By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Doug Khrenovsky
“After that, people said, ‘If you want to cater movies, you have to get a catering truck and follow us around,’” Schachner says.
Schachner traveled to North Carolina, where he bought a food truck from the caterer for the TV show, The West Wing. The man schooled Schachner in movie catering and Schachner returned to Cleveland, where he catered other movie crews shooting here. Between films, he operated as a food truck, StrEAT Mobile Bistro.
Hollywood was discovering Cleveland’s appeal as a filming location just as locals began flocking to the area’s food trucks. The timing was fortuitous, but Schachner, who dubs himself Chief Chaos Fixer of StrEAT Mobile Bistro, found himself and fellow food truck operators working without rules, licenses, or permits.
“I, along with other trucks (owners), started going to city council meetings to help create the rules by which we could operate legally in the City of Cleveland,” he says.
As other operators turned their attention elsewhere, Schachner continued to work with the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and other groups. Soon, he recognized a need for a formal organization. He created a closed Facebook page called Food Truck Operators-Cleveland, which transitioned into a website for North East Ohio Food Truck Association, the nonprofit 501(c)6 he incorporated in March.
Just before Memorial Day weekend, the group’s membership included operators from more than 30 of the area’s 65 licensed food trucks — representing burgers, Asian fusion, barbecue, wraps, ice cream, and other cuisines. Membership, available to licensed food truck owners only, is offered at different tiers. All Tier 1 members are background checked and their operating license appears on the website. Background checks include ensuring members have proper training in propane tanks and their trucks’ gas lines have been inspected. Eventually, members will be required to demonstrate ServSafe certification, a food safety program of the National Restaurant Association.
The association’s website, neofta.org, runs on the platform streetfoodfinder.com. Among the benefits is a feature called “Hot Spots” that allows business owners or others to book food trucks. The free feature is customizable, so a company could request a different food truck every Monday for a month and, while online, verify the food truck operator’s license is current. The site also provides a daily map of where folks can find their favorite food trucks. Users can click on a distance — say within 5 miles of their office — and a date up to six months in advance.
Because of his role as a food truck operator and founder of NEOFTA, Schachner offered to serve as the liaison between the RNC Host Committee and local food truck operators after realizing some event hosts are unfamiliar with how food trucks operate.
“They don’t necessarily understand pricing, the logistics, what (volume) a trucks needs to sell to make it worthwhile, or the maximum food a truck can sell at one event,” he says. “We want to make sure they book just the right amount of trucks — not too few, but not too many — so it will be a successful event for them and for us.”
Food trucks are not immune from the security concerns of the July 18 to 21 convention that is expected to attract upwards of 50,000 people to the region. Schachner, who has catered events — both with and without his food truck — for several presidents, including President Barack Obama, says the Secret Service is typically involved in the planning.
“They haven’t released all of the details of that part yet, I think on purpose, but I’m pretty sure, based on my experience with President Obama, that there will be extensive logistics involved with the Secret Service,” Schachner says. “I’m anticipating they will approach me.”
Schachner acknowledges this is the biggest event to hit Cleveland in quite a while, but says food truck operators are ready.
“Other events require more time because they have more components,” Schachner, whose StrEAT Mobile Bistro will be at events before and during the convention, says. “The Fabulous Food Show, for example, is indoors, so there’s a whole different sets of rules and regulations that take time. Other events require a larger amount of trucks than the RNC is asking for.”
The RNC is requesting 15 to 20 trucks for the opening event; private groups are looking to rent one or more trucks for their separate gatherings, with all cuisines represented. The trucks will stay within a geographic loop that extends west to Sandusky, south to Akron and Canton, and east to Lake County.
Schachner says food truck owners are as pumped about the convention as other Clevelanders.
“Everybody is super excited to be a part of (having) the national spotlight on us and helping to make Cleveland shine,” he says.