Building a Solid Foundation for Food Trucks
Case Erickson on Creating a Food Trailer Community One Tasty Bite at a Time
Written by Lynn Wise
Interviewed and photographed by Weston Carls
If food trucks exemplify Austin’s bootstrap culture, what does a whole festival of food trucks say about the city? With Texas Trucklandia Fest, Case Erickson is building food truck entrepreneurialism and fostering Austin's start-up spirit through his own brand of faith and grit.
Erickson moved to Austin from the D.C. area in 2011 to grow his commercial real estate business. As a former restaurateur, he wanted to help aspiring restaurant owners find the right venue for their ventures—a lofty task in Austin, where the market is competitive and real estate is expensive.
Erickson was up for the challenge and thought, "What better place to start than food truck owners?"
He met with Tiffany Harelik and Tony Yamanaka, the personalities behind "Trailer Food Tuesdays at the Long Center," to start integrating with the food truck community. But right away he encountered a problem that most Austinites are all too familiar with: Too much good food, and too little stomach space. Erickson, a food truck newbie, wanted to try it all. When he realized there was no easy way to do so without a ton of time, money, and calories, he set out to create a way.
In 2013, undeterred by his almost complete lack of event-planning experience, Erickson dreamed up an event inspired by "Taste of Austin," in which food trucks would come together to serve up small bites and compete for $10,000 in prize money. Festival goers could choose between two ticket tiers: judge tickets—which covered samples from each truck and the chance to vote on the best—or general admission.
The event, originally dubbed "Truck by Truck West" was an exciting twist on the food truck park, but it very nearly never came to fruition. It wasn’t easy to convince food truck owners to sign up for an event that had never been held before. But Erickson somehow managed to persuade some 60 food trucks to have faith in him that first year—even as his own faith faltered.
Two days before that first festival, a real estate deal that Erickson was counting on to help fund the event and to provide the $10,000 prize fell through. With $1,800 to his name and dozens of food truckers counting on him, Erickson was about ready to give up, but a conversation with his mom changed his mind.
"Look, do you know this is what God wants you to be doing?" Erickson’s mom asked him. Erickson, who describes himself as more spiritual than religious, answered "yes," because what else was there to say about a goal he’d been spending all his time working toward?
"So then that’s your mustard seed." His mother said, referring to a Gospel that compares faith to the tiniest seed that grows into the strongest tree. The message resonated with the distraught entrepreneur.
"If I’m going down, I’m going down guns blazing," he resolved.
In the final hours leading up to the event, Erickson sent out more press releases and continued reaching out to everyone he knew. The stars aligned. Faith paid off. Hard work saved the day. And the event came together.
Now, as Erickson prepares for his sixth annual Trucklandia Fest, the event has taken on a life of its own and his initial real estate aspirations have taken a backseat to the new business. What started as a simple festival idea to feed a hungry Erickson and to connect him to the food truck scene has turned into much more. Erickson really is fostering an entire community, advising food truckers on how to succeed and grow and providing them with the tools to do so.
Austin is a tough city for restaurant owners and food truckers alike, and the scene is rapidly changing. Erickson works to help food truckers navigate that complex space, actively participating in the Austin Food Trailer Chamber of Commerce alongside his work with Trucklandia.
"I just encourage them all to really have that strategy of are they going to go brick and mortar, what does that look like, how do you prove your model, how do you scale it, how do you connect to funding, how do you sell your business…because I do see a lot of change for sure."
Erickson says the future of Austin food trucks is not in urban food parks, which he describes as going extinct, but in food trucks that specialize in catering and events or in those that have attached themselves to the bar scene. He points to the Peached Tortilla, which really had the foresight to know that focusing on events would enable it to flourish into the brick and mortar it is today.
And what bigger event for a food truck than Trucklandia? Though there is only one winner each year, Erickson explains that the festival helps food trucks win in other ways.
"Even if you 'lose,'" Erickson says, "you still win by capturing this new business, whether that's a future customer, or a catering gig, or some other event gig like that."
Take The Celia Jacobs Cheesecake Experience, for example. Erickson estimates it gained 100 new customers from the event, translating into an estimated $12,000 return on investment in one year.
And as the festival matures, the competition is getting more exciting, which is a win for everyone.
Saigon Le Vendeur won the prize in 2016, with its mini banh mi—a pork belly version and a tofu version.
"I was really excited that they won, because it was not your typical Austin barbecue, taco, burger kind of Americana fare, and that's who had won for the three years previous to that. You know, like a burger place, or monte cristo sandwich or something like that."
Last year, Cazamance owner Iba Thiam informed Erickson he would win the grand prize. But a skeptical Erickson thought Cazamance’s samples were too small to win.
He was happy to be proved wrong.
"That was perfect and beautiful and amazing," Erickson says. To be able to go back to Thiam and say, "You know whatever you speak, you intend, you create, and that’s how you create whatever it is you want to create in your business and life."
It’s a mantra of intention that Erickson follows himself—that and the act of surrender. A couple of months back, Erickson reached a crossroads. His father was sick with stage-four cancer (he’s stable now but in a sort of waiting period), and Erickson was forced to take a hard look at who he is as a person, as a father and as a son and at what he’s doing with his life.
Through that self-reflection, Erickson realized that the full-time day job he’d been holding on to wasn’t doing anything for him. It acted as a safety net, but it also prevented him from committing fully to Trucklandia.
"I had a vision for a food-truck show, and Real Food Truckers of Austin, and a vision for this and a vision for that, and I was out of alignment with that vision, with the hours that I was contributing to my employer."
Erickson let go of the job and surrendered himself to the faith that doing what he loves will pay off—or if it doesn’t, he’ll at least go out guns blazing.
So where is Erickson pouring all of his newfound time and energy? He’s doing more promotional videos, building out a booking platform to connect event planners with the right food trucks, and doing more to marry his real estate and restaurant experience into lease space advertising, "almost like LoopNet for food trucks."
Most recently, Erickson helped find a permanent home for Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, which is finishing up its space in South Austin off of Manchaca.
He’s focused on philanthropy, too: A full 10 percent of Trucklandia’s proceeds go to Keep Austin Fed, which redistributes unused food to the hungry. And Erickson puts on a "Fed Truck Friday" event to support the organization. He also encourages and rewards food trucks that are similarly socially conscious and charitable.
How does he do it all? By being intentional, waking up each morning to meditate and write down his commitments.
"I have this saying to God, universe, whatever it is, which is essential for me … 'Okay, I bring my bricks, you bring yours.'" It’s a metaphor for surrendering to the fact that not every variable can be controlled and for having faith that collectively something will be built anyway.
And build something Erickson has. This year’s Trucklandia in October will be a far cry from the almost-fail of six years ago. This year the trucks will congregate under the Congress bridge on the Austin American-Statesman campus. And an expected 30 trucks, 1,000 judges, and 3,000 participants will attend to get a taste of some of Austin’s best food and of the city’s true entrepreneurial spirit that serves it up.
For more information, visit trucklandia.com