A behind-the-scenes look at running a Chattanooga area food truck from someone who’s been there

Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / In 2019, Alex Vargas and Sunny Montgomery became first-time food truck entrepreneurs when they opened the "Tacoee" taco truck in Ocoee, Tennessee.

Our taco truck began as a side hustle.

When I first met my now-husband, Alex Vargas, he was famous for his tailgate tacos, which he'd make for friends using a propane camp grill after a day of whitewater paddling. We'd been dating for about a year when one of those friends offered Alex an old tow-behind trailer, suggesting he convert it into a taco truck. Alex had the DIY skills, and I was up for the adventure, so in 2019, we opened Tacoee on the Ocoee River.

We both had full-time jobs — I was a writer; Alex was a builder — so the plan was to operate only on summer weekends.

But the commitment quickly escalated.

Parked at a raft outfitter alongside a high-traffic stretch of Highway 64, we were slammed from the moment we first opened our window.

In a food truck, efficiency is key. Our 12-foot-long trailer is equipped with a grill, steam table, prep fridge, two mini fridges, a three-compartment sink and a hand-washing sink. Space is limited, which means help is too. According to market research firm IBISWorld, the average food truck employs only 1.2 people.

That first weekend, we struggled to keep up. Our menu was too complicated; our layout had us constantly in each other's way; and we'd call customers to pick up their orders by shouting their names into the noisy parking lot — often resulting in one of us having to leave the truck to hand-deliver food.

It was fast-paced and frenetic — energy that thrilled us.

We joked that if our relationship could survive a summer together in a food truck, it could survive anything. Last year, we got married. In June, I left my full-time job to become an entrepreneur and focus on Tacoee.

The American food-truck industry is booming. Since the year we opened Tacoee, the number of food trucks in the U.S. has grown an average of 9.9% each year, according to IBISWorld.

  photo  Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / Alex Vargas built Tacoee from scratch, installing everything from the plumbing to the service window.

Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga Director Mark Holland says he's seen the trend locally, too. In early 2020, he says, the incubator supported one food truck. Today, it supports 23.

"We're now the largest food truck commissary in Chattanooga," Holland says.

A commissary is a licensed commercial-grade kitchen leased by food-truck owners as a place to prepare food and store equipment — a requirement in Tennessee.

In addition to the 10,000-square-foot space, the incubator offers a training program to help navigate all that goes into a food truck, from obtaining a business license and food permit to health inspections and liability insurance.

Alex and I found a commissary in Ocoee, but Kitchen Incubator's training program would have benefited us as emerging entrepreneurs. Instead, we learned on the job. After that first season, for example, we simplified our menu, reorganized the layout and invested in a paging system.

Still, running a food truck, we quickly realized, required much more than time spent serving. For starters, there was time spent towing the trailer as we bounced between two local business' parking lots.

Throughout the week, there's shopping, prepping, bookkeeping and marketing — responsibilities that food-truck owners often manage themselves.

It's a lot of work, especially as a side hustle, but it's also part of the appeal. Without the expense of staff and rent, food trucks are much more affordable to start and run than brick-and-mortar restaurants. Price-comparison website Compare the Market reports that the cost to open a food truck in the U.S. is around $20,600, while a restaurant is around $67,318, which doesn't include monthly expenses like wages or rent.

During the pandemic, restaurants were among the hardest-hit businesses, but food trucks thrived due to their low overhead as well as their ability to offer carryout and outdoor seating and to practice social distancing. Food trucks gave people a place to go, to try new cuisines and to safely gather with others out for a bite.

That's my favorite part of the job: at the end of a busy day, when the parking lot is a hub of activity, seeing people of all backgrounds at our picnic tables, sharing meals we'd prepared.

I am proud of how far we've come since our opening, but I'm proudest of the community we've created.

Find us at facebook.com/tacosderio

  photo  Contributed photo by Sunny Montgomery / Alex Vargas warms tortillas inside his taco truck.