Test Driving A Restaurant
Smack Shack’s Josh Thoma and the truck that put lobster on the prairie.

Test Driving A Restaurant

Smack Shack and Turkey to Go have turned the food truck concept on its head.

We were told that food trucks would provide culinarians without trust funds an opportunity to bring great tastes to the masses free from the oppressive up-front costs or overhead of a physical restaurant. Now, some local truck operators, hungry for year-round profits, are driving the business to permanent brick-and-mortar eateries.

Smack Shack began serving its signature lobster rolls on the streets of Minneapolis in 2010. Co-owners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald say they always intended to open a stand-alone restaurant—which they’ll do in the city’s North Loop later this month.

Meanwhile, Turkey to Go, operator of a State Fair stall, was unready to commit to a restaurant. Co-owner Drew Levin says a truck was the perfect “half-step forward to prove our concept.” Prove it it did, and Turkey to Go opened quick-service skyway outposts in Minneapolis and St. Paul this past winter.

Both businesses continue to operate their trucks, but say profit margins are no better on wheels than the industry’s 3 to 5 percent average. Levin says launching a truck costs half as much as a skyway location, while Smack Shack’s $90,000 food truck investment pales in comparison to its upcoming seven-figure restaurant. “And it gives potential investors a track record of how the concept is seen in the current market,” says Thoma, whose business recently landed an investment from former Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian.

Investing in bricks and mortar can reap larger, year-round rewards. On summer days, Smack Shack truck serves as many as 200 people, generating $10,000 in weekly sales. The restaurant will accommodate lobster boils and an expanded menu, featuring cuts of meat, fried chicken, and po’boys, says Thoma. The truck required five workers; the restaurant, more than 100.

Sameh Wadi, owner of the World Street Kitchen food truck and Saffron restaurant confirmed he is negotiating a lease for a WSK restaurant.

“I think you’ll see a lot of trucks weeded out, but you’ll see a couple that will start resonating with customers, and they’ll want to be operating year-round—and that’s their next natural step,” says Levin.