Food truck millionaires who have beaten the odds

When brothers Pete and Ben Van Leeuwen and Laura O’Neill decided to try out making ice cream in their Brooklyn apartment a decade ago, their idea was simple: Reinvent the ice-cream truck with great tasting ingredients. The only problem was, they had no experience in actually making the product.

“We have never made ice cream before,” Ben, 33, said. “So we got a bunch of cookbooks and started cooking.”

Using fair trade high-end ingredients, many of them organic, they got to work and developed artisanal flavors that today include Honeycomb, Sicilian Pistachio and Vegan Mint Chocolate Chip. The trio hit the streets of New York City with $50,000 in investment from friends and family with their Van Leeuwen Ice Cream truck, a retrofitted post office vehicle. The Financial District and Canal Street proved to be a bust, so they rolled into Soho, hoping for some luck.

“By the time we opened the window, there was a line of 30 people,” Ben said. “And the line remained there all summer.”

Those lines have been growing far beyond Soho ever since. Year one, in 2008, they did about $400,000 in revenue, jumping up past $1 million in year two. Fast-forward to today, they have nine stores across New York City and Los Angeles and six trucks, set to do some $20 million in revenue in 2018 without ever taking another dime of outside investment. They’re also retailing in Whole Foods stores in the Northeast and California.

A food phenomenon

Food trucks like Van Leeuwen Ice Cream have seen exponential growth in the past five years. Data from IBIS World shows revenue growth of 7.9 percent to nearly $870 million from 2011 through 2016, with some 4,000 food trucks nationwide. The National Restaurant Association data shows that over the past decade on a unit basis, eating and drinking places posted a 1.6 percent compound annual growth rate versus 1.7 percent for quick-service establishments, while mobile caterers grew 10.2 percent.

But that growth is projected to slow through 2021 to a rate of just 3 percent annually, IBIS World forecasts, due to regulatory hurdles. It’s something Van Leeuwen is considering as the brand grows.

“Right now we keep the trucks out because we love them, but it’s very challenging to make them work financially in New York City. In other markets it’s much better. In Los Angeles it’s very truck-friendly,” Ben said.

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While start-up costs and monthly overhead are far less for operating a restaurant on wheels, the business can be very labor intensive — something former litigator Eric Silverstein, 34, learned when launching his truck, The Peached Tortilla, in Austin in 2010. Silverstein wanted to raise capital to open a restaurant but couldn’t get the backing. He put up $30,000 of his own cash and raised about $9,000 from outside investors to launch the business featuring southern and Asian influenced tacos, burritos and bowls.

“We had some shifts where we were making $150 or $200. We didn’t know where we were going; operationally, food trucks are very rough. It took a big toll on me personally and mentally. But if you’re doing it, you need to be ready for an all-out war on the street, basically, for a few years.”

Silverstein eventually won that war, doing about $200,000 in business in year one and seeing 100 percent growth year-over-year since then. The brand is projecting revenue of more than $3 million this year, thanks to the opening of The Peached Tortilla restaurant in 2014, along with catering events and running his two trucks.

Ben Van Leeuwen, CEO of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, is on track to do $20 million in revenue in 2018 after launching in 2008 with just $50,000 in capital for the artisan ice-cream truck.

Kate Rogers | CNBC
Ben Van Leeuwen, CEO of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, is on track to do $20 million in revenue in 2018 after launching in 2008 with just $50,000 in capital for the artisan ice-cream truck.

Marti Lieberman also decided to go the brick-and-mortar route with her business, Mac Mart, in Philadelphia. The now-27-year-old launched the homemade mac-and-cheese truck after graduating college in 2013 on the campus of her alma mater, Drexel University, and quickly saw how the concept caught on, booking private catering gigs for weddings and corporate events. Her sister Pamela, 31, soon got on board to help grow the business, with a $70,000 loan from a family member.

“It was a double-edged sword,” Lieberman said. “It was great for our business, but it became very difficult for the people who liked our food to get to us. We didn’t realize the catering aspect would be so lucrative.”

Today the business is projected to do about $1.5 million in sales and is in the process of opening additional Mac Mart locations. The food truck is also booked through 2018, and all of the recipes are made from scratch with homemade ingredients, save for Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce and Frank’s RedHot Sauce on certain orders.

“It’s so rewarding, seeing how many people love our recipes,” Pamela said. “We love making people happy with our food.”

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