Friday, October 19, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 33
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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on June 6th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 14 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 14

Hitting the road: Food trucks take good eats to the streets

By REBECCA ROSE


FOOD TRUCK FRESH
Chrystal Trenado, left, and Sarah Crean, right, prepare fresh food in the Cubanissimo food truck, which serves hungry customers across the Central Coast.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Some of the Central Coast’s most up-and-coming eateries don’t need a restaurant in wine country — they’re on the go. The food truck craze didn’t turn out to be a fad, and local entrepreneurs are starting up their own mobile eateries or enjoying long-term success after lots of hard work.

For this week’s cover story, and to begin our annual Food and Drink issue, Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose caught up with local food truck operators and learned how mobile meals changed their lives. Also, as part of Food and Drink, local cannabis users have more choices than ever for their edibles, and the International Wine Film Festival comes to Santa Maria.

—Joe Payne, Managing Editor

 

 

Keep on truckin'

Local food trucks grow in popularity, but owners caution the job is not as easy as it looks

BY REBECCA ROSE

Rosa Valdez wakes early every morning, donning the bright pink and purple smock she will wear throughout her day.

Her first stop is to Carniceria La Mia in Santa Maria, where she picks up her daily selection of fresh meats, including beef, pork, chicken, and more. She drives her truck down the familiar route west on Betteravia Road, where she parks in a small gravel patch across from a field. Then, she waits.

Farmworkers line up almost as soon as she pulls up. Dozens of orders pour in as Valdez begins to quickly crank out food. Workers in nearby office parks keep her phone lit up throughout the morning, placing orders for pick up at lunch. The pace is almost nonstop until she ends her day at 4 p.m.

“I get tired a little bit,” Valdez told the Sun. “But it’s good. I do it for the people, to make them happy.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Valdez, who’s been running the Taco Tichitas food truck in Santa Maria for almost 10 years. She’s one of dozens of local food truck owners in Santa Maria and the surrounding areas who enjoy steady business thanks to online buzz and strong word of mouth.


REVVING IT UP
Food trucks can help lead to a brick-and-mortar business for many startups. Arqui and Chrystal Trenado launched Cubanissimo a year before opening their restaurant of the same name in Orcutt, its success fueled by the popularity of their truck.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Food trucks are nothing new; the mobile food industry has grown steadily over the last few years, owing to popularity among die-hard foodies and aspiring restaurateurs, many of whom are eager to seek out unconventional ways to break into a notoriously harsh industry.

With an estimated 4,000 trucks nationally, employing more than 14,000 people, the food truck industry has exploded in the last year, owing largely to a trend in municipal areas such as Austin, Texas, which began loosening permit and regulation requirements in order to encourage growth in the food truck industry. Food trucks now account for nearly $1 billion in revenue annually, according to industry research firm IBIS World.

Recent years have seen the trend trickle down from metropolitan areas to smaller suburban communities, as more and more small business owners look for alternative ways to break into the food service industry. A thriving food truck scene can be a boon to smaller local regions, attracting attention from tourists, food bloggers, and Instagrammers with big followings, as well as national media outlets eager to jump on the buzz.

But beyond the hype and artfully filtered social media posts, food trucks are all about local owners, largely family-oriented, looking to bring their unique ideas about food to the communities they serve. 

Cooking up a following

At the Lompoc Food Truck Festival on May 16, vendors formed a horseshoe in a parking lot, ready to serve attendees. Food truck fans waited in lines up to 45 minutes long just to get a sample of treats such as cuban sandwiches, pork adobo, street tacos, hot mini doughnuts, and even aebleskivers.

Inside Alice’s Aebelskabels (named for the way the owner’s family mispronounced the name of the traditional Danish treat), owner Hilary Meilen hoped customers would take to a familiar dish with her distinct spin on it.


TASTY TREATS ON THE GO
Hilary Meilen moved her converted FedEx truck from Ohio to Solvang to sell her versions of aebleskivers, a popular Danish treat made in a specialty cast iron pan.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

Meilen, whose family is Danish, started her food truck business in Ohio in a renovated FedEx truck. She makes 10 different varieties of aebleskivers, many of her own creation. She said she wanted to expand to more savory options to appeal to the lunchtime crowd.

“People are familiar with the traditional flavors, but not necessarily what we’re doing,” she said. “Everybody around here is used to the traditional aebleskivers, with the raspberry jam and the powdered sugar. … Some of our flavors are a little bit unusual. They’re some things people might not think of, but once you put it together they’re really tasty.”

Some of the more unconventional aebleskiver flavors on her menu include smoked salmon and dill; goat cheese and honey; and pastrami and gruyere, served with a creamy dill sauce. Meilen’s gamble on uniqueness might just be paying off, too. Only two weeks after launching in their new California home, Alice booked six events, with more on the way.

Picking a niche idea can be an advantage in a scene crowded with taco trucks and barbecue. At Crave, a truck offering warm mini doughnuts served in paper cones, owner Aurora Kraft is banking on being a stand-out.

“We love doughnuts,” she said. “We love eating them hot and would make them warm. Nothing beats fresh doughnuts.”

Kraft said she and her family looked at some equipment that could handle the output and thought mini doughnuts on the go would do well on the Central Coast. The family, who also owns the Hanohano Shave Ice, launched Crave in 2016, and so far the venture has been a success.

“After about a year, we started seeing profit,” Kraft said. “We saw that if we could connect with our customers and create a following that we could do well.”

The following that food trucks like Crave depend on comes through social media. Instagram and Facebook are the biggest draws. Kraft said Facebook is how they announce where they are going to be on a regular basis.

“The customer is looking for us,” Kraft said. “Part of it is we want to stay fluid and keep it live.”

Part of the allure of food trucks is the thrill of the pursuit. Announcing surprise locations on Instagram and Facebook are part of what drive the food truck frenzy. Patrons must follow their favorite trucks online to find out where they’re going to be and get there before their favorite items run out.

Not as easy as it looks

For many food truck owners, the ultimate goal is to parlay the hype and popularity of a truck into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.


IT’S NOT YUCK-A AT ALL
Cuban black beans with yucca fries served at Cubanissimo are among the food truck’s most popular items.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Cubanissimo launched in 2016 and quickly became one of the most sought-after trucks in the Santa Maria Valley. Thanks to their early success, owners Chrystal and Arqui Trenado opened their first physical location in Orcutt in August last year.

Chrystal said the lessons they learned running the truck helped the couple when they opened the restaurant. She said there are a lot misconceptions about how easy it is to open and operate a truck.

“You can’t just roll up and park somewhere and hope that people show up,” she said. “You have be able to build relationships so that you have places to go. You have to know how to do what you’re doing efficiently so you can move people through the line quickly. Those are the biggest hurdles in the beginning.”

But a food truck doesn’t just lead to a restaurant—sometimes it’s the other way around.

When Alisa and Daniel Urquhart’s restaurant Lidos closed in 2006, they transitioned into the catering and food truck business as a way to keep the brand going. Fans, disappointed about the venue closing, were quick to jump on board. Lidos now has a five-star Yelp rating and a thriving presence in Santa Maria.

But Alisa Urquhart and others caution that the business isn’t as easy as it looks to break into. Those hoping for an effortless jump into the restaurant industry soon find food trucks to be a lot more than they bargained for.

“There is a lot of prep work that goes into each event that has to be done before and after,” she explained. “There’s cleaning, shopping, food prep, maintenance work, filling out permits, insurance. There are a lot of costs that people don’t think about, as there is in owning any small business.”


HOT IN HERE
Alisa Urquhart, left, and Steve Dewing serve up Philly cheese steaks at Lidos food truck in Santa Maria. The truck can be found at the YMCA at 3400 Skyway Drive in Santa Maria on Wednesdays starting at 11 a.m.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Like any small business, things can go terribly wrong. On May 27, Robert Slores, owner of Lompoc’s Big Truck Foods, lost one of his food trucks when it was destroyed in an electrical fire resulting in more than $25,000 in damages.

Barring unforeseen disasters, the business is also notoriously demanding on a day-to-day basis, just like a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“It can be extremely grueling during busy events or lunch and dinner services,” Urquhart said. “Even though you’re cooking food nonstop, there are times we can go all day without being able to eat ourselves.”

Kraft said food truck work can look deceptively easy owing to its small operation. But days can start hours before a truck even opens, prepping items and cleaning equipment, and often end late into the night.

“It takes up a lot of your free time,” Kraft said. “Every weekend we’re doing an event. For some people, if you don’t have your family with you, it’s going to be hard because you’re not seeing them. … It’s a real commitment.” 

Authentic on wheels


MADE WITH LOVE
Rosa Valdez’s food truck, Taco Tichitas, feeds farmworkers and many others along Betteravia Road in Santa Maria. The Mexican-born entrepreneur came to the United States more than 25 years ago to work in the same fields she now serves.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

Valdez’s truck is layered with hand-drawn signs, showing prices and selections of ingredients. Inside her cramped kitchen, she moves like a concert pianist, her hands flying gracefully over the grill as she completes each order.

“A lot of people told me, ‘Your food is so good, you need to [open] a restaurant,’” she said. “I cooked every day but never had a restaurant.”

Valdez, who is originally from Guadalajara, came to Santa Maria more than 25 years ago to work in some of same fields where she now feeds workers. The labor was backbreaking she said, so she decided to study English and try to break into a different line of work. She eventually found a steady job in an office until one day a friend approached her with an unusual proposition: She wanted Valdez to buy her food truck.

Valdez had her doubts at first.

“I took the taco truck,” she said. “The first year was hard for me. … I make everything myself. … The rice, beans, salsa, everything—it was hard.”

Despite the physical toll, she stuck with it, finding a niche among farmworkers and others. To this day, Valdez still insists on fresh ingredients and items made from scratch daily, which has earned her a respectful fanbase.

Her food is some of the best of any restaurant, on wheels or otherwise. Breakfast burritos overflow with chorizo, eggs, cheese, and ham; tacos are expertly seasoned and piled high with meats and vegetables. It’s rare to stand out in a town with so many quality Mexican restaurants, but Valdez’s micro-operation does it with ease.

One of her coveted specialties is her sauce; patrons make sure to stack up on extra orders. Like everything else, Valdez prepares it herself, from a recipe handed down to her by her mother. When asked, she will precisely recite each step, describing in detail how she makes her spicy, flavorful salsas.

Like so many others in the business, Valdez doesn’t reap huge profits from the mobile business. She said she has another reason that keeps her coming back every day.

“I like the people,” she said. “I like that the people come again for the tacos.”


GOING OLD SCHOOL
Lidos food truck is popular with Santa Marians looking for authentic Philly-style cheesesteak sandwiches.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Follow the trend

To follow the food trucks featured in this article, check out:

• Crave at facebook.com/craveminidonuts/.

• Lidos at facebook.com/lidosconcessions/.

• Big Truck Foods at instagram.com/bigtruckfoods/.

• Cubanissimo at instagram.com/cubanissimofoodtruck/.

• Alice’s at instagram.com/aebelskabels/.

Contact Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose at rrose@santamariasun.com.

 

Beyond brownies

Locals buy, make a variety of edible cannabis products for treatment and recreation

BY JOE PAYNE

Gummy bears, cake pops, sour belts, chocolate bars, caramel chews, and fruit-flavored sodas. It sounds like a candy shop, but kids aren’t allowed to buy these sweet treats.

Comestible cannabis products, known colloquially as “edibles,” have been a mainstay for medicinal cannabis users for years. With recreational cannabis now legal in California, the variety and selection of edibles offered by local dispensaries have grown.

The majority of products on the market right now come from LA or Bay Area companies, explained David* with CoExist RX, a local cannabis clinic that offers delivery service.


LOOSE LEAF
Those who make their own edibles usually use “shake,” or loose leaves, stems, and bits of cannabis buds that aren’t deemed smokable quality, reducing it all down into butter or oil.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MOANI LEWIS

“Our counties have been a lot stricter, so there are not really big places that you can get those locally legally,” he said. “So that’s the reason why everything has to be from a bigger area.”

Edibles offered by CoExist include colorful gummies, fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, and even a cannabis-infused horchata. They’re all popular, David explained, and also include non-psychoactive options for those just looking for pain relief.

The products are made by companies like Simply Meds Edibles, Caligold, and G Drinks, which make their products palatable as well as potent, David said. The days of edibles with a strong, musty taste are gone, at least for the professionally produced foodstuffs CoExist sells, he explained.

“People aren’t really in it for the taste,” he said. “They all have a great taste to them, and my personal favorite are the chocolate bars. They taste just like a regular Hershey’s chocolate bar and you get a good, quality medicine with each dose you take.”

Companies that make edibles are now required to follow strict regulations on the amount of THC—or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis—in each package of edibles due to California state law that went into effect this year. Each serving size must have no more than 10 milligrams of THC, and a single package of edible cannabis may not exceed 100 milligrams.

The restriction has had an effect on how the edible cannabis industry portions its products, explained Joe A. Garcia, co-founder of the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Association. Products used to include “pretty large dosages,” he said, from 500 to 1,000 milligrams in a package.

“For someone who doesn’t use cannabis on a regular basis, doesn’t have a high tolerance, 100 milligrams is probably something that would definitely work,” he said. “For someone like myself, I need at least 300 milligrams just to feel the effects of the cannabis.

“So for me, commercially, I’m not attracted to the law,” he added. “For someone like myself, I would rather make my own edibles so that I can have higher dosages.”

Garcia said that the regulation on dosage limits is largely to address the fact that “a lot of people don’t understand how to use edibles.”

“Edibles are highly concentrated, so when you eat it, your system is much different than when you’re smoking,” he said, adding that the delayed onset of the “high” from edibles can lead users to take too much. That’s when people feel dehydrated, anxious, and uncomfortable.

“You’ve just taken a little too much, and you’re feeling it,” he said. “But I would like to note, nobody has ever fatally overdosed on cannabis.”

With limits on the milligrams of THC per package, buying edibles can be pricey for someone who requires regular medicinal cannabis, Garcia said. He knows several edible users make their own at home.

One Lompoc resident, Moani Lewis, has treated her PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain, and mild scoliosis for years with cannabis, mostly through smoking. She tried psychotropic medications, but found that cannabis was “the most effective and allowed me the most freedom in my life.”

Lewis said she read a scientific study that showed that smoking or vaporizing cannabis did cause short-term negative bronchial effects, but wasn’t linked to lung cancer or emphysema. It was enough for her to make the move to edibles, and the price point on the products offered by local dispensaries led her to start making her own at home.

“I learned very quickly I could do it much cheaper for myself buying the flower product and turning it into edibles,” she said. “It ended up much cheaper for me, and then I get to make what I like.”


HOMEMADE MEDS
Lompoc resident Moani Lewis makes her own cannabis edibles at home, whipping up cookies, brownies, and even medicated gummy candies.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MOANI LEWIS

Cannabis can be easily infused into butter or oil, Lewis explained, and with that she can make “just about anything you can eat.” She’s made cookies, brownies, tea, ranch dip, gummies, ice cream, alfredo sauce, and of course chocolate, which she drizzles over strawberries, pretzels, cherries, and other tasty treats.

She also cooks her oil or butter with “a lot of water,” which “pulls out the impurities while you’re cooking,” and provides a taste that isn’t dominated by a “musty, nasty flavor.”

“A lot of my edibles, you can’t even tell that they’re edibles,” she said. “They just taste like normal confectionaries.”

Lewis has a separate fridge in her garage and a set of pots and pans strictly for her cannabis edibles, so there’s no cross contamination with the food she makes for her family. She takes that very seriously, she said, and never makes any of her candies look appealing to kids or too similar to regular candies.

Lewis said that she and other edible users enjoy eating their medication because it’s often quicker and easier to take. Even for those who smoke or vaporize, edibles come in handy when they can’t pack a bowl or a fire up a vape.

“It’s great for, if it’s not publicly acceptable for the moment to medicate, you can just pop an edible,” she said. “It’s convenient.”

While local cannabis companies wait on manufacturing licenses from the county or cities like Lompoc that will allow such operations, those who use edibles are stuck buying product made out of the area or making their own.

There’s already at least one company waiting to set up shop and make edibles in Lompoc, Lewis said, that reached out to her about possibly working as a cook.

“It could turn into an actual occupation,” she said, “but right now it’s just a hobby.”

* Full name was omitted to protect privacy.

Managing Editor Joe Payne can be reached at jpayne@santamariasun.com.

Get the hookup

Local medical cannabis dispensaries sell a variety of edible cannabis products. Their selections and contact information are available at weedmaps.com

 

The perfect pairing

Filmmakers to teach multimedia workshops at International Wine Film Festival

BY KASEY BUBNASH

Santa Maria Valley is gearing up for its third International Wine Film Festival, and this year’s festivities will include multimedia workshops for wine industry professionals hoping to expand their marketing skills.

The festival, which is slated for June 29, has grown significantly in its short lifetime, according to founder and director Wil Fernandez. Festival organizers received more than 400 wine-themed film submissions for this year’s event, Fernandez told the Sun, and filmmakers from across the country are planning to make appearances.

“It’s cool to have Santa Maria be put on the map through this kind of niche community and event,” Fernandez said.


WINING AND DINING
Attendees of last year’s International Wine Film Festival mingle during a film intermission at Presqu’ile Winery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WIL FERNANDEZ

Although in past years the festival included various full-length and short film screenings—both inside and outside, during the day and at night, once during the summer and again in the winter—Fernandez said the festival format is ever evolving. The workshops, he said, are a new experiment.

Fernandez said he wants local wine connoisseurs to benefit as much as possible from the creative and innovative filmmakers visiting town for the screenings and tastings in June.

At the workshops, scheduled for 2 p.m. on June 29, wine industry professionals hoping to include videos in their marketing strategies will learn about video production and budgeting basics.

Kendall Busby, a winery marketing and communications professional based in Sonoma will speak at the event, along with Jack Kauffman, a documentary filmmaker known for his profile of the Finger Lakes wine region, and Dina Mande, a creative director based in Paso Robles.

“With the addition of our workshops,” Fernandez wrote in a press release, “I hope to help budding filmmakers by encouraging the wine industry to invest in film production to educate and inspire their customers.”

Presqu’ile Winery will host the festival’s traditional wine and film pairing event, where attendees will watch the International Wine Film Festival’s official short and feature film selections, which were submitted from around the world. Films will be introduced by their producers, and wine will be paired appropriately.

“It’s like a multi-sensory experience,” Fernandez told the Sun.

Although participating winemakers have not yet been announced, Fernandez said Santa Barbara County wines will be showcased alongside several internationally known brands.

Jennifer Harrison, director of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Visitors Bureau, said the International Wine Film Festival is on track to becoming a major draw to the community.

Well-known film festivals bring in tourists, who book overnight stays, eat at local restaurants, and drink at local bars and wineries. Harrison said after several national news stories and its partnership with Santa Barbara’s World of Pinot Noir event, the International Wine Film Festival is gaining clout.

“So the festival itself we think is a really great concept,” Harrison told the Sun. “We got behind this thing because it’s new and you don’t necessarily think of the Santa Maria Valley when you hear, ‘film festival.’ So that’s really exciting.”

International Wine Film Festival schedule

Workshop: Tell your winery story with video
June 29
2 to 5:30 p.m.
Graciosa Hall, 300 E. Clark Ave., Orcutt.

The Stars of Wine + Film
June 29
7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Presqu’ile Winery, 5391 Presquile Drive, Santa Maria

Tickets and more details available at winefilmfestival.com.

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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