Three years ago, Executive Chef Bobby Moore of the Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Washington, was turning down catering business due to a high demand for offsite catering. The lodge’s restaurant, the Barking Frog, is a local favorite situated in the midst of Washington wine country, which encompasses more than 100 wineries. At a time when food trucks were emerging on the nearby Seattle and Portland culinary scenes, Moore had an epiphany: “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a food truck with an awesome kitchen, so we can deliver the same quality of food as the Barking Frog, but do it beyond the brick and mortar? Private homes, birthday parties, weddings—we could cook in the middle of a field if we had to.”
The lodge’s owner agreed, so Moore set about researching, interviewing, and shopping for the ideal truck, as well as for consultants and designers who could transform it into a state-of-the-art mobile kitchen. When it was finished, the 26-foot rolling restaurant was home to a six-burner oven, a large flat-top stove, a pizza prep station, two full-sized deep fryers, two full-sized refrigerators, a freezer, a triple sink, a hand sink, and a hot box.
The outside of the truck was crucial to Moore as well, so he and the Barking Frog’s Catering Director Erin Laccinole sat down with the lodge’s marketing team and a designer to come up with a rustic, whimsical look.
“We wanted the outside of the truck to represent the restaurant, so it’s covered in these [faux] wood planks, with the back door paralleling those found in the restaurant,” Moore explains. “We named the truck the ‘Road Toad,’ although some wanted to call it the ‘Barking Frog Mobile Kitchen (BFMK),’ so we just put all those names on the truck. We had the idea of having a bunch of the staff’s favorite sayings printed all over, like ‘bacon tastes good,’ a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. Also, the phrase, ‘must be nice’ has become a catchphrase at the lodge because so many people have said those words to us, envying our jobs here.”
For a total of $260,000, which includes $80,000 for the truck itself, Moore says the truck is everything he dreamed of and more.
“We even have a fantastic automatic retractable awning, since we have a lot of rain in the Pacific Northwest, and a flat-screen TV monitor outside to display our menu,” he adds.
The next step, says Laccinole, was hiring Catering Manager Jessica Padilla, a lead cook, and three dedicated servers for the mobile kitchen, then moving on to develop the menu.
The Road Toad’s food truck menu was limited to five of the most popular items from the Barking Frog. The menu stays consistent and includes Braised Short Rib Sandwich with Fries ($16), Grilled Chicken Club with Fries ($14), BFMK Fries ($6), BFMK Mac ‘n’ Cheese (with bacon and truffles, $10), Grand Marnier Prawn Salad ($12), and the Arugula and Beet Salad ($10).
“The first year, we went to a ton of food truck events, pods in Seattle for business lunches, wineries, festivals, anything to get our name out there and create buzz. We even just drove it around sometimes, because it makes quite an impression when you see it,” explains Laccinole.
Laccinole admits that despite the team’s best efforts, the Road Toad lost money that first year.
“It was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Part of the loss came from spending the marketing dollars to promote the truck, which was an absolute necessity, but the other part was in predicting how much we would sell at any given food truck event. If we overestimated how much food we’d need, we lost money. If we underestimated, we lost money. It’s a guessing game,” Laccinole says.
By the end of the second year in circulation, the truck finally broke even, but by the third year, the team decided to shift focus from retail events to private, catered events to control labor and food costs. After making a profit of $250,000 that year, the lodge invested in a secondary mobile kitchen, a smaller van called the Tadpole, to transport additional food, equipment, or staff for larger catered events.
“Now we are solely an offsite extension for the lodge,” says Padilla. “Anything the restaurant offers, the truck offers. We’re all the same catering department, but we’re reaping the benefits from both the restaurant and the mobile kitchen. The majority of the business is run-off from the hotel to the truck, adding around 20% in business to the Barking Frog, but it works both ways.”
In its fourth year, the Road Toad has catered events for up to 640 people, utilizing additional staff from the hotel, who are cross-trained to support both the truck and the restaurant. Driving sometimes up to 100 miles away, it has catered plated events, buffets, meeting breaks, cocktail parties, family-style meals, and even food-truck-style, casual events, all priced per person based on minimums and the type of event, day of the week, time of day, and time of year.
The menus now are extensive and include breakfasts such as the Morningtide, which features assorted wraps including Swiss chard, pico de gallo, avocado, scallion, cilantro, and Cotija cheese; bacon, caramelized onions, sweet baby peppers, and smoked cheddar; or Black Forest ham, roasted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and Brie. Luncheon buffets include the Pan Asian Palace, featuring items such as spring rolls, potstickers, wontons, BBQ pork, grilled chicken with spicy peanut sauce, and orange beef tenderloin tips with scallions. Plated dinners feature beef tenderloin, truffle-whipped potatoes, summer vegetable medley, and gorgonzola cream and demi-glace or the pistachio-crusted lamb loin, farro-bacon-herb medley, haricot verts, and rosemary demi-glace.
Though the Road Toad had rocky beginnings, it is now “going gangbusters,” Moore says. His words of advice to other hotels looking to invest in a mobile kitchen? “Do your research, construct a strong business plan, line up a solid, cross-trained support team, and have fun with it.”
Ashley Allen is an author and writer based in Leesburg, Virginia, whose work also appears in The Huffington Post.
Photos by Jeff Caven.