Hawaii’s demand for street grinds is still going full steam, even if food truck vendors riding the culinary craze sometimes run out of gas.
Nine lunch wagons given up by their previous owners were snapped up in a single week last fall, a good indication that the meals-on-wheels industry is robust, said Alicia Brandt, co-owner of Oahu Auctions, which handled the resales.
The vehicles, many from the defunct Street Food Stadium in Waikiki, were grabbed up by aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs eager to “breathe life into them,” Brandt said.
The stadium opened in April 2016 on Kalakaua Avenue and folded after only six months. The leftover trucks, of all shapes and sizes, makes and models, were generally in good condition, and most came equipped with kitchen appliances, Brandt added.
BOOM OR BUST
The state Department of Health’s Sanitation Branch estimates the food truck craze caught on in Hawaii five years ago, based on the annual permits it issues for mobile food operations (including pushcarts and boats). Manager Peter Oshiro said permits have leveled off in the last three years to 300 to 400 issued or renewed. Oshiro said the market is fairly saturated, and doubts that everyone who holds a permit is still in operation. It’s a volatile industry, he said, and many trucks close in under a year. “A lot of the lunch wagons are boom or bust.”
”It was a unique opportunity for those yearning to test the water with minimal investment, or for those who are already entrenched in the food truck business and looking to expand or have a spare on hand.”
Here’s how several of the trucks have been reborn.
University of Hawaii-Manoa
Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays
Eric de Mendonca bought two food trucks — a 1981 Chevy (for $7,000) and 2006 Ford ($10,051) — but has remodeled only the Chevy, formerly known as the Poke Roll. He’s had it up and running for a few months, offering 100 percent Hawaiian coffees, vegetarian wraps and organic sandwiches.
It used to have a giant pink octopus on the hood but he repainted the truck a classic red and white, complete with matching red hubcaps. The back wall is boldly striped with red and white tiles, accented by four candelabra bulbs in industrial pipe holders, giving it an old-school feel with a modern twist.
Lined up at the window are upside-down glass carafes that look like they belong in a laboratory; they’re part of the Syphon coffee-brewing system.
Music from speakers fills the courtyard, beckoning students from the the Pacific Ocean Science & Technology Building and Holmes Hall.
De Mendonca made all the renovations himself. “I was always good with my hands.”
He’s especially keen on woodworking, and said his goal is to someday build his own cafe, which would also sell his furniture. It’s a vision born of his time as an architecture and design student in San Francisco, where he would hang out at trendy cafes for inspiration.
Although he’s averaging only 30 to 40 customers a day, de Mendonca is committed to his dream. “I’m not making money or anything; it’s just pure passion.”
He’s hoping that life imitates art. In 2016 he was in the cast of a popular Japanese Netflix reality show, “Terrace House,” during a season called “Aloha State,” based in Hawaii.
His character, one of six men and women living together, was a carpenter who wanted to open a cafe. For the series, de Mendonca put his real-life skills to use and actually built a kiosk called Punchbowl Cafe, which was open for eight months. His fans from Japan often stop by.
2105 S. King St. and 444 Niu St.
Open daily except Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on King Street and 2 to 10:30 p.m. in Waikiki
Greg Au got his start seven years ago in the Magoo’s Pizza truck at the old Puck’s Alley, later moving to the parking lot of his father’s gas station. There he met his future wife, Lani, a frequent customer.
Working together, they formulated their own brand of pizza — using fresh local ingredients on a thin, crisp crust — and a variety of sandwiches, then opened a brick-and-mortar shop, Doughlicious Pizza, in Samsung Plaza on Keeaumoku Street.
They closed the shop after three years to take their show back on the road, buying a black 1989 Chevy truck for $6,507 that used to be the Obizo, and spending about $1,000 renovating the equipment and replacing tires. They were open within a week of the purchase, said Au, who is enjoying the lower overhead of working out of a food truck again.
The truck, which maintains the Doughlicious Pizza name, operates out of the same gas station, run by Au’s mother since his father died, and a parking lot in Waikiki.
“It’s like starting all over again when you relocate,” Au said, but the internet helps their local and tourist clientele find them. “Luckily, we have online ordering.”
Order online at doughlicioushawaii.com, on Facebook or through Bite Squad.
66-540 Kamehameha Highway
Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Cove Contin and wife Kate Neville bought their 1992 Chevy for $7,500 and named their new food truck Hi-Chix for its main menu item of Georgia-style fried chicken. It opened in late January next to their first truck, Hi-BBQ. In its previous lives the Chevy cooked up food under the names Gamps Outdoor Style Chicken and Habitat.
All the couple had to do was paint over the red exterior with a coat of white and put in some new screens. The truck and its kitchen appliances work fine, even though the equipment was old. “It’s hard to kill really good equipment,” Contin said.
He credits his wife as the brains behind the operation and the one with culinary training. The Hi-Chix menu is filled out with sides such as cornbread waffles and gourmet mac ’n’ cheese. “We’re investing 115 percent into this,” he said.
The cooking of brisket and pulled pork for Hi-BBQ goes on all night in a smoker mounted to the first food truck. “You transform it from this really tough, terrible cut of meat into this moist, soft, glorious piece of magic,” Contin said. “The trick is temperature control and a lot of patience.”
What makes the long hours worthwhile, he said, is watching customers take their first bite, then seeing the surprise on their faces as the food exceeds their expectations. “That’s something really, really satisfying.”
Find directions at facebook.com/hawaiibbq.
LAVERNE’S LUNCH WAGON AND CATERING
Waikele Center (coming to Costco Waipio and Mililani Tech Park)
Open 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily
Irenio Paulo and wife Laverne have been selling local- style dishes out of a food trailer at Waikele Center and a takeout stand at the Newtown Golf Driving Range in Aiea.
But he and son Tyson Paulo want to get back into food trucks, so they bought a 1983 Chevy ($6,520) that they’ve started to repair and plan to have open in a couple of months.
They also bought a 1990 Aeroma ($2002), which could be put into action later.
They once had trucks at Costco Waipio and Mililani Tech Park, Tyson Paulo said, and plan to return to their old stomping grounds once the Chevy is ready.
SHAY’S FILIPINO CAFE
Mililani Tech Park (near the Spectrum Business building)
Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays
Ron Dalmacio bought a 1995 Chevy for $6,505 to expand the customer base of Shay’s Filipino Cafe, the restaurant he opened in the Waipio Shopping Center in 2016.
He opened the food truck in late January in Mililani. Originally black, the truck is now a royal blue, with a new battery, generator and propane tank.
Ron’s son Bryson Dalmacio, Shay’s general manager, said customers had been asking whether they planned to open another restaurant.
The food truck lets them test the waters. The truck first went out in October, the younger Dalmacio said, but was benched for a few months while the staff worked out the kinks and swapped out some equipment.
The two cooks had to adjust to working in a smaller space without getting burned, he added.