on the streets next year.
Five new food truck precincts will open in the CBD in the new year. "It's been a long journey from a couple of chiko rolls in a bain-marie, hasn't it?" says City of Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle. While there is currently a Food Truck Park pop-up site in Collins Street, and the trucks, vans and stalls of the Night Noodle Markets will remain at Birrarung Marr for one more week, come March there will be permanent street food locations on St Kilda Road at the NGV/Arts Centre and on Peel Street at the Queen Victoria Market, with another three sites being announced in January, when the expressions of interest open. The City of Melbourne had originally planned for sites around Flinders Street as well, however nearby construction has made this unfeasible. "We'll find three replacement sites that will be equally attractive to both food truck operators and their customers," Doyle says.
The 17 permits being offered ("We don't want to flood the city with them," Doyle says) are going to be hotly contested, as the City of Melbourne has already received more than 500 informal requests for a food truck permit.
"The program will allow food trucks to bring more diverse offerings into the City of Melbourne, which historically has been tough to access for trucks, aside from special events such as White Night," says Dehne Bingham, chief executive of Mr Burger, which has a truck at Fed Square every Wednesday to Sunday.
Membership of the Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group, which runs The Food Truck Park in Preston, the monthly Food Truck Festival at the Coburg Drive-In and the pop-up at 80 Collins Street. has grown in the past three years from 30 members to almost 500, with no indication things will slow anytime soon.
Minnie Constan, director of Fine Food Australia, the biggest food trade event in the country, says trucks were once an industrial necessity, but they're now "a hospitality darling". "The food truck industry is so new that while it's grouped in with the wider fast food industry, which makes a profit of $1.2 billion a year, there aren't any stand-alone statistics to tell us just how big it is," she says. Constan estimates individual turnover could be between $5000 to $10,000 a week.
So if you're harbouring a food dream that involves a truck, how do you start one? "Whether it's burgers, doughnuts or salads, your offering needs to be delicious, unique and cost appropriate," she says. "That's how we became a success," Koronczyk says. "Offering something different."
Options in food trucks now lean towards the gourmet and exotic but a truly unique food truck that has recently rolled onto the scene is Katie Crandon and Laura Yeomans' Canine Wellness Kitchen, who are the first to sell health food for dogs this way. Having launched two months ago, they are still on the ascent of their learning curve. They are learning things like "not to go under low hanging bridges around south Melbourne", "how to parallel park a truck" and "be aware of low rising bollards", Crandon laughs.
"Some people see owning a food truck as living a dream life on the road, and forget that they are also operating a business with some very unique characteristics," says Bingham, whose group, which also includes Brunswick Mess Hall and Fancy Hank's, also runs permanent site Welcome to Thornbury, which has 70 trucks through each month
The fact that you can't just pull up anywhere and start trading is one such issue. "I have found a lot of council permits are involved and every council has different local laws and restrictions which as a food truck owner can mean a lot of expenses for parking in certain suburbs," Crandon says.
"The biggest myth is food truck work is mainly evenings."
Prepping, commuting, admin, banking, booking events, plus maintaining the generator and the truck, all mean they are often up and out the door at 6am on weekends and working seven days a week. "But I love what I do so it doesn't really feel like work," she says.
At The Food Truck Park, Frank Rusitovski, director of Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group, sees this passion all the time. "They put their hearts and soul, they put their lives, within their brands," he says. "People like to express a lot about themselves within their truck."
Emotions overflow at A&B Food Truck Outfitters, who convert trucks so they comply with all necessary standards and regulations. "We hand over the keys and they cry," A&B co-owner Betty Hajichristou says. "We're making people's dreams come true."
The realisation of these dreams requires some capital up front, however, even if a truck still compares favourably with the costs of starting a cafe or restaurant. It was a lack of funds that saw Koronczyk, with brother Sam and wife Mandy, start the Lord of the Fries van 12 years ago. They had wanted to open a shop but couldn't afford to. Back then, they were able to set up a small van for about $15,000. The mobility of the business allowed them to develop menus and assess locations, while building their brand. "It's a good way to test your market, even if you can afford more," he says. "We were packed at every event so we knew a store, if we got it in the right location, would do well."
These days, you need six figures up front to get started. "For the vehicle itself, the build and the equipment, it starts at $100,000," Hajichristou says. "It can go all the way to $180,000- $200,000, depending on how complex they want it. But the average one is about $140,000."
A&B Food Truck Outfitters offer a "turn-key" service, meaning customers can drive the truck out of their factory on the Friday and be trading on Saturday. It can take up to three months to get a truck fitted out and compliant (trucks must meet the Food Standards Code and in Victoria, gas and electricity standards) but with the explosion in popularity, they now have a nine-month wait list. "And people are prepared to wait," she says. "There's one coming out at the start of next year and that's for a well-known celebrity chef, but because we've signed a confidentiality agreement we can't disclose who that is, but they will be huge."
It's not just chefs – celebrity or otherwise – starting trucks, although many have a background in the food industry. Johnnie Huynh cut his teeth running a cafe in Docklands before starting Hello Saigon in February.
"Melbourne, being such a multicultural, diverse and vibrant city itself, has embraced the food truck scene with open arms, so we truckies have found our niche," he says. At Hello Saigon, his niche is serving Vietnamese street food with an Australian interpretation and he has hit the ground running.
"As with any new business that starts from the ground, it requires a lot of hard work and unpaid hours," Huynh says. "It might appear to be a simple business structure, low maintenance and an easy business to execute but, in reality, it requires determination, pro-activity, hard work, commitment and passion." Enormous help and support from family has also played a major part, as it does with many vendors.
Rose and John Houndalas last month started The Greek Trojan Food Truck and they have their teenage children working with them, selling traditional Greek gyros. Rose feels working together has brought them closer as a family, and is also teaching their children "the value of money and they see how much work is involved before, during and after an event".
The mobile nature of the business means vendors can be constantly expanding their customer base and seeking opportunities. Canine Wellness Kitchen, for instance, is looking for a dog-friendly pub in Melbourne for a summer residency on a weeknight, when not racking up the miles appearing at Hank Marvin Markets on the weekends in St Kilda and anywhere else, from Bacchus Marsh to Williamstown Twilight Markets.
Mr Burger has even gone further afield. Says Bingham: "We had a customer who loved Mr Burger so much that she booked Mr Burger to do the catering at her wedding. The only tricky aspect was that she and her wedding were in NSW, which meant a six-hour road trip was in order!" Have truck, will travel.
Where to find food trucks
It's not just across the inner-city where food trucks are proliferating. Coming up over summer you'll find them at:
Ruffey Lake Park, 99 Victoria Street, Templestowe
Lardner Park, 115 Burnt Store Road, Lardner
Mornington Racecourse, 320/330 Racecourse Road, Mornington
Akoonah Park, 2 Cardinia Street, Berwick
More info: The Food Truck Carnival Co, ftcco.com.au
Find a truck wherethetruck.at
Information about the City of Melbourne's upcoming precincts
For applications, permits and information go to streatrader.health.vic.gov.au