Anyone who has had even a bite of a Fiveten Burger knows that Roland Robles, the proprietor and chef, knows more than a thing or two about slinging beef. His cheeseburgers are cooked to order and made with a signature blend of meat ground daily. There are at least three cheese options for melting over the hot patty (usually more), as well as a well-balanced array of toppings stacked together on a North Beach Baking Company bun. An overflowing basket of truffle tater tots sets the meal over-the-top — in a hot, crispy, and salty good way. But this is no fancy restaurant burger. Instead, Robles’ burgers are handed to customers through the window of a food truck.
Robles is banking on his many fans sticking with his burgers when he opens his first brick-and-mortar burger joint this year. The restaurant will be called Handlebar and is slated to open some time in the spring. While the location is still up in the air, the overarching plan is not. “The vibe we intend is a comfortable spot where you can just drop in and have some grub you’ll dig and a cold beverage of your preference. … Pretty much everybody likes a cold beer and a made to order burger,” he said.
And Robles isn’t the only food truck proprietor who’s going the full-blown restaurant route. At least two others — Liba Falafel and Jon’s Street Eats — are working on opening eateries with walls some time this year.
Gail Lillian has made a name for herself for the past three years doling out perfectly fried balls of chickpea batter topped with a cornucopia of vibrant salads from her lime green Liba Falafel truck. On a recent visit, toppings such as raw beets with orange zest, braised eggplant, and red cabbage with black sesame were on offer along with the more expected hummus, feta, and harissa.
“My general guide with the falafel bar is to stay with Mediterranean flavors, but sort of push what’s unconventional at the same time,” said Lillian who was inspired to launch the business after a visit to Amsterdam. “So we have things like rosemary peanuts on the bar… I’ve never seen that served as a condiment on a falafel bar, but the rosemary is a Mediterranean herb and it just complements the falafel really well. We use the adage of what grows together, goes together.”
Lillian was a regular at the north Berkeley Off The Grid (before it closed), and other street food markets, but now she plans to open a storefront shop and she hopes it will draw on a casual, street-food atmosphere: “I want to maintain the feeling of a meal you can eat sitting on the sidewalk,” she said. She also expects that the shop will still “mainly be a falafel bar,” but that she would “certainly expand around that menu.”
Jon’s Street Eats was one of the first new-school food trucks in the East Bay. After a couple years, owner Jon Kosorek moved on to an executive chef position in Napa in 2011. He now has plans to open a restaurant called Marrow in the former Looney’s BBQ spot on 19th St. in downtown Oakland. The concept, according to media reports, is a “meat-centric place” with Kosorek ordering one animal at a time and using the different parts through his entire menus.
Robles and Lillian both plan for their restaurants to be casual affairs, and both chefs say they are aware of the impending challenges and hope their experience working as mobile vendors will be an asset. “In any kind of business, but especially in the food business, there are constant problems. Things are breaking, things are going wrong, employees aren’t showing up. There are all kinds of things that go wrong. And the set of things that go wrong [on a food truck] are so uncharted that I really feel like I’m ready for anything now,” said Lillian.
And while Robles notes that he runs his truck just like any other restaurant, he’s “learned how to work in a really tight space! It’s been an exercise in that regard but a good lesson to learn.”
It is perhaps not surprising that these two highly successful trucks have taken steps to branch out. However, when they first opened a few years ago, the thought of a truck earning enough money to expand was far-fetched. When Liba opened, it was one of only four food trucks in the Bay Area. “It was really new. It was new for the customers, it was new for the legislators, it was new in every city I tried to operate,” she said. When Robles began Fiveten Burger, there were a few more trucks, but few served the kind of specialized food that pops up on everything from Instagram to food blogs.
What changed? Food market Off the Grid arrived and began providing a space for groups of trucks to come together as a community event. Bay Area food trucks were able to flourish. “It’s just exploding. … Off the Grid has been an important partner in this industry because they’ve been so successful at making food from trucks be understood and exciting and to feel safe for people,” said Lillian.
Robles agrees. “My business would probably not be half as popular as it is if not for our involvement with OTG and the continuous exposure we receive there. We came in on the tip of the wave of trucks in the bay and have watched the community grow by leaps and bounds since. There are trucks that specialize in just about every genre of food, every cuisine and practically every item. I haven’t seen a bi bim bap truck yet, but I bet there’s one getting thought about somewhere,” he said.
Fans outside of the East Bay shouldn’t worry about losing their burger or falafel fix, though. Both Lillian and Robles plan on keeping their trucks operating for the long hall. They’ve grown fond of their fans in each pocket of the bay. And, as Lillian says, after 3 1/2 years in the food truck business, “I’m finally figuring it out.”
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
[Ed’s note: the headline to this story has been changed to reflect the fact that the food truck owners mentioned are not planning on closing their trucks when they open restaurants or shops. We also updated the story with new information about the name of Robles’ restaurant which will be called Handlebar.]
Off The Grid says goodbye to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto [12.20.12]
Off The Grid makes its debut on Telegraph Avenue (07.13.12)
Gail Lillian of Liba Falafel delivers a fun twist to Mediterranean food [08.24.11]
Why does the street food scene bypass Berkeley? [10.18.10]
Crowds turn out for Berkeley’s inaugural Off The Grid [06.02.11]