Small Axe Truck owners, Bill Leavy (left) and Karl Deuben. [Photo: Tom Minervino]
The Small Axe Truck, Eater Maine's 2013 Food Truck of the Year, has gone into hibernation for the winter, but its owners, Bill Leavy and Karl Deuben, aren't taking a break. Both will be working at Miyake Diner when it opens next week and Karl can also be found at the butcher counter at Rosemont Market. They're also searching for a spot for a brick and mortar restaurant. The guys recently met up with Eater for a Q&A at Tandem Coffee in East Bayside, a place they often parked the truck for breakfast, brunch and evening service. On weekdays for lunch, they'd move over to a spot on Congress Street.
Bill and Karl discussed the lessons and challenges from their first season on the road, their incredible Smokestack Lightning burger, the type of restaurant they hope to open, some changes Portland could make to help out the food trucks, and lots more.
You guys have plenty of experience cooking in restaurant kitchens. What did you learn cooking on the truck?
BL: I found it to be a lot more non-cooking work. Getting things ready, loading the truck up, getting the truck out there, setting up, doing service, breaking it down, packing it up, going back to the base kitchen, consolidating, cleaning the truck. All that through a 10-hour day. Sometimes we'd throw a third service at night into the mix.
KD: When you're in a restaurant and you have downtime, you can clean and there's product accessible. The way we ran service is that I'd do breakfast by myself and Bill would be back at the base kitchen prepping for lunch. So even communicating about what food to run or changes to make, we'd have to do it during lunch service, or if we had a dinner service, we'd rush back, clean everything, then get back on the truck and try to talk. We didn't get to cook together as much. If we were together in a restaurant, we'd be next to each other most of the day and could talk. If you bring all the food on the truck it takes up space, so it's not on there to prep. When it was a little slower on the truck, that was the struggle because you can't do anything to be productive. For both of us who had it beaten into our heads in training that you need to be productive and challenge yourself every minute of every day, it was tough. It's like you're out on an island. We did find office work -- when it slowed down, we could get emails out and get back to people. That was a way to use the time on the truck if we weren't cooking.
A lot has been said about the restrictive food truck regulations in town and there's been plenty of discussion on changes that could be made. Is there anything the city could change that would really help you guys?
BL: The only thing I can think of is that it would be nice to have a plot of land somewhere like they do in other cities. It might be tough in a small place like Portland, but it would be good because we wouldn't be near the restaurants. We respect the restaurants owners and understand their concerns. A designated space would be good.
KD: Like a park. There's food vendors in Tommy's Park. Across from our Congress Street location, there's a beautiful park there that's underutilized. It would be great if trucks could park around there and draw people to grab lunch and eat in the park. Our truck is long so it's not practical for us to drive around looking for parking spots. The streets we're allowed to operate on are relatively restricted as well. We've had some business owners ask us if we'd come park outside of their business but we weren't able to because we aren't allowed to park on that street -- and it's not streets with restaurants, I don't know if it's residential zoning or what, but the map of streets we're allowed to operate on is limited.
BL: Just to echo what Karl said, it would be nice to use parks like other cities do, with benches, garbage receptacles, things like that.
Your menu changed regularly. What inspired the offerings?
BL: A lot of the change came out of the seasonal products. The smokestack burger came out of the shishito peppers that were in season that we got from Green Spark Farm. Then we found a great way to make the burger: Karl is breaking down the meat, smoking the meat in house, then grinding the meat to make the patties. Then pairing it with the local peppers.
KD: Going into the second year, that's something we hope to do more by focusing our hours and doing some different dishes, changing it up even more than we did. A lot of times, we'd change our menu based on the venue. If we were coming to Rising Tide or Bunker Brewing, we'd try to make a menu that we knew would sell there. We'd utilize their beer in the dish. We did some nachos with our hashbrowns and a cheese sauce that we'd finish with beer from the breweries, or we'd make a tempura batter with their beer. It's not cross-marketing because you're physically there, but it makes a good partnership.
BL: We have the freedom to do that and people enjoy it. We're not a specific food truck, so we're able to freewheel.
Was the Smokestack Lightning burger the top seller?
BL: The burger sold a lot, but surprisingly the curry bowls were always right there with it. For someone looking for a healthier alternative, those were very popular.
KD: The burger got some press and drew people to the truck, then the next time they came they'd try the curry. That's what we noticed was that the burger sales spiked, then went down but everything else went up. People started trying other things on the menu.
Your dishes have a number of elements that require prep time. You're not just throwing something on the grill and serving it a few minutes later.
KD: That's how we make food. And that's why we didn't hire any staff. If we had to pay staff to do that, we would have lasted two weeks. Because we cared about that, we made sacrifices on our end to put time into the preparation. If we were just going to be owners paying people to operate the truck for us, we'd be buying patties.
Did you see a lot of people making the trip here to East Bayside just to try your food?
BL: We did. We saw a nice crowd at unconventional breakfast hours. Our rush came after 9. Saturday mornings were very busy for breakfast here. And we had some nice nights at the brewery where they'd do tastings on Friday nights.
KD: Especially if there was also live music. Because of the deck there, people would come on Saturdays for food and a beer. Or stop by after a run or Crossfit or a yoga class. It's a food truck, so you don't need to shower first.
It was a hot summer. Did it get pretty warm in the truck?
BL: Surprisingly not too bad. With the vents on top that pop open and the hood system, it's better than some restaurant kitchens we've worked in. Especially for Karl, he's tall and was cooking in a tiny closet back in the old Miyake on Spring Street.
Did you consider staying open for the winter?
BL: We did. We took at far as we could, right up to the holidays. We built the outdoor enclosure with a propane heater inside, but it was tough. It's not just the weather, it's the mindset. November, December, it's not a great time for food trucks.
KD: The weather in December was historically horrible. That was the deciding factor that squashed some hope of staying open. We had opportunities for other employment for the winter. We've been in this town a long time and have friends we love to help out, and visa versa.
When Miyake Diner opens, you guys will be pretty much running the kitchen?
KD: Bill primarily. I'll be moonlighting, but Bill and Masa will be essentially running that show.
You've talked about plans to open a brick and mortar establishment. How is that progressing?
BL: We've been getting a lot of interest from folks who would like to help us out. We're always looking for properties. We haven't found one yet, but we will. It's an ongoing search.
KD: We're looking to create a neighborhood feel in a restaurant. We're looking in the Deering area, in town as well. But we want it to be a neighborhood spot with a nice bar and have it be focused on comfort, food served in a comfortable environment.
BL: We'd like to have something for the people of Portland to come to on a regular basis.
Would the truck continue on once the restaurant opens?
KD: I think so. We'd like to focus the use of the truck when that happens. It's an older vehicle and if we try to run it six days a week, eventually things will start breaking down. Going into our second year, we're taking on more catering, more weddings. We'll see how that develops to see if it's sensible part of the business model to enhance. We plan to still utilize the truck in some way, shape or form with the brick and mortar. It makes sense because we'd have a kitchen space and wouldn't have to rent it. The truck would be used in a way to bring in revenue for the restaurant.
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