Melbourne's food trucks take business back to the streets

Mounir Mahfouz, owner of Oh Boy! Its a Food Truck in Preston.
Mounir Mahfouz, owner of Oh Boy! Its a Food Truck in Preston. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

It had been 15 years since Tom Tzamouranis played the tune Greensleeves,  but when COVID-19 hit Australia, the ice-cream truck owner was forced to return to his roots.

"With no more events to cater, I had to do something," says Tzamouranis, who launched Mobile Ice Creams with his wife in 1998. 

"We went properly Mr Whippy on it around the streets of Waverly Park. Music pumping, the whole thing. A lot of residents found out I was selling ice-cream in their neighbourhood thanks to community Facebook groups, so it was a really successful day."

Mobile Ice Cream's Tom Tzamouranis delivers desserts to employees of Bordo Industrial Tools.
Mobile Ice Cream's Tom Tzamouranis delivers desserts to employees of Bordo Industrial Tools. Photo: Supplied

Tzamouranis is one of many food truck operators in Australia looking for new revenue streams after restrictions on public gatherings caused the events industry to collapse in March.

"March and April are traditionally the biggest months of the year for food trucks, with a lot of community festivals plus major events such as the Grand Prix and Easter Show," says Frank Rusitovski, director of the Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group (AMFVG) which provides guidance and support for 5000 food trucks across the country.

"With the majority of vendors' revenue now slashed, we said, 'OK, if the events industry is not coming back for a while, food trucks will need to do something different'. We thought it might be fun to go back to our origins and serve people in the suburbs."

AMFVG has updated its "Where The Truck" app to make it easier for customers to locate mobile food vendors in their area by using an interactive map, and orders can now be paid for online to enable contactless pick-up.

A new "Food Truck in My Street" feature also allows users to book one of the registered rolling kitchens to cook exclusively for a household or entire neighbourhood.

"We've timed the Food Truck in My Street launch with the first stage of restriction-relaxing that will allow more people to visit each other's homes," says Rusitovski.

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"Each truck determines what their minimum cost is to visit a certain location, and if it's financially viable, they'll come to that person's house and cook fresh food in their driveway. 

"It's a bit of a novelty and we're hoping customers will let their neighbours know a food truck is visiting their street and other families can place an order."

Mounir "Mo" Mahfouz has operated Oh Boy! It's a Food Truck for the past 12 months, specialising in southern-style fried chicken and poutine, Canada's national dish of chips topped with cheese curds and gravy.

The French-born small business owner has signed with Where The Truck in  an effort to expand his customer reach, but says it will need to be a large order from a family or neighbourhood to warrant setting up and packing down his mobile kitchen.

"I'm certainly keen... perhaps when more people start throwing end-of-isolation street parties they will need a caterer."

In the meantime, people are using the app to discover Mahfouz frying chicken at his semi-permanent site in a private car park at 140 Dawson Street, Brunswick. 

"We're trading on Uber Eats, Deliveroo and DoorDash from the car park, and although it has been busy, those delivery platforms take a big chunk of our revenue so it's not that profitable compared to events," he says. "Where The Truck is a much better way for people to find us and order food using click-and-collect."

Rusitovski agrees the Food Truck in My Street service may not be suited to all vendors, but also says it is likely some trucks will waive their minimum call-out fee. "We're finding ice-cream trucks are ideal for it, for example, as they can visit multiple houses in the one area really quickly."

Tzamouranis says he would likely accept a street visit request for one of his Mobile Ice Cream vans for around $150. "If you had three families, you could certainly make it work. In the past, it would have cost $500 to get a van out, but since the coronavirus we have dropped prices a lot."

There is also an opportunity for businesses to hire a food truck to treat their staff.

"We have nine office staff currently working from home and we wanted to do something to raise their spirits," says Peter Psarros, warehouse manager at Bordo Industrial Tools in Knoxfield.

"Tom has catered our Christmas parties a few times with Mobile Ice Cream, so we booked him to deliver a few soft serves to staff over a five-hour trip taking in McKinnon, Thornbury and Ferntree Gully. 

"He would text me just before he arrived at each house, and I would ring the employee to let them know to head outside with their family for a surprise delivery. Everyone was absolutely wrapped."