By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
So many people ordered nachos that night at The Haute Box food trailer, they actually ran out of chips and had to close shop early. But co-owner Katy Ross isn’t complaining.
She and her husband profited well for about four and a half hours work. And it’s not just them.
Lines were long for every one of the 11 food trucks and vendors parked at the Liberty Hill Independence Day Spectacular July 1st in Liberty Hill — an event that vendors say was very profitable.
“It turned out to be our best night to date,” said Master Melts owner Erin Hunt.
Biddy B’s Donut Factory owner Steve Viken of Liberty Hill called business that night “outstanding.”
Owner David Roberts, of the Austin-based Thai How Are You, said they did several hundred dollars better than last year despite the number of trailers being almost doubled.
Based on a quick survey of food vendors, it appears total revenue during the five-hour event averaged well above $20,000.
And yet, City Planner Sally McFeron said she has not noticed any uptick in the applications for more permanent food trailers. Something like that may occur, she said, once people in town are made “more aware and accustomed” to the idea of food trailers.
On paper at least, the market already exists.
Estimates from the Retail Coach, an economic consulting firm hired by the city’s Economic Development Corp. this spring, report a $34 million potential for fast food that is currently unmet in Liberty Hill.
On top of that, the firm reports that many fast food chains will not consider Liberty Hill until the population has increased by the order of tens of thousands. After all, the costs of constructing brick and mortar restaurants can easily rise into the six figures.
Food trailers on the other hand have considerably less start-up costs. Although numbers vary, they generally fall in the five-figure range. One Austin trailer owner estimated her total starting costs at $25,000.
There are also other costs associated with running a food trailer. Long hours, uncertain prospects and understaffing are almost guaranteed.
“There’s nothing worse than waking up early in the morning, buying supplies for breakfast, setting up the trailer, and then having no one come for breakfast,” Ross said. “And then you clean up for lunch, and no one comes for lunch.”
But Ross’ Haute Box is one of the success stories. She and her husband quit their jobs this spring to pursue operating their food trailer full-time, which they had operated only on weekends for a year prior.
They, like many others, tend to stick to special events, and avoid setting up a permanent location in town.
For them that has less to do with Liberty Hill as a market — she says the town could be receptive— and more as a concern about location.
“There’s just not really a place we can set up (in Liberty Hill) unless there’s a festival or special event,” she said.
The idea of setting up a food trailer park has been discussed around City Hall for some time now, McFeron said, though no official action has been taken to do it.
Some food trailers have attempted to stake out their own locations in front of existing stores, with varying degrees of success.
The Marble Falls-based Bill’s Burgers operated a food truck in Liberty Hill for two weeks in the parking lot of a strip center at RR 1869 and SH 29.
Co-owner Amber Cardenas said that after permit costs, they ultimately decided they could make more money by using the truck for large-scale catering.
“I’m sure we could have been profitable if we’d stayed longer, though,” she said.
Permit costs were also noted by Ross as a factor steering the Haute Box away from setting up a permanent location.
She said that the City’s six-month permit, which costs $400, effectively means that it costs $800 to do business for a year.
“Then you have to pay the person whose lot you’re on for the use of that space. It ends up being a lot of money,” she said.
Roberts from Thai How Are You agreed.
“$400 for six months? That’s expensive. That’s really expensive,” Roberts said.
Roberts also called other parts of the permitting process “arduous,” but added that city staff were particularly cooperative and helpful.
For comparison, the City of Round Rock charges $150 for a year-long permit to host a food trailer.
Unlike Liberty Hill’s system, the permit is held by, and paid for, by the establishment hosting the trailer.
However, the Bertram-based Tony’s Hill Country BBQ says Liberty Hill’s permitting process has never proven a hurdle to them.
They sometimes set up a trailer in front of Liberty Hill’s Tractor Supply, and are currently one of the only food trailers with any regular presence in town.
Permitting costs were also cited by Hunt, of Melt Masters, as one of the more attractive features that brought them to Liberty Hill’s Spectacular.
Liberty Hill typically charges $20 for one-day permits, while Hunt said that larger events in Austin can sometimes range into the thousands. Food truck permit fees were waived by the City for the Independence Day event.
There is one cue Liberty Hill could take from Austin, Hunt said, if it wanted to attract more food trailers.
Austin hosts “Food Truck Tuesdays” twice a month at an outdoor venue, where food trailers are encouraged to gather and live music is provided.
“If Liberty Hill had something like that, I’d be all over it,” Hunt said. “And I know other trailers would, too.”