Fashioning Artistry on Wheels
The New York Times 5/24/2011
By GLENN COLLINS
“ALWAYS crazy here,” Ernie Wong was saying. It’s not just the constant ring-ring of the land lines. There’s the smash-bash of stainless steel resisting ball-peen hammers. The wheeeen of the polishers smoothing steel burrs. The shoooosss of the welding sparks. Not to mention Mr. Wong’s mother, Sylvia, schmoozing on the cellphone in Shanghainese while his father, Jimmy, issues production orders in Mandarin.
And out of nowhere, here is the owner of Le Gamin, seeking a prehealth-department-inspection checkup for his crêpe-and-frites truck.
But wait — now it’s a Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, parking outside with an emergency: there are steamer-handle issues!
And so, as spring sloshes toward summer, “we are as busy as we have ever been,” said Mr. Wong, general manager of the Shanghai Stainless Product & Design Company on Gerry Street in Brooklyn, and the go-to guy for New York’s new breed of haute food-truck entrepreneurs. “Usually we don’t get busy until March, but this year we got slammed in January.”
In a nondescript one-story factory crowned with razor wire, teeming with 15 workers arrayed on an assembly line, Shanghai Stainless has fabricated trucks for some of the headliners of roaming specialty food, including All American Diner, Korilla BBQ, Red Hook Lobster Pound, Treats Truck, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and Wafels & Dinges, as well as four members of the Rickshaw fleet — in all, some 30 mobile food factories since 2008. In addition, the company turns out about 60 food carts each year.
The New York City Department of Health lists seven other truck-and-cart manufacturers in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and there are dozens more in fierce competition. But Shanghai Stainless is a standout in this seemingly ho-hum industrial métier. By all accounts, the company brings surprising artistry to the design of the stolid, lumbering food truck, and its success has been integral to the evolution of New York’s nouveau mobile-dining phenomenon.
“Ernie’s business has grown along with the food trucks, and he’s had growing pains just trying to keep up,” said David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, a trade group. “And he is extremely creative about getting the maximum from a limited space.”
Or as Robert Arbor, the owner of Le Gamin, said, “Ernie is a specialist — the king of stainless steel on wheels.”
Trucks are greatly confined and their configuration is fanatically considered. “People tell me, ‘I need a design,’ and I tell them, ‘Well, I need your menu,’ ” Mr. Wong said. “Without that, we can’t determine the workflow, which must be tightly planned.”
Mr. Wong starts off with exquisitely detailed computer-assisted design drawings in black, green, blue and red executed by an office expert, Jimmy Xie. “Our design,” Mr. Wong said, “creates circles around each person in the unit — so each worker can be within range of their resources. For example, if you’re frying, you must be within reach of the freezer.”
Most trucks have two to three workers, and their interaction must be choreographed; some trucks, however, like those serving soft ice cream, have but one employee, “and they’d better be near the sprinkles while the customers see them at the spigots,” Mr. Wong said.
Scattered about the shop, and on the patchwork sidewalk, were five trucks in varying stages of metamorphosis into nomadic food retailers, a process that takes two to three months. Virtually all food trucks are step vans: those boxy, ubiquitous workhorses that are but 30 inches from the asphalt and are named, duh, for the ease of stepping into them. Furthermore, they afford street-level side windows at customer height.
Those window cutouts are often “constructed for the stage value — to show what happens inside the truck,” Mr. Wong said. “We highlight what is visually close to the customer — making waffles, say.”
Mr. Weber explained: “Customers get invested in the story of the truck, so it’s important for them to see a hands-on entrepreneur in the window. Restaurants have customers, but food trucks have followers.”
While the glut of food trucks in Los Angeles has caused some left-coasters to affect a trend-is-over sneer, “New Yorkers have the most discriminating customers of any American city, and we have unparalleled urban density,” Mr. Weber said, with all due Gotham chauvinism. “I think the market for more trucks is very strong.”
He estimates that there are some 250 trucks serving savories and sweets on city streets compared with a handful a decade ago. More are on the way. In January the Parks Department put out a request for 21 truck and 33 cart concessionaires to serve “high quality specialty food” in 40 parks in the five boroughs. “We’re already getting business from that,” Mr. Wong said.
These days, demand pressure has created a Wild West marketplace for the most marriageable former FedEx, DHL and Post Office trucks. Would-be owners are journeying to out-of-state truck auctions to kick the tires literally; they also jump to Craigslist and other resale sites.
A bargain-basement food-truck makeover, thrown together by a hungry fabricator, can cost as little as $30,000 these days, but Mr. Wong’s average is $40,000 to $50,000 and more, and $100,000 is not uncommon for owners demanding both bells and whistles. Other basics: a solid-color paint job can run $2,000 to $3,000; vinyl add-on decals trumpeting the truck’s logo can be $3,000 to $4,000; and generators cost $2,000 to $10,000. Aside from the mileage expense of gasoline or diesel fuel, some power-hungry trucks require 25 kilowatts, the power usage of an entire private home.
Mr. Wong uses only corrosion-resistant, restaurant-grade 304 stainless in installing propane cooking facilities and generator-powered electric refrigeration units, adding some 5,000 pounds to the weight of an 8,000-pound truck chassis and cargo box.
He said, “We guarantee that our trucks pass inspection.” Mr. Wong goes through the health department process with all his customers. “That whole roach-coach reputation is so wrong,” he said. “Our trucks are clean, and the owners are proud of the quality of their special food.”
With that, a van arrived with a bulky $418 parts delivery; orders were issued and it was instantly forklifted into the shop. “Always crazy here,” Mr. Wong repeated.
To Mr. Weber of the trade association, “food trucks are an incubator for new businesses, for entrepreneurs who can’t afford $500,000 to open a restaurant in New York City — but who can afford $100,000 to launch a truck.”
And just as Shanghai Stainless has enabled undercapitalized newcomers to achieve their dreams, the company has played a similar role for the Wong family itself, which survived Maoist capitalist-bashing in China.
“Something was taken away in China, and we built it back up here,” Mr. Wong said. “And we built back the family name as well.”
Mr. Wong’s grandfather owned a prewar iron-smelting and fabricating business in Shanghai, but, as a boss, was imprisoned for eight years after the onset of Communist rule. His son, Jimmy, fled the country when he was a teenager. Now 72, Jimmy Wong worked as a metalworker on ships, migrated to the United States, then repaired trucks, did work for carting companies and even did a stint as a waiter.
In 1979, the family established a steel-fabrication business, Shanghai Stove Inc., on Center Street in Chinatown, and in 1992 moved to Gerry Street in Brooklyn, given skyrocketing Manhattan rents. Early on, Jimmy Wong was entranced by the shimmer and humble utility of stainless architecture; his popular sellers were shiny steam tables, custom countertops, smokehouses for curing roast duck and pork, and 1,000-pound wok ranges.
But stainless happened to be the core constituent of street carts, too, and the company began turning them out — and, before long, larger towable grill carts as well. In the late 1990s the company built its first modest trucks for food concessions at the Staten Island Ferry in Manhattan; soon word got around to would-be truckers elsewhere.
Nevertheless, in New York the mobile-food business “was mostly undifferentiated — generic coffee trucks, halal trucks, soft-serve ice cream trucks,” Mr. Weber said. “Then, a few years ago, we saw focused, branded trucks appealing to a very different customer demographic.”
In 2007, Mr. Wong said, “Kim Ima was the turning point for us,” referring to the pioneering owner of the Treats Truck, who still attracts long lines on city streets. “Hers was new — a focused, branded product, not something generic. I thought: This concept? This is interesting.”
Ms. Ima, for her part, credits Mr. Wong’s expertise with getting her up and running and profitable. “He was creative and enthusiastic,” she said, adding, “Ernie’s truck designs are works of art.” Ms. Ima intends to frame his first rendering of the Treats Truck and put it on her wall.
As for Mr. Wong, he nearly didn’t make the frame at all. After earning a finance degree at Baruch College, he went to work for Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. In Michael Corleone fashion, though, just when he thought he was out, the stainless sirens pulled him back in. That was eight years ago. “It made sense to come back and run the family business and get my hands dirty,” said Mr. Wong, who, thanks to his square-jawed good looks, is sometimes mistaken for the Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung.
He has hardly landed in a pop-star neighborhood. Shanghai Stainless stands now as the harmonic centerpiece of an unsettled realm, the empire of weedy, rubble-strewn lots that is the Broadway Triangle parcel, that racial and religious no-man’s-land at the juncture of Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. It has been mired in rezoning battles and a federal investigation into low-income housing development there.
Despite the squabbling, Hasidic mothers push their strollers in front of the shop and wave hi, as the truck workers banter with black and Hispanic passers-by. Something about a truck?
Then here, suddenly, was Keith Klein, owner of the Milk Truck, arriving to discuss the design of the step van Mr. Wong was building for him. “I’d like that awning,” he was saying, “but not scalloped, though.”
Mr. Klein told a reporter proudly that his 14,000-pound, 2002 truck was a former newspaper delivery van for The Asbury Park Press. “I found it on eBay, drove to Toms River to see it — and bought it on the spot,” he said.
At that point yet another FedEx truck materialized. A signature was required.
Mr. Wong shook his head as he signed, and said, “always crazy here.”