By Chase Rheam
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A surge of mobile restaurants has hit Stillwater, giving residents more options for a quick lunchtime meal.
Dan Purdy is the owner of Purdy Q’s Mobile Smoke Pit, a food truck serving barbecue for lunch at least three days a week and catering special events. He’s been in the business of meals on wheels for five months.
Purdy is a former teacher at Sangre Ridge and Highland Park elementary schools. A boom operator in the Air Force, Purdy was stationed in Altus. He attended junior college there and eventually made his way to Oklahoma State University, graduating with a degree in elementary education in 2007. While he enjoyed teaching, another passion from his past stuck with him all these years.
“When I was in the military I did a lot of cooking,” he said. “I always cooked for big events. My family has always cooked. We’ve always barbecued.”
Many told Purdy that he needed to cook for a living. However, it wasn’t until a back injury took him out of the classroom that an opportunity arose.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Purdy said. “Things have kind of lined up now.”
The first few months of business were a great start that hasn’t stopped. Purdy said he usually sells out of his food and has to turn down some offers for catering every week.
“It’s kind of a hip trend right now,” he said. “When you get into a restaurant or a brick and mortar establishment, you’re tied to that location. You’re also tied to a schedule.”
The advantages save Purdy money.
“If I were to pay rent on a building and the utilities on the air conditioning and all the equipment, the overhead is way greater,” he said. “By having a lower overhead, that allows me the freedom to change the schedule around and do different things and be a little more creative with where I take it.”
Instead of a restaurant, where Purdy could see 500 people a day, he said he serves 85 to 100 — most of whom he remembers by first name and with whom he develops a relationship.
“It’s that ‘Cheers’ mentality,” he said. “Norm walks in and it’s ‘Norm!’ It is a small business. You’re going to have a smaller base of clients, but they’re going to come and they’re going to enjoy your food.”
Purdy credits Ali Zarabi and Diana Ward, owners of Cafe Bella on Wheels, with beginning the food truck trend. He said more trucks are coming to Stillwater serving fried pies, ice cream and pizza.
“We’re just thrilled that there are more food trucks coming to Stillwater,” Ward said. “I think that the city of Stillwater, the people of Stillwater and the students of Stillwater, once they kind of catch on to the food truck industry and the advantages that they have, I think they’ll really enjoy eating the different flavors that (they) offer.”
Cafe Bella on Wheels came about as a result of the restaurant’s building being sold.
“Rather than try to relocate here in Stillwater and remodel and rebuild a restaurant, we thought, why not a better time to put it on wheels and just make it into a food truck,” she said.
Zarabi and Ward’s restaurant closed in May 2012 and Cafe Bella on Wheels opened in August.
“The food industry today is pretty tough,” she said. “People have less money to go out and eat on, so with a food truck, your overhead costs are lower and you can lower your prices to share that with your customers.”
Ward said she wants to see the existing and impending food trucks take part in an event similar to one held in Oklahoma City in which the mobile restaurants are invited on the last Friday of each month to line up and offer their food to customers in a two-block section. Ward said it would make for a great street party in Stillwater. Plans are already being made to create a food truck association in Stillwater.
Purdy said the future for this unique business model is bright.
“I can see it becoming like Austin, Dallas or Denver, any of the bigger towns,” he said. “I can see us having a dozen food trucks.”