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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Three Longtime Friends Serve Up Gourmet Sliders from the Cramped Confines of a Food Truck

By Tiffany Kieu

It’s 11:00 AM on Sunday, May 1, 2011, an hour past the expected start time. The line for The Burnt Truck snakes downward towards aluminum benches lining the pavement. More than thirty visitors to OC Great Park Farmers Market wait outside the “ORDER HERE” window under the 80-degree sun, discussing their choices in line: homemade PB&J with bananas, fried chicken, cheeseburger, Vietnamese pork, fried bologna and/or sloppy Joe.

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The Burnt Truck is a local gourmet-style food truck owned and operated by longtime friends Paul Cao, Minh Pham, and Phi Nguyen. When it opened in mid-October 2010, The Burnt Truck was the first among its Orange County counterparts to offer miniature versions of hamburgers better known as sliders. Menu options, however, are not limited to burgers alone. The idea is to create upscale versions of everyday meals and to keep it playful and whimsical by sizing them down to fit on a slider bun.

“We try to transcend all those things into sliders so when you eat it, it makes you feel good,” explains Phi. “And remind you of a time maybe when you were a kid ‘cuz a lot of memories are attached to food.”

Take, for example, the fried bologna slider. Anne Marie Panoringan, food blogger and freelance writer for OC Weekly, remembers growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually getting “sick of deli sandwiches,” which are often filled with cold cuts like bologna. (A search by category on Yelp returns 227 delis in San Francisco.) But when she saw fried bologna on The Burnt Truck’s menu, rather than be deterred, she thought, Fried anything is good, why not bologna? She admits the experience was a “revelation.”

“[The Burnt Truck] renewed my faith in bologna,” she adds.

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Inside the truck, sunlight seeps through the eight window panels on the ceiling and reflects off the glossy aluminum kitchen. Two counters flank either side of the truck, leaving a 3-foot wide walkway enough for two people to stand back to back. On the left, more than ten varieties of sodas and water bottles fill the ice storage bin. Napkins, aluminum foil sheets, plastic forks, King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls and stainless steel bowls occupy the two shelves above. To the right is a sink with running water, an electric griddle and a finishing station with plastic containers for condiments: American cheese, pepperoncinis, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber slices, green chili peppers, cilantro sprigs, pretzel peanut butter, and blueberry jam. Down below is a built-in refrigerator that stores uncooked Angus beef patties, pork tenderloin, chicken breast and bologna. The walkway, no longer than 15 feet, ends at a grill and two deep fryers – one on the countertop and one built-in.

Paul stands over the grill. Smoke rises from the sizzling Vietnamese pork. A cameraman huddles behind him, capturing his every move. Today’s lunch service is filmed for the Cooking Channel’s Eat St., a television series that seeks out mobile food vendors offering the most noteworthy and irresistible street food in North America. Paul turns to the finishing table and reaches above for a red and white paper tray. He places the bottom half of the Hawaiian sweet roll on a pre-cut, black and white checkered liner. He adds a layer of sauce, three slices of grilled Vietnamese pork, green chili pepper, and a small mound of shredded, pickled daikon and carrots. He tops it off with two cucumber slices and leans the upper half of the Hawaiian sweet roll to the side. It’s methodical, yet, far from mechanical.

The camera stops rolling. One by one, four other Burnt Truck members hurry up the two steps, grab a red apron from the plastic box on the ground, and take their respective places. Everyone wears a black T-shirt with the word “Burnt” on the left chest and the distinctive company logo on the back: the white letters “Burnt” sandwiched between two halves of a bright red slider bun.

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The name “Burnt” was intended for Paul’s restaurant one day. It was derived from the first and only dish that Paul was known for cooking after moving into his own apartment during college: burnt spaghetti.

“I used to put the noodles in the pan and put sauce in it and mix it all up so it’s cooked in a pan,” Paul recalls. “Then I put cheese on it and it’d get all melty and then I purposely cooked it so the bottom gets kind of crispy, kind of burnt. It came out like this kind of cheesy, crunchy spaghetti thing.”

In spite of his humble beginnings in food preparation, Paul later attended culinary school at The Art Institute of California – Los Angeles. He then went on to become executive sous chef at Marc Cohen’s Opah in Rancho Santa Margarita followed by sous chef at Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point.

But regardless of formal food training, it was Paul’s original burnt spaghetti that inspired a name suited for a restaurant. Just not the brick-and-mortar kind he had imagined.

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Phi slips his right hand into a latex glove and breads chicken marinating in buttermilk. Once the piece is covered, he lifts and drops it into the bubbling oil heated by the countertop deep fryer. Minh rolls paper into the credit card machine. Friend Tony Nguyen warms up the electric griddle and reaches behind for a bag of King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls. He removes the plastic tie and pulls out a white paper tray with four rows of six slider buns. The bottom and top halves of twelve buns fit perfectly on the griddle for toasting. Minh’s brother-in-law, Jon Ho, leans over and opens two 10-lb brown paper bags sitting on ice. He fills two stainless steel bowls – one with frozen tater tots, the other with frozen crinkle cut fries – and places them back on the shelf.

Five people in the truck, according to Minh, are ideal for handling any line.

Minh opens the cash box and pulls the order pad close. The camera turns on. It’s 11:15 AM. The line extends to about forty, and Minh begins taking orders.

“Have you two been waiting this whole time?”

30 minutes.

“It’s pretty crazy today. Thanks for waiting.” His voice is pleasant.

We really wanted some sliders.

He smiles. “Alright guys, what can I get for you?”

Minh jots down their order, using two- or three-letter abbreviations for each item, with a black Sharpie pen and asks for a name which he scribbles near the bottom. He tallies prices using the calculator on his iPhone and reads the total. He tears the order form in two – number stub and ticket order – and hands the ticket order off to Phi. Minh turns to collect the money. He counts change, places the number stub on top, and passes it to the customer.

“Thanks again. Come visit us soon.”

The process repeats for each guest.

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This ordering system is crucial, Minh later reveals. In relaying the ticket order before handling money, he gives Paul and Phi a few extra seconds to cook and arrange food. The way he writes orders even saves time.

These shortcuts, however, took a while to figure out.

On October 14, 2010, The Burnt Truck held its grand opening at Shark Club, a restaurant and nightclub in Costa Mesa. The line – the longest they have had thus far – easily stretched 150 people walking in and out of the club, waiting around all night for food.

Minh wrote out each word on the order forms: cheeseburger, fried chicken, etc. Paul toasted each bun individually on the grill. The flow of food was erratic. Time was piling, and the crowd around the pick-up window multiplied.

They lacked rhythm and the gist of things, comments Galen Dao, a close friend who attended the opening. “It took an hour and a half to get our food.”

We’re gonna fail, they thought at the end of the shift. There’s no way we can make this work.

But Paul, Minh and Phi corrected their habits after each new service. Nowadays, the turnover rate is a minute or two. Though “sometimes people get [their] food before I even give them the change,” Minh notes.

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Paul transfers frozen tater tots to a steel frying basket. He submerges it in boiling oil. A crackling sound escapes from the built-in deep fryer – the tater tots are golden and crisp. He throws them back into the stainless steel bowl and tosses them while sprinkling salt. As Paul raises the bowl to return to the shelf, Phi weaves below his outstretched arm and removes pieces of fried chicken from the countertop deep fryer. Paul backs away to face the grill amidst Phi carrying the chicken to the finishing station.

Their movements are fluid and precise, as if choreographed. They’ve learned to adapt to the tight environment and understand each other’s actions to the extent that they can anticipate what comes next. We respect each other’s space, comments Phi, whereas before “booty bumping” was frequent.

Phi centers a piece of fried chicken atop a dollop of garlic potato spread on a slider bun. As if without looking, Paul simultaneously turns with a smoldering pot and spoons country gravy over the chicken.

Thanh Le, Minh’s cousin and The Burnt Truck’s business partner, admires from the front of the truck: “Their flow and efficiency – they’ve got it down to almost a science.”

The cameraman and the director, holding a handheld camera, wind through the kitchen and nestle in cramped openings, but Burnt truck members are able to dodge around the film crew without getting in each other’s way.

The midday heat is only slightly offset by a light breeze that enters through the order and pick-up windows. Smoke fills the truck and the smell of beef patties lingers in the air. Ticket orders keep coming. The pressure builds.

Minh scurries to the back and plucks a ticket from the order rack mounted on a shelf ledge.

“I f*cked up an order,” he announces.

Paul sets down his tongs and wipes the sweat from his forehead. He glances back – his face serious – at Minh writing a revised ticket order. Paul grabs it and resumes grilling cheeseburger patties.

The impending concern is stifled.

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“[Paul] doesn’t like it when there’s a little gap in his movement,” Phi later mentions.

These disruptions in efficiency were often a source of outbursts or arguments, mainly between Paul and Minh, during the first few months. Phi remembers one of Paul’s rants in particular – it’s his favorite.

It was during a hectic dinner service in which Minh’s wife, Jenny, had been running the window. The requests for sides of fries seemed endless: two sliders with fries, two sliders with two fries, fries, fries, fries, fries, and more fries.

Phi felt it coming. Oh man, Paul is going to have a meltdown, he thought.

The deep fryer had cooled off from extensive frying and needed to be reheated.

Jenny, standing on the opposite end, was unaware of the issue. Orders for fries continued to appear.

Paul threw his tongs and turned around. Everybody stop f*cking selling fries, Phi remembers him shouting. Why the f*ck are you guys selling fries?

Everyone stood perplexed.

“We’re not selling fries,” reasoned Phi. “People just asked for it. Stop yelling.”

More recently, Paul avoids stressing over small mishaps.

“I don’t get mad anymore. I went to therapy and got things straightened out,” he says, smirking.

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Conversations are brief. Words are rushed.

“Minh, in 3 orders, change it to Viet beef,” Phi advises.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Minh replies.

The line soon dwindles. Signs of exhaustion are apparent in everyone: dark eye circles, long heavy sighs, weary stances. Phi, Paul and Minh have been awake since 4 AM, readying the truck and preparing condiments and sauces such as pickled daikon and carrots, avocado spread and aioli.

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Throughout each week, Phi, Paul and Minh dedicate sixty or more hours on and off The Burnt Truck.

About seven services – lunch or dinner – are usually scheduled from Tuesday to Saturday. In those five days, two are dedicated to both lunch and dinner services. A regular shift lasts around seven to eight hours, either from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM for lunch or from 2:30 PM to 10:00 PM or 10:30 PM, which includes time for preparation and cleaning. Locations of services are scattered throughout Orange County and can vary between business plazas, apartment complexes, and catering events such as birthdays and even weddings.

Sunday and Monday are normally days off. But although they don’t serve food from the truck, Paul, Minh and Phi still work. Sunday and Thursday are designated grocery days, and either Phi or Paul shops. Produce like 30 pounds of American cheese and four flats of eggs (each flat contains 24 eggs) are bought from local farmers’ markets. 120 pounds of tater tots, 60 pounds of crinkle fries are purchased from Restaurant Depot in Fountain Valley, while 80 pounds of chicken along with other proteins are bought from 99 Ranch Market in Irvine. 80 pounds of beef patties are sourced from Premier Meat Company. Forty cases of King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls, each with 144 slider buns, are picked up by Minh from Los Angeles.

For Paul and Phi, four or more hours on Monday go to preparing sauces and condiments. For Minh, Monday means sorting through e-mails, scheduling events, writing blogs, and updating social networking sites. This is what he does on a daily basis, but Monday just happens to be the busiest day for e-mails.

The business dominates their thoughts: areas for improvement, ways to increase exposure, or ideas for menu development. “Even when I’m not working, I’m working ‘cuz I’m thinking about something about work,” Minh admits. “I know Phi and Paul are the exact same way.”

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“I want to go home,” Phi exclaims, in a child-like voice. Everyone laughs.

Paul crouches and glimpses outside the window.

He requests the time.

It’s 2:07 PM, seven minutes past the expected end time.

“Close out,” he commands.

Empty plastic containers – once filled with avocado spread, aioli or garlic spread – and dirty pots pile in the sink. (Generally, someone cleans the dishes when there is downtime, but today’s service was particularly busy.) Used, white hand towels spill over the plastic bin in front. 25 King’s Hawaiian sweet roll bags and white paper trays stuff the trash can. The receipt ticket holder is stacked with 110 tickets – how many people this equates to is uncertain since each ticket can represent any number of customers who order together. 35 pounds of chicken, 60 pounds of meat, 35 pounds of tater tots/French fries, and 5 pounds of cheese were served.

“It just came out of nowhere.” – Paul

Since L.A.-based Korean taco truck Kogi entered the mobile food scene in 2008, the food truck trend has reached an unprecedented level of popularity. According to Heather Shouse’s Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, in fall 2010, Food Network introduced The Great Food Truck Race – a show in which multiple food trucks aim to outsell their competition, while Business.gov – a government website for small businesses – created the page “Tips for Starting Your Own Street Food Business.”

Kogi’s impact transcended to other aspiring food truck owners who established a string of Kogi imitations. Despite the allure of Asian tacos, Minh and Paul were adamant in keeping the item off their menu. “You had basically 10 other Kogi-like trucks that came out after that. We [didn’t] want to be the eleventh,” Minh says. Gourmet sliders made The Burnt Truck unique.

Talks of their gourmet food truck began back in 2002, years before the craze, but Paul concedes that the idea for sliders “came out of nowhere.”

In late May 2010, Paul and Minh attended their weekly friends’ poker night. Although Phi was not involved in the business at the time, he was also present. (Phi joined The Burnt Truck on October 4, 2010 after leaving his position as a chef at St. Regis Monarch Beach’s Stonehill Tavern.) As usual, Paul cooked; he decided he’d make sloppy Joes.

The market ran out of hamburger buns, but King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls were on sale.

Onto each roll, Paul melted Brie cheese, added sloppy Joe and finished with pepper rings. His concoction received rave reviews:

Man, we love it.

It’s so good.

This is like the best sloppy Joe ever.

Dude, you guys should just do a truck and serve these sloppy Joes.

The comments stirred a thought in Paul’s mind: This is pretty cool. What if we had a slider truck? Why doesn’t anybody do that?

A few days later, the thought matured. Paul, who was working as a chef at Café del Rey in Marina del Rey at the time, ate sliders at the restaurant and realized the slider bun’s potential.

He called Minh the following day.

Hey, I got this idea, Minh recalls him saying. We should do a slider truck. I’m thinking we can do a bomb ass fried chicken one, cheeseburger, sloppy Joe, meatball, Korean BBQ and Vietnamese pork.

“Damn, I love it. Paul, I love the idea,” Minh responded.

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Three weeks earlier, on a flight to Hawaii, Minh half joked and half pitched the concept of a food truck to his cousin Thanh, a successful Las Vegas dentist with multiple practices and the former owner of a chain called Southwest Smoothies in San Diego.

The way Minh saw it, Thanh was a savvy, wealthy businessman. And Minh and Paul needed the financial support.

Minh appealed to Thanh’s interest in new and promising business ventures.

“I like it. Let’s do it,” Thanh decided.

The original idea, however, was bánh mì or Vietnamese sandwiches.

When Minh returned from Hawaii, he and Paul debated whether this business would be successful. The conclusion was “no.” Orange County residents are too familiar with bánh mì, along with their low cost (under $3) and where to find good ones. It would be impossible to sell it for $6 like LA-based Nom Nom Truck.

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Minh and Paul needed to gain Thanh’s support for gourmet sliders. They called and notified him of the updated concept.

Thanh was skeptical. He wasn’t too familiar with what a slider was, but it seemed like too broad of a concept. He shot it down.

Don’t blow it off. Give it a day or two, Thanh recalls them pleading. We’ll set a menu.

Thirty minutes later, Thanh called back. He did his research on sliders and the idea clicked – the slider would serve as the vehicle in which food would be delivered.

“I’m in. I think this idea’s gonna work,” Thanh said.

A week later, in June 2010, he flew from Las Vegas to taste six menu samples: fried chicken, cheeseburger, sloppy Joe, meatball, Korean BBQ and Vietnamese pork. After devouring 18 to 24 sliders, Thanh was certain he loved it. He wanted to start right away.

Whatever you need financially I’ll put it out and help you guys, Paul remembers him saying.

They set up a corporation, which in turn issued a promissory note – a document that guarantees payment of a certain amount of money by a specific time – to Thanh. In six months, The Burnt Truck would return his initial loan.

The loan afforded them to lease a food truck and to purchase all the equipment inside. To start the business also required payments for a countywide health permit and business licenses for every city in which they wanted to sell sliders. They also needed to pay a monthly fee for parking in an approved commissary, a facility for storage and cleaning of food trucks and refilling of water, ice and electricity.

The Burnt Truck made more than enough to pay back the loan in six months. It is now a self-sustaining business. Profits cover monthly expenses for a space in the commissary, gasoline, propane, groceries and serving supplies. By the time Phi, Minh and Paul pay themselves, their earnings come out to less than minimum wage. But it’s a sacrifice they are willing to make in hopes of one day opening their own restaurant.

In the meantime, the numbers have been high enough to warrant another loan to purchase a customized truck under ten years old (which apparently is really good) with burners, ovens and air conditioning as well as additional refrigeration and deep-fryers. The revamped Burnt Truck – a true definition of mobile brick-and-mortar, according to Thanh – is set to debut in mid-June.

Epilogue: A food truck roundup

It’s breezy and slightly overcast on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.

At 2:30 PM, returning from a lunch service at OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, The Burnt Truck pulls into the driveway of a small lot enclosed by a cement wall seven bricks high. A plain, tan building with faded black windows sits in the middle. Parked food trucks line the wall with just enough space in between to back in and out. This is International Catering, one of six designated Orange County commissaries, located at Construction Circle West in Irvine. Across the street is a self-storage facility and nearby areas for big rigs and cement trucks.

Paul parks the truck behind the building and removes trash collected from the earlier shift. He drives back to the front of the lot and parks in their allotted space. Phi and Paul clean the kitchen then prepare a new batch of sauces and condiments. Meanwhile, Minh removes leftover soda cans and water bottles. He disappears behind the building. He returns with a wheelbarrow filled with ice and begins to shovel it into the storage bin.

Two hours later, The Burnt Truck is equipped for tonight’s dinner service at Irvine Lanes. Paul settles in the driver’s seat of the truck. Phi gets into the passenger seat of Minh’s new Toyota Highlander, and they follow behind.

Silver duct tape secures the upper left of the truck’s dashboard. The window control panel is dusty. Numbers are barely visible and red arrows on the gauges are faded. The odometer reads over 256,000 miles. Black paint on the front ledge is scratched, exposing the metal below.

In the two miles from the commissary to Irvine Lanes, the truck feels like it can fail at any minute. A metal floor plate is loose under the passenger seat. The steering wheel and dashboard rumble. The seats tremble. Every bump in the road is noticeable.

By 4:45 PM, Paul turns onto Michelson Drive and drives into a parking lot on the side of the bowling alley. Five other food trucks are present when The Burnt Truck arrives. Paul squeezes into a corner.

Minh turns on the gas light, flips the choke, and pulls the string for two portable generators. Power runs through two red electrical wires that wrap along the doorway to the electric griddle and above the order and pick-up windows to the back of the truck.

Paul turns up the grill and cooks bacon. Phi breads and deep-fries onion strings. Friends David Chung and Tony Nguyen refill condiment bottles and toast slider buns. Minh washes empty containers.

They begin serving at 5:30 PM. The line extends to twenty and remains constant throughout the service; it’s the longest among all eight food trucks.

In three hours, thirty minutes before the intended close time, they take 165 tickets and sell out of all six slider options.

With such a loyal following that expands every day (1,714 Facebook fans and 2,527 Twitter followers), The Burnt Truck continues to help shape the evolution of three fledgling entrepreneurs into successful restaurateurs. Don't be surprised when The Burnt Truck trades in its wheels for a traditional brick-and-mortar.


Reporting notes:

Brief interview with Anne Marie Panoringan

Brief interview with Galen Dao

15-minute interview with Thanh Le

45-minute interview with Paul Cao

45-minute interview with Phi Nguyen

1-hour interview with Minh Pham

2-hour dinner shift observation at The Park at Irvine Spectrum Center

5-hour lunch shift observation at Northwestern Mutual in Newport Beach

5-hour lunch shift observation during Cooking Channel’s “Eat St.” taping

5-hour dinner shift observation at Irvine Lanes

Cooking Channel’s “Eat St.”: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/eat-street/index.html

The Burnt Truck website: http://theburnttruck.com/

The Burnt Truck Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Burnt-Truck/116838601694370?ref=ts

The Burnt Truck Twitter: http://twitter.com/TheBurntTruck

Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels by Heather Shouse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promissory_note

http://ocfoodinfo.com/mobile

http://ochealthinfo.com/docs/regulatory/fees/food-pool-special-services-fees.pdf

http://ocfoodinfo.com/downloads/Commissary-List.pdf

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