Breweries and Food Trucks Were Meant for Each Other

September 18, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, September 18, 2019

Chef Jordan Rubin is stocking up a Yeti cooler and prepping for a very special beer release at Goodfire Brewing Company in Portland, Maine this week. Served in minimalist cobalt cans, Raisukurisupi (say it fast and picture it written in katakana) is a sessionable ale brewed with toasted brown sushi rice, raw buckwheat groats, and pilsner malt.

“The inspiration was a kind of Japanese tea made with roasted rice,” Rubin says. “It’s made exclusively with local grains and it’s really light so it pairs perfectly with sushi.”

Rubin knows a thing or two about sushi, which is why he jumped at the chance to collaborate with Goodfire Brewing Company on the beer. The chef spent 15 years slicing seafood in high-end kitchens—including Uni, Tony Messina and Ken Oringer’s swank sashimi den in Boston—but these days you’re likely to find him doling out $6 hand rolls from a roving trailer outside one of Portland’s craft breweries. While the prices at Mr. Tuna may pale in comparison to those at his former employer’s restaurants, rolls like trevally with shiso, orange kosho, scallions, and puffed rice could more than hold their own on an omakase menu. 

Courtesy of Mr. Tuna

“We’d always been in the restaurant industry, but we wanted to do our own thing and we wanted to start small with our own money,” says co-owner Marisa Lewiecki. “We started off in the summer of 2017 in a converted hot dog cart.”

Today, Mr. Tuna is well established enough that Rubin and Lewiecki have opened a seven-seat sushi bar in the Portland Public Market. It’s an evolution that the duo credit in part to the city’s thriving breweries, many of whom have hosted the cart. Initially, they worked exclusively with Allagash Brewing. As word about their hand rolls started to get out, other breweries invited them over.

“Breweries have always just been good for food trucks and visa versa,” Rubin says. “It’s part of the culture here and we’ve all become a tight-knit community. It’s really helped us get our name out there.” 

Courtesy of Mr. Tuna

Just as trucks once seemed like a scrappier alternative to brick-and-mortar restaurants, microbreweries were initially a welcome alternative to their macro counterparts. In many cities, as both industries matured, they established mutually beneficial ecosystems. Destination-worthy craft breweries like Tree House Brewing Company lured hordes of beer-lovers out of densely populated urban downtowns and food trucks sprang up to feed the masses. Today, whether you’re at New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado or Bow & Arrow Brewing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can dig into a far wider variety of food than a single kitchen could produce.

“The real advantage of working with trucks is we can concentrate on making an awesome experience and making the bar really great,” says Gary Jonas, co-owner of The Little Fleet, a taproom and bar pouring all sorts of craft beer in Traverse City, Michigan. Jonas receives more than 30 applications from food trucks each year, which means that diners can dig into anything from pulled pork sandwiches from Cordwood BBQ to sambal fried rice from Roaming Harvest

It’s a symbiotic relationship. People are coming to Portland to check out breweries, but they also want to eat. Food trucks allow people to hang out longer.”

For Foundation Brewing Company, one of several Portland breweries that now hosts Mr. Tuna, food trucks solved a serious logistical problem. Along with Austin Street Brewery, Battery Steele Brewing, New England Distilling, and Definitive Brewing Co., the brewery exists on an industrial park on the outskirts of the city. Zoning regulations prohibit any of the breweries from having kitchens and the nearest restaurants are a ways down the road. 

“It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. People are coming to Portland specifically to check out breweries, but they also want to eat. For us, the food trucks allow people to hang out longer,” says John Bonney, business development manager at Foundation Brewing Company. “The trucks are definitely part of the draw. We don’t charge them anything to be here—we want them here.”

Courtesy of The Little Fleet

Much of that goodwill stems from a larger desire to build community and lasting relationships. Bonney has become friends with chefs like those at Mami, an izakaya-style food truck, and CN Shawarma, both of which have gone on to open successful brick-and-mortar restaurants in town, thanks largely to their mobile success.

“These are all folks who are very skilled, but as anyone who works in a kitchen will tell you, there’s not a lot of money in it,” Bonney says. “This has allowed young chefs to build a brand and a following, which makes it a lot easier to convince investors or a bank to back you.”

“I can name four or five restaurants that have opened from trucks. When they do that, there’s a chance they’ll carry beer too and this way, we get to know these folks,” Bonney says. “The joke is Maine’s a small town with long roads. Everyone knows everyone. I think everyone kind of realizes the more fun and the better the scene is overall, the more we all win.”

For us, it’s just a great way for us to support young entrepreneurs who are just getting started.”

It’s an attitude shared by Chris Powers, co-owner of Trophy Brewing in North Carolina. On any given day, visitors might find Wandering Moose serving beer-braised brisket or other Montreal-style barbecue specialties tailored to the needs of the brewery. Since beginning to work with food trucks, Powers has seen talented chefs rise up to open their own restaurants. One of his favorite stories is that of Alaksha Surti, the talented home cook who opened up Curry in a Hurry.

“She was a stay-at-home mom whose family and friends were big fans of her cooking. Now she has her own brick-and-mortar place,” Powers says. “My favorite is their butter chicken—it’s just incredible. It pairs perfectly with an IPA or something hop-forward.”

In some cases, there’s even more direct overlap between the two industries. Longleaf Swine BBQ is the ambitious whole-hog barbecue truck started by Marc Russell and Adam Cunningham, two former employees of Trophy Brewing. Thanks to their time spent testing the waters and the brewery’s support, they’re gearing up to open their own restaurant. Powers and the rest of their own coworkers couldn’t be more proud to see the community grow. After all, like many brewers, they remember what it means to start small and think big. 

“Adam and Russell just fell in love with food and now they’ve developed a serious following. It’s cool to see them grow into this thing,” Powers says. “For us, it’s just a great way for us to support young entrepreneurs who are just getting started. They’ve shared some of the same headaches we’ve gone through, so we try to help them whenever we can.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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