By Crystal Powell, @CAPcalves20
RENO, Nev. – It’s been one month since GourMelts’ Jessie Watnes and Hayley Wood, Reno’s well-known grilled cheese truck owners, opened their new brick and mortar restaurant, Two Chicks.
“Customers started calling us those ‘two chicks who own the grilled cheese truck,’” Watnes explained. “And since we serve breakfast and lunch and you serve eggs at breakfast, that’s how the restaurant got its name.”
Two Chicks’ journey from food truck to restaurant is uncommon. According to CulinarySchools most new food truck owners from 2007 to 2012 were chefs laid off from high-end restaurants; much like the plot line of the 2014 comedy-drama “Chef”.
When Watnes and Wood gassed up GourMelt in 2011, dreams of Two Chicks was fueling it too.
“We’ve always been servers and managers in restaurants and it was always a separate dream of ours to own our own place at one point or another,” Watnes said. “And Haley actually got laid off from her job, and it was just time for us to do something on our own.”
But that was 2010 and Reno’s recession meant the two wouldn’t receive any loans large enough to fire up a restaurant. Instead, Watnes and Wood borrowed money from their families, bought and re-plated a truck and catered to Reno’s business lunch crowd—one of the first to do so in Reno. They helped create the city’s first local food truck business model; serving unique, local, gourmet food from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We were really the only ones doing it,” Watnes said. “There were two other trucks that opened right around the same time we did, so we kind of started doing the same thing as far as lunches and then events. But we were just kind of the only option for a food truck for a long time. So that helped us out.”
GourMelt’s concept took off. No other Reno establishment served gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and the team used their influence to organize and launch Reno’s first collective food truck event, Food Truck Fridays, in April 2012. Fridays often attracted at least ten trucks and two hundred plus patrons, kickstarting the city’s food truck community. Customers raved about GourMelt’s cheeses and personality on social media. The truck had 6,591 Facebook followers and ranked fifth in Mobile-Cuisine.com’s national 2011 Rookie Food Truck of the Year Awards—significant considering 30 to 50 percent of food trucks fail.
Frigid winters and student-less summers slowed business, but why end GourMelt’s lower overhead and flexible hours in favor of Two Chick’s fixed schedules and staff of employees?
The restaurant—not the truck—was the dream. Plus, trucks aren’t as glamorous as Hollywood movies make them; Watnes and Wood worked 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week, for the first six months.
As did Joe Horn, co-owner of Dish Café, when he leased a truck after eleven years of steady brick and mortar business. He closed it a year later and said he wouldn’t try it again.
“I mean, people came to the truck, but it wasn’t as lucrative or even as popular as people think it was just because we had good reviews or people who enjoyed the truck,” Horn said. “But I felt like Reno wasn’t…it didn’t really embrace it. We embrace it on the weekends. We embrace it on Reno Street Food, those kind of things. But day to day I think people would like to sit in a restaurant. It was either too hot [or too cold] outside—Reno’s pretty extreme in terms of temperature.”
For Horn, the truck’s added prep and cleanup hour was like having a second restaurant, without the added return. Dish already offered a successful catering business. Horn might as well have been running three establishments, the newest distracting from the other two.
“We were just working our ass off to kind of make all the fixed costs,” Horn said. “So on the downside, I wouldn’t say it hurt us that much from that perspective, but I was working 50 hours a week to 70 hours a week. I wasn’t making any money. I was breaking even. Sometimes I made money, sometimes I lost money, but it was kind of a break-even venture.”
Food trucks owned by brick and mortars have their pros, though: Dish Café has served Reno since 2001 from a corner location at the intersection of Kirman and Mill streets, where patients filtering onto the crosswalk from Renown Regional Medical Center distract drivers from its green-dressed, red-haired icon. Horn himself estimates before the truck, three in four Renoites didn’t know who they were.
“In the longer term, it’s increasing the amount of people who come to the restaurant,” Horn said. “It’s increasing the amount of people that know about our catering business. We’ve had a lot of benefits now because of the truck more in just like a pure, PR [public relations] kind of marketing.”
The benefits are equal for Two Chicks, especially since they can no longer drive to their once-a-week lunch-break customers willing to splurge on grilled cheeses. The community they built now comes to them.
“We’ve only been open for a month, and we have almost two thousand on Two Chicks’ Facebook page,” Watnes said. “So it just enabled us to build a business already with a following of customers who are very loyal and who still come to see us.”
Reno has proven food trucks can survive here. Kenji’s food truck has served a Hawaiian, Asian and Mexican fusion menu since 2011, but they must cook and serve a specific niche. Kenji’s does lunch, special events and catering, roasting a whole hog each Monday to prepare. More important, the owners have to be committed to it and it alone.
“It’s as much as you put into the business you can get out of it,” Watnes said. “So, it’s possible. I want people to—because some of the food truck owners I know personally and there’s a circle – I just want them to know it can happen. That dreams can come true.”