Clay Norris fell in love with Middle Eastern food when he was a poor, hungry culinary student in New York City. He’d get out of class late, and on his walk back to the train station, he’d grab a $3 sandwich from one of the many falafel carts.

Later, he worked with an Egyptian man in a French restaurant, and they would throw a Middle Eastern or Egyptian special onto the menu once in a while.

So it was a no-brainer that when he and his wife, Jenna Friedman, decided to open a food truck in Portland, they settled on serving Middle Eastern food. CN Shawarma, which advertised its food as “Arabian BBQ on wheels” when it debuted in June 2014, proved so popular that the developers building the new apartment complex at the corner of Anderson and Fox streets in East Bayside approached the couple and asked if they would be interested in opening a restaurant in the building.

Now Norris and Friedman are converting their beloved blue food truck into a 30-seat brick-and-mortar restaurant to be called Baharat. The restaurant is scheduled to open in mid-February.

“We were planning on running our truck longer,” Norris said, “but when we got the opportunity and found out what neighborhood it was in, we jumped at it.”

The owners of the Small Axe food truck knew from the start that they evenutally wanted to open a restaurant.

The owners of the Small Axe food truck knew from the start that they evenutally wanted to open a restaurant. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

At least eight food trucks in Portland have now converted, or are in the process of converting, into full-fledged restaurants. The most recent to announce their plans are Mami, which serves Japanese cuisine and is setting up shop at 339 Fore St., and Bite Into Maine, which is building out a small place at 185 U.S. Route 1 in Scarborough that will seat fewer than 20 people; it will also offer takeout for locals frustrated by waiting in the long lines of tourists at Fort Williams park in Cape Elizabeth, where the truck parks in summer. And it will serve as a commissary for their food truck.

Others that have made the transition are Small Axe food truck, now the East Ender restaurant at 47 Middle St.; the owner of the Love Kupcakes food truck has opened Baristas and Bites at 460 Fore St.; Mainely Burgers, which operates three food trucks in Maine, opened its first restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.; Hella Good Tacos started out as a taco cart and now has a stationary location at 500 Washington Ave.; and Urban Sugar opened its first brick-and-mortar location at Sugarloaf to feed hot doughnuts to cold skiers.

FIRST COWBOYS AND KIDS

Serving food from mobile transportation has a long history in this country dating back to the chuckwagons of the Old West, and later ice cream trucks and lunch trucks parked at construction sites. The idea took a more sophisticated turn after the economy collapsed in 2008. Chefs began buying food trucks when they couldn’t get financing for restaurants.

The Bite Into Maine truck at Fort Williams Park. The owners plan to open a small place in Scarborough.

The Bite Into Maine truck at Fort Williams Park. The owners plan to open a small place in Scarborough. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Since that time, the number of food trucks in America has at least doubled, to about 8,000, with trucks in every state, according to Richard Myrick, editor-in-chief of Mobile Cuisine, a trade magazine for food trucks. Portland has 28 licensed food trucks (and 24 licensed pushcarts).

No statistics show how often a food truck becomes a restaurant because the industry is still too small for national agencies to track the numbers, Myrick said. But he thinks conversions are growing.

“People that have built their brands in food trucks are now getting approached by investors,” he said.

Modern-day food trucks are launched for a variety of reasons. They give aspiring restaurateurs a chance to “practice” running a food business and create appealing menu items that will draw customers. They help a chef build his or her brand and reputation before he invests his life savings, or a huge bank loan, into a full restaurant.

A potential restaurateur can get started in the business with a food truck for $50,000 or less, according to Myrick. (The average start-up cost for a restaurant in a leased space is $275,000, according to a survey done by restaurantowner.com.) “You’re also learning the hospitality side,” Myrick said, “which is something a lot of these chefs don’t necessarily have from their experience working in kitchens.”

Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy, owners of the Small Axe food truck, knew from the start that their final goal was a restaurant. But they also knew what they didn’t know – the business side. With the food truck, Leavy says, “We got to see directly how labor and food costs affected our bottom line.” Leavy said it was also “very important” to them to get their names out, and get out from under the wings of the well-known chefs they’d worked with before, including Masa Miyake and James Beard award winner Rob Evans.

Austin Miller and his Mami food truck. Miller and Hana Tamaki plan to open a restaurant on Fore Street in Portland.

Austin Miller and his Mami food truck. Miller and Hana Tamaki plan to open a restaurant on Fore Street in Portland. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Austin Miller, who owns Mami with his business and life partner Hana Tamaki, said their biggest eye-openers were learning to manage money and to brand and market themselves. They’d both worked in restaurants all their lives, but the money was never their own. The food truck, Miller said, “made it seem more real.”

“You don’t even realize small things, like going to the bank for change,” he said. “We have to fill the register with money. There’s so much that goes into it.”

How do you know when it’s time to make the leap to brick and mortar?

Like Norris and Friedman, Miller and Tamaki planned to turn Mami into a restaurant one day, but they weren’t yet seriously looking for a space. After they’d had their truck about a year and a half, though, their broker called and told them about a turnkey location on Fore Street, which used to house Mainely Wraps. They hope to open there this spring.

“It felt right when we went in,” Miller said. “It was one of those gut feelings.”

For Sarah and Karl Sutton, owners of Bite Into Maine, opening a small restaurant as they move into their seventh year of operation is “more of a next step in diversifying than an end game.”

Karl Sutton of South Portland runs the Bite Into Maine food truck with his wife, Sarah, and serves two lobster rolls to another customer at Fort Williams Park.

Karl Sutton of South Portland runs the Bite Into Maine food truck with his wife, Sarah, and serves two lobster rolls to another customer at Fort Williams Park. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Their Fort Williams food truck is their bread-and-butter. People line up for their award-winning lobster rolls even when it’s raining. But the business is seasonal, and they hope their brick-and-mortar spot will provide them with income year round. Karl Sutton called it an “easy, organic progression.”

“It’s a small takeout space, so it’s not overly ambitious,” Karl Sutton said. “We’re hoping to be able to make a little more income from it, and it’s not a huge build-out from scratch.”

They hope to open by the beginning of summer.

I’LL HAVE THE CHOICE, PLEASE

Transitioning from a food truck to a restaurant has other benefits. Menus can expand, offering customers more choice and chefs more opportunities to showcase their creativity.

Sarah Sutton said she and her husband will keep their menu Maine-centric, but they want to add a few things, and bring back some customer favorites from the early years of the food truck, such as pulled pork sliders with Maine maple chipotle barbecue sauce.

“It’s not going to be a huge menu, but it will be a little bit more rounded out,” she said.

Norris said the Baharat menu will feature kebabs, hummus and other spreads, falafel and a shawarma spit.

The future home of Baharat, which will serve Middle Eastern food, with a larger menu than CN Shawarma.

The future home of Baharat, which will serve Middle Eastern food, with a larger menu than CN Shawarma. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There’s a lot of ingredients to explore and a lot of spices,” he said, “and the truck definitely limited us with what we could serve.”

The owners of East Ender, who were the first food truck owners in Portland to convert to a restaurant, had to bring certain menu items to their permanent location for fear of customer revolt.

“We definitely had to bring the burger over,” Leavy said. “We still serve it today in our restaurant. It’s very popular.”

Miller and Tamaki, who are keeping the name Mami for their restaurant, said they will add more traditional izakaya-style food (Japanese pub food) since they will “no longer be held back by the limitations of what the truck is,” Miller said.

That means hot pots, braised eel over rice, broth dishes, and ramen, which was not practical to serve from the food truck.

“You can’t really find to-go bowls for ramen,” Miller said. “It just doesn’t exist. You can’t really hand out nice big ceramic bowls of ramen and be like, ‘Can you bring that back when you’re done?’ ”

HERE’S THE CHECK

Expanded menus are nice, but moving from diesel to dining room also has its challenges.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got big rent and property taxes that need to be paid, which means that you can’t just have 50 to 60 tickets to make your nut for the day,” Myrick said.

The East Ender restaurant in January 2014.

The East Ender restaurant in January 2014. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Food truck operators-turned- restaurateurs have to find linen suppliers, decide on a uniform for the wait staff – and find a wait and kitchen staff, he said. They also have to find someone they can trust to manage the books, and manage the store when they aren’t around. Obviously, they need to find the right location, too. Deuben and Leavy said their biggest challenge was finding a good location that had the potential to make money.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the food truck? Myrick said some chefs keep the food truck to send to big festivals. Others keep the truck going but use the restaurant kitchen as their commissary instead of leasing a commercial kitchen to prep the truck food. And sometimes chefs sell their truck and don’t look back.

Deuben and Leavy considered keeping their truck for catering, but quickly changed their mind. “We were putting all our time and effort into building up this restaurant in a very competitive market, so having a peripheral vehicle that can break down, that requires maintenance, it just made sense that we sell the truck after we opened and were established here,” Deuben said.

Conversely, for Bite Into Maine, it would be business suicide to let go of their truck. In fact, they plan to buy a second truck that will be parked at Allagash Brewing Co. a few days a week.

Norris admits he has “emotional ties” to his CN Shawarma truck, and while he’s informally shopping it around, he’s not sure he’s ready to let it go. It will, he says, “come down to finances.”

Also logistics: “It’s not an easy thing to run a truck for a concert at Thompson’s Point,” Norris said. “You need to have four talented people out there who can move quickly and feed 400 people within an hour and a half. If I’m going to try and staff my restaurant, it’s not realistic to staff the food truck this summer.”

CN Shawarma debuted in Portland in 2014.

CN Shawarma debuted in Portland in 2014. Courtesy of Jenna Friedman and Clay Norris

Miller and Tamaki plan to hold onto their truck and continue taking it to breweries, catering jobs and concerts. Miller sees it as a promotional tool for their new restaurant.

“It will be an extension of us, and it will be easier because we’ll have the restaurant to store and prep food,” he said. “Instead of paying for a commercial kitchen, it’s our own kitchen and stuff we’re already cooking.”

Since 2011, city officials, local restaurateurs and would-be food truck operators have debated at length food truck regulations and whether Portland even needed the trucks at all. One argument in their favor was that they give entrepreneurs opportunities to test out restaurant concepts. Food truck owners say they feel vindicated by the number of trucks that are now transforming into restaurants. Miller notes that, especially in Portland, where lots of experienced chefs are behind the wheel, “There’s a lot of talent inside the trucks.”