Food Trucks Unleash the Foodie in Fido

It’s a familiar scene at the Food Truck Bazaar, a traveling gourmet food truck event in Central Florida. Orlando resident Jennifer Hellgren goes up to a window, buys a slice of pizza and hands it to her little one. Only this time, her little one is 3 feet tall, four-legged and furry — a husky mixed-breed named Chuck Norris. The truck, which is known as the Sit ‘n Stay Pet Café, is one of a growing number in America catering to a new breed of discerning diners: dogs.

“We bring all our dogs to the truck as often as we can,” Hellgren said of Chuck Norris and her two Shih Tzus. She and her husband have been regular customers since getting to know one of the owners, veterinary technician Lauren Hicks, two years ago. “Chuck Norris loves the pizza,” she added. “It’s a crust and she puts tomato sauce on it, and herbs and cheese. Just good wholesome ingredients.”

Food trucks have mushroomed across the country in the past five years. Foodies are drawn to the trucks because they are often cheaper than a regular sit-down meal and serve increasingly creative fare.  Although growth nationwide is difficult to pin down, Restaurant Reporter estimated in 2011 that at least 6,000 trucks plied the streets of Los Angeles alone.

At the same time, Americans have increasingly taken to treating their pets to gourmet food. Gone are the days when dogs had to chow down on dry brown pellets for their meals. So it was only a matter of time before food trucks for dogs began to roll.

In Chicago, Fido to Go offers canines gluten-free cookies with flavors ranging from salmon and sweet potato to beef and honey. In Hoboken, N.J., Angela Myers’ Frosty Pooch serves up ice cream – lactose-free, of course, since many dogs are lactose intolerant.

“Food trucks are such the rage right now, and emerging food trucks for dogs, that’s a no brainer,” said Mike Howell, owner of Poochsicles and Bark Bites in Atlanta, which sells gourmet frozen products for dogs such as ice cream bars and ice cream cookies.New York City has the Biscuit Bike run by Andrea Tovar of Bocce’s Bakery, which visits New York City dog runs during the summer months. Another food cart called Dog Town Bites was previously stationed by the dog run at Union Square Greenmarket on Fridays and Saturdays, but the founder and owner Elise DiRuggiero died last year and the cart has ceased operations for the time being. Even celebrity chef Rachael Ray set up a pop-up food truck in Manhattan last year, to market her Nutrish line of high-end dog food and raise awareness about animal welfare.

The jocular 45-year-old was inspired by the TV show “The Great Food Truck Race” two years ago and decided to try something unique. It’s “the marriage of two very successful industries, food trucks and pets,” he said. “We’re just making it more convenient for the public.”

Most of the trucks stress wholesome, organic food, which is what appeals to discerning dog owners, despite prices that can range from $1 for a frozen lolly to $9.50 for a bag of truffle macaroni and cheese biscuits. “We formulate our recipes based on the human recipe and subtract all the ingredients that would be unsafe for pets,” said Hicks, 30, who started the Sit ’n Stay Pet Café truck with her sister Kathy, 46, in September 2011.  She features Italian meat balls and cupcakes and also sells grain-free treats and wheat-free treats for animals with food sensitivities.

Dog-owner Hellgren said she appreciates that Hicks uses locally sourced ingredients, like eggs from a nearby farm. “All the packaging is biodegradable, which I think is fantastic for that kind of business,” she added.

Getting a pet food truck started is often not easy because the idea is so new that it is difficult to find out what sort of licensing is needed. Mike Howell of Poochsicles and Bark Bites in Atlanta said he got a permit from the health department after explaining that he would not be selling regular dog food.

He said that the truck now serves around 150 to 200 customers per week, depending on whether there are pet-related events he caters. He broke even last year but hopes to be profitable in 2013.The human food truck community was also slow to embrace the idea. When Howell’s bright blue truck, the size of a UPS delivery vehicle, first rolled up beside other food trucks, he received a cool reception.  “You’ve got the other food trucks selling gourmet food and you’ve got popsicles for dogs and cookies for dogs, they’re like ‘please don’t park near us,’” Howell said wryly.

His official taste testers are his three rescued dogs, which he treats like children. “Every time there’s a delivery here they’re running to the front door wondering if it’s for them.” Just to make sure, he said, laughing, “I’ve tasted every one of my products and I’m not afraid to admit that.”

In fact, the doggie treats look so good that some customers get confused. Once, Howell said, a little kid who up to the truck thinking they were selling regular ice cream, and he started crying when he found out he could not buy one. “It was heartbreaking,” Howell recalled. “After that, as a safety net, we bring around a box of ice cream bars in case, just to give out if that ever happens again.”