Columbia has a plethora of restaurants offering everything from basic diner fare to exotic cuisines, and all of them have heated dining areas.
But on a blustery winter afternoon, employees of Opti Care and Veterans United Home Loans on Heriford Road are clustered around a pair of food trucks — in this case, The Big Cheeze and Lilly’s Cantina.
Food trucks have become a familiar sight around Columbia in recent years — one or more brightly-painted trailers parked on a curb or in a parking lot, from which tantalizing smells float out, enticing customers to come sample their wares.
“It’s different than fast food — they’re more unique, and they offer daily specials,” Kathryn Caldwell said as she carried her container of seafood tacos back to work. She said she eats at a food truck about once a week.
Schelsea Smith echoed her coworkers, noting she likes buying at the food trucks versus heading out to a brick-and-mortar dining establishment because of the convenience.
“Plus, it’s something different that you can’t go to a restaurant and get,” Smith said.
That preference for something unique but convenient has led to a veritable boom in mobile food options in Columbia. In 2010, the city issued four licenses for mobile food truck/cart vendors — defined as “a self-contained food service operation, located in a wheeled motor vehicle or trailer, used to store, prepare, display or serve food intended for individual portion service.”
As of November, there were 25 mobile food truck/cart vendors with a current city business license.
Even discounting one-off permits for specific events, Columbia has more than 20 mobile food vendors offering everything from sandwiches and pizza to tamales and jerk chicken to the plethora of hot dog carts that offer late-night snacking to downtown partiers before they head home.
Tim and Beth Mallory of The Big Cheeze have been serving up an array of grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade tomato bisque soup since September 2015, but before that, they operated Mizzou Hot Dogs since 2005.
Tim Mallory said he has seen an increase in business over the past year or so.
“It’s gotten better for us for sure,” he said. “It’s just taken off across the country. I think people like getting something different — something you can’t get off a menu anywhere else.”
Bryan Maness, who has been operating Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. since August 2013, said customers “appreciate the casualness and speed of the transaction at a food truck window.”
“In today’s restaurant culture, fast casual is the dominant trend,” Maness wrote in an email.
He said business has been growing steadily, though he attributed that growth to the quality of service “more than any generalized dining trend.”
“Our customers enjoy the quality of our made-from-scratch, locally-sourced menu, as well as the ease and speed of service we provide,” Maness wrote.
George Nickols, principal owner and chef of Lilly’s Cantina, said he had a pretty simple business philosophy when he started two and a half years ago and that it has worked well for him so far.
“What comes out your window — that’s what’s important. In my opinion, you’re only as good as your last taco or burrito,” Nickols said. “I pride myself on being the one at the window to greet you, talk to you, make sure everything is right.”
Nickols said sticking to fresh, locally sourced ingredients and a painstaking attention to detail — his handmade chips and his tamales, for instance, require hours of preparation — is what earns him repeat customers.
“I don’t like to take shortcuts. I like to do it my way, the way I was brought up to do it,” he said. “That’s, in essence, why people will come back … they appreciate the time and effort.”
Nickols said the ability to have that level of control over what goes out his window was part of the appeal of going with a mobile truck rather than a brick-and-mortar location. He also likes the freedom.
“With the truck, if I want to take a vacation, or my employees want to take a vacation, we can. It’s fun — you get to go out and see different places and people around the city,” he said, noting that many of his customers have become friends. “I enjoy seeing different people and watching people get to experience the food for the first time, and bringing out new recipes.”
Mallory agreed the freedom to make your own hours and meeting customers are the highlights of operating a mobile food truck, but cautioned it is not the money-making gold mine some people assume it is. He said he was inspired to open a food truck after seeing the concept in metropolitan areas throughout the country.
“When I decided to go into the food service business for myself, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to bring this exciting food trend to Columbia,” Maness wrote. “A food truck can be a good way to explore a concept and to gauge its appeal to a specific market. Ozark Mountain Biscuit Company has used our success in the Columbia market to expand our brand to vend at music festivals across the United States. We are also working on plans to open a brick and mortar establishment in the foreseeable future.”