Food trucks and carts are so popular these days there’s even a movie – “Chef” – about them. But Sarah and Karl Sutton got in a little ahead of the curve, opening their Bite Into Maine truck, specializing in lobster rolls, at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park in 2011. The couple – both with backgrounds primarily in photography and videography – moved to Maine from Minneapolis 10 years ago. They had always wanted to run their own business, so when Cape Elizabeth opened up several spots at the park for food carts, they applied and, somewhat to their surprise, were given a spot.
Q. How did you come up with the off-beat idea of selling lobster rolls at a cart along the coast just a short distance from Portland Head Light?
A. That was kind of serendipitous. We really hadn’t been thinking about that, but we threw in our hat and we always wanted to do a lobster roll cart because we knew people come to Maine and want a good lobster roll and don’t necessarily want to sit in a restaurant to get it. So that was our idea.
We were so delusional. We didn’t know what we were doing and we had about a month or a month-and-a-half to get up and running. We outfitted a utility trailer because we didn’t have the resources to buy a full food truck and there were also size restrictions (at the park). It took about two years to really fit it out and lay it out.
Q. What’s a typical day like for you?
A. This time of year, we’re getting up and trying to be at our commissary kitchen from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. to take deliveries and do a lot of prep beforehand. We get our lobster meat cooked, cracked and picked for us. At the cart, we’re really pretty much a bun-grilling operation because we have everything prepped. A lot of bigger trucks can do more cooking, but we’re small and don’t have that kind of operation. We open at 11 a.m. and are open to 6 p.m. and are out of the park by 7 p.m., but then there’s rounds of dishes and restocking and cleaning, so this time of year, we’re working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Q. What do food truck and cart operators do in the winter?
A. I can’t speak for other people, but we spent the winter at Sunday River. I think it’s something that could grow – food trucks at ski resorts. They approached us specifically because they wanted us there for the lobster rolls. But we do offer hot things, like lobster corn chowder and lobster mac-and-cheese and stuff more appropriate to a cold climate.
Q. How did food trucks get so popular so quickly?
A. If you look at it historically, the recession had a lot to do with it. People were being laid off from restaurants and saw (operating a food truck) as a way to make money on a much smaller scale with less overhead. There are a lot of people who want to work for themselves. It’s not cheap to run a food truck, but it is an opportunity to start your own business. A lot of food trucks, I think, will become brick-and-mortar businesses and this is an opportunity to try new things. Sometimes you have to overcome that you’re a food truck – initially, some people seem apprehensive. People might try you once and unless you’re good, they won’t come back.
Q. You were originally thinking of operating a truck in Portland, but the city didn’t allow them until a couple of years ago. How did that come about?
A. It started with Creative Portland, which saw this as a creative leg of our economy. We were already in operation at Fort Williams, but Portland set up a food tuck task force and they had restaurant owners and the Maine Restaurant Association involved, but only one person who was really involved in food trucks. We attended all of those meetings, and offered what input we could. It seemed like they meshed the rules with (sidewalk) food cart restrictions and somehow they came up with a distance restriction that meant food trucks couldn’t cluster together. Food trucks want to cluster.
So it took a year to get it resolved, but I think the rules are getting better and people are trying to figure out how to work in the boundaries. Food trucks present an opportunity for other businesses – people have found that food trucks bring people to their businesses. So I think it’s going to get better.
Q. Could food trucks end up being victims of their own popularity and they’ll be too many for the city to support?
A. My husband always says the market will decide and that will determine where it will grow and by how much. People will decide what they want to eat. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for people to decide how to use food trucks, like for catering and weddings and block parties and company events. We’re working on a second food truck specifically for catering and special events.
Q. Is there a lot of heated competition among food trucks and between food trucks and restaurants?
A. It’s not as adversarial as the media makes it out to be between food trucks and restaurants. Food trucks are a good way for a restaurant to expand, like if they want to do more catering. And a lot of food truck owners end up opening brick-and-mortar restaurants. We want to be at Fort Williams forever, but we eventually want to have our own brick-and-mortar takeout place. And food trucks work together well. I don’t think of other food trucks as my competition; we think of our competition as other places that make really good lobster rolls. We would love if we had somebody serving something (very different) right next to us. There’s such an opportunity for people to do one thing really, really well.
Q. So you’re still happy with your decision to jump in?
A: We’re really spoiled: We have the best office view ever! A food truck is one of those opportunities where you get to meet your customer and there’s instant gratification from doing that. We’re just constantly thrilled when people come from, say the Midwest, for lobster rolls and we’re constantly humbled by that. It’s not for everyone. It’s a lot of physical work and a lot of hustling, but it’s what we do.