Taking food truck cuisine to the next level
Nov 01, 2017 12:11PM ● Published by J. Chambless
Crave Eatery is not your typical food truck. It’s a 40-foot mobile restaurant that seems about as big as a building.
By Drewe Phinny
Williams is not your typical food truck owner, and Crave Eatery is
not your typical food truck. It’s a 40-foot mobile restaurant that
seems about as big as a building. As the Crave website notes, “It’s
designed for both high volume and restaurant quality.”
The Crave crew travels to various locations in Cecil County and up into Delaware and Pennsylvania with Tex-Mex chicken rice bowls, pork belly sliders, sweet chili crisp chicken, grilled Italian sandwiches, stuffed meatball sandwiches, Jambalaya eggrolls and much more.
After graduating from Elkton High School, Williams spent 15 years in real estate, where he realized that he was unable to super-serve his clients the way he wanted to. “A good business person will tell someone why he or she is wrong or why they shouldn’t be doing this, where the cheesy salesperson just tells them what they want to hear,” Williams said. “Sometimes you have to tell people, ‘This isn’t right for you.’ It’s the difference between a food truck and a hot dog cart.”
It is this kind of honesty that gives Williams the freedom to turn down business if he feels it’s not going to work for the client. This rather unconventional approach can lead to solutions that are productive and morally responsible.
As he worked his way into the food truck industry, Williams, now 40, made some keen observations while traveling the United States. “The Texas State Fair and the Ohio State Fair have … an ingenuity with this and that on a stick, and they offer different variations of fun food,” he said. “That’s part of the culture.”
On the other hand, he noticed a lack of creativity around this region. “It was just not the exciting food I would want,” he said. “I thought there was a niche for quality food at a reasonable price. So we had about a two-year gestation period, talked to the board of health, et cetera.”
Then he had the food truck custom built in Georgia. The builders “were responsive, willing and kind. We were asking them to build from the ground up, and they had experience doing custom work,” Williams said. “Many builders modify an existing trailer or truck, which limits the possibilities.” Around 2013, Crave Eatery was born.
Facebook is a major part of the marketing process. “With their boosted ads, you can actually pay whatever you want,” Williams explained. “You can pay between $5 and $5 million. When you put in a number, then it returns an estimated reach. So if you want to run a $50 ad, they will predict it will reach between 5,000 and 8,000 people. Move it up to $100 and the reach might increase to 12,000.” Then there are the benefits of going viral, with lots of people sharing a post with their friends.
When asked about some of the more common, everyday food choices people make, Williams has his priorities. For instance, he’s not a big fan of the tuna fish sandwich. “I can’t stand canned tuna,” he said. “I love, love, love raw tuna.”
Is that culinary elitism? “No, no, because I eat canned chicken for my own home snack,” he said. “Instead of a tuna sandwich, I would be apt to find sushi or something.”
Before Williams took on the sizable challenge of running a mobile food business, he picked up important information from every stop along the way. “I worked in a small deli, and the cold-cuts guy would come in and sometimes there would be price pressure. You would start getting the choices, and he would basically say, 'This is your premium, this is your mid-grade and this is what we sell if you just want it on the menu.' One had texture, one was wet.” And thus began his education about the tricks of the trade. Williams quickly added that he does not subscribe to this “sleight-of-hand” approach.
With the frantic pace of daily four- and eight-hour stops, along with what Williams calls “pop-up” appearances at all sorts of businesses, you might think he'd want to spend his leisure time doing something completely different. Not the case.
“One of my hobbies is molecular gastronomy,” he said. That's a sub-discipline of food science that investigates the physical and chemical transformation of ingredients that occur in cooking. “It’s a modern style of cooking which takes advantage of technical innovations from scientific disciplines.” Williams explained the process with respect to buying sliced ham at the deli counter. “They’re taking parts of the ham and grinding it up and adding a gelatin and water solution. So one pound of meat turns into a pound and a half of meat, and that’s their trick.”
Part of his business success is his constant pursuit of knowledge from established competitors, such as Chick-fil-a, whom he asked for a tour. “They were great. They were very kind. They are a business I really respect,” he said. “Their drive-through is always handled by polite young people who are cheerful and helpful. And with their culture they could probably get a tremendous amount of business after church, but they have chosen not to do that. That’s hard to do.”
Crave Eatery’s core menu consists of cheeseburgers, chicken parm sandwiches and mac n’ cheese bowls. Daily specials vary, according to what is found in the marketplace. “If we go to the local farmer’s market and find that avocadoes look great, then we might feature those,” he said. “For our grilled avocado rice bowl, we basically grill the avocado, then serve it with veggies and chipotle rice.”
Williams doesn’t back off a challenge, especially if it’s for the right reasons. He told the story of how he brought an item onto his menu that you wouldn’t normally expect. “Macarons are a French specialty. They’re little cookies, very rich,” he said. “Every color is a different flavor, and retail, they sell each one for $2.50 to $3 apiece. It’s something you have at weddings. So we went to New York to learn how to make them … At the time, it was rare to see them outside of New York. Then about a year after we were making them, and wholesaling them to local businesses, we started seeing them at grocery stores.”
On a typically busy day for Crave Eatery when events happen simultaneously, the food truck can only be in one spot, so some serving options are in order. “One day last fall, we did catering for 600 with the truck, vending for 2,000 with a tent, and vending for 500 with a tent.” All three of those occasions highlight what Williams calls “solutions” that he is more than happy to address.
The two questions that need to be answered before he arrives are, “How many people” and “How large an area?” After that, Williams decides whether the 40-foot mobile restaurant is practical or maybe other options are viable, such as a tent or perhaps utilizing something already on the premises for a buffet approach. For all the advantages of such a large food truck, it isn’t always the right answer.
As this interview was being conducted, four of the staff members were feeding a bunch of hungry folks on the campus of Christiana Hospital in Delaware, an event Williams had just left. “We were serving grilled shrimp tacos and chicken tacos, and we know any time we have grilled shrimp tacos, they’re going to be popular,” he said.
Fundraising is an integral part of Williams’ business philosophy, as well as his moral compass. “We do showcase events like the Wilmington Flower Market because they are a great cause, but also because they expose us to new audiences who may become a customer or a future event partner. You can’t always focus on money,” he said. “You need to be a responsible business in your community and give back if you want community support.”
The permanent weekly stops for the Crave Food Truck are: Monday at Patterson-Schwartz Real Estate Newark Office from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Wednesday at State Line Liquors from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday at Williams Chevrolet from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday at Cecil County Government Building, starting in December.
Contact Crave Eatery at 302-544-2366, or at facebook.com/CraveEateryMobileRestaurant, or email info@CraveEatery.com. The newest location is 420 N. Bridge St. in Elkton.