The new restaurant 1000 Figs is tiny by nearly any standard, but for proprietors Theresa Galli and Gavin Cady, it represents a big expansion from the Fat Falafel, the food truck that launched the new business.
They’ve increased their range from falafel sandwiches and fries to a much fuller menu of Mediterranean flavors, they’ve grown their network of suppliers, and they’ve put down roots in a cluster of small businesses in Faubourg St. John.
“We can do a lot more now. With the truck, we had a lot of ideas that we just couldn’t do,” said Cady.
Meanwhile, Ericka Lassair has condensed her menu for Diva Dawg to a short list of exuberantly dressed hot dogs after changing her own venture from a brick-and-mortar restaurant to a food truck. But since going mobile late last year, she’s quickly seen new opportunities roll in and found more confidence in the future of her business.
“Since I started the truck, I’ve connected with more people in three months than I did in a year at the restaurant,” said Lassair.
Food trucks have evolved from humble worksite lunch purveyors to modern food culture fixtures, turning up everywhere from festivals and fundraisers to reality-style TV cooking shows. Along the way, different reads have emerged on their potential and utility.
As these two recent examples show, the food truck game can be a two-way street — moving from truck to table or table to truck. For both 1000 Figs and Diva Dawg, it’s also proven to be a fast track.
From pita, on a roll
Cady and Galli arrived in New Orleans in 2012, first taking jobs at restaurants (Domenica for him, Patois for her). Just six months later, however, they had struck out on their own by starting the Fat Falafel, a sleek black truck serving a four-item menu based around hand-formed, fried-to-order falafel, colorfully dressed with julienned carrots and beets and dribbling with skhug, a green, garlicky, Middle Eastern hot sauce. It was inspired by the street food Cady knew from growing up in New York City, and the two saw both a business niche and, with the truck, a ready entry point.
“We knew we wanted to get into the food business,” said Galli. “We didn’t necessarily know it would be a truck, but that was the ideal stepping stone.”
Cady, 24, and Galli, 26, each come across as laidback, but they’ve wasted no time in growing their business. Within a year of debuting their truck, they began planning a restaurant, which they eventually named for a prodigious fig tree growing by their Mid-City home.
“Opening a restaurant right away would have been an unrealistic challenge, but the truck wasn’t,” said Cady. “The truck gave us a good idea of what we were getting into.”
The truck also introduced the New Orleans newcomers to different parts of the city and more people than they might have been exposed to otherwise.
They built a brand and also a network of chefs, suppliers and other food truck operators who seemed eager to help them learn the ropes and grow their business, they said.
The truck, they learned, was about turning out their one specialty item in volume, and eventually they wanted to branch out. What sealed the deal for putting down roots was finding the right space, though the one they chose would hardly seem ideal to all restaurateurs. A storefront tucked into a row of businesses just off Esplanade Avenue, the dining room is just about 350 square feet, with seating for perhaps 20 if guests are comfortable squeezing in.
“It’s manageable,” Galli said. “We’re not incredibly experienced. If we opened a restaurant with 60 seats right off the bat, I think it would have been too much for us.”
The menu has expanded to entrees, salads and shared platters, and the operation has grown overall. From one employee who helped them run the truck, at 1000 Figs they now have a staff of 11.
“The biggest thing for us was our role has really changed,” said Galli. “It’s about showing people how we want things done and teaching them what we do. Before, we just did everything ourselves.”
While the Fat Falafel truck has been mostly out of circulation since 1000 Figs opened in November, Cady said they plan to resume downtown lunchtime hours and take on more weekend event bookings in the future.
Dawgs on the move
For Diva Dawg, the move from restaurant to truck may initially sound like downsizing. But for Lassair, the New Orleans native behind the brand, it’s been a chance to reboot and grow according to a different blueprint.
Now 37, Lassair was living in Dallas and working in finance when Hurricane Katrina hit and a longing to be part of her hometown’s recovery drew her back. She attended culinary school and worked at Commander’s Palace for a few years. By 2010 she began planning her own business — one based on the simple appeal of hot dogs.
She had seen other hot dog parlors open and become popular, namely Dat Dog, but since the city also had many hamburger joints that appeared to be doing well she reasoned there was room for competition.
“I starting thinking up different ideas for hot dogs with Italian flavors or Asian flavors,” she said. “But then I was like, ‘Why not New Orleans flavor?’ It was right there in front of me.”
One of her signature Diva Dawgs is based on her family’s Monday tradition of red beans and rice with fried chicken, with beans made into chili sauce studded with bite-sized chicken pieces. Because her father always douses his red beans with ketchup, she developed an “andouille ketchup,” blended with bits of sausage. An etouffee dog followed suit.
She opened Diva Dawg in the Lower Garden District in 2012, along the one-way stretch of Magazine Street. But after a year of continually scrambling to meet expenses and sliding into the red, she closed the restaurant. It was a wrenching decision, and it still pains her to drive past the old restaurant’s address, which is now the wine bar the Tasting Room.
“I know what it feels like now to go under, and it’s really hard,” Lassair said. “You definitely have to be strong to lose everything you worked hard for and get back going again.”
But she did get back up. Lassair was already participating in an entrepreneurism course through the Urban League’s Women’s Business Resource Center, and even though she had closed her restaurant her counselors encouraged her to stick with the program as she developed a new business plan. She believed her product could stand out in a different setting.
“The response to my food was good, but what I always heard was people had a hard time getting to me,” she said. “I needed a way for more people to find out about Diva Dawg.”
Earlier that year, she had been picked to appear in a cable food show “Last Call Food Brawl,” which put local restaurant owners in borrowed food trucks for a cooking competition. This was Lassair’s first experience in a food truck, but it stood out as she began putting the pieces for her next move together in her mind.
So last year, when a used food truck came up for sale, she snagged it, rebranding the vehicle with a mustard-yellow paint job and eye-catching logo of a hot dog done up like a sassy-looking party girl. This time she also took on a partner, her cousin-in-law Andre LeBlanc Jr. They scaled down her menu to keep a focus on the fundamentals and bestsellers and hit the streets in October. Now they work a mixture of lunchtime hours near the downtown hospitals, evening shifts outside bars and events and private parties.
The truck format is more flexible, she said, allowing her to go where the customers are from day to day or shift to shift. On the flip side, she’s found she must be more nimble to respond to events, to seasons, and even to the weather, since a mid-day rainstorm can ruin a lunch hour. Then there’s working from the truck itself.
“You don’t have to worry about the propane running out at your restaurant, or if the generator will start,” she said. “The first time we went out, everything that could go wrong did. But it was a good thing because we could iron it all out at once.”
She thrives on the immediacy of the feedback and arm’s reach access to customers the truck affords her. She’s also taking cues on that feedback. Since her etouffee sauce has proven a popular hot dog topping, she’s planning to bottle and sell it as a retail product. And even though her Diva Dawg truck has been rolling for just a few months, Lassair said she’s already been approached to franchise the concept. She is holding off, however.
“Now I’m taking it slower,” she said. “I’m going to do more, but this time I have to be ready for it.”