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On the Road

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

By Nick Southwick | Photos by Mary Carpenter

The growing food truck scene in the North Country is a boon for all food lovers. Consumers enjoy the convenience of the foods and drinks they love and the food truck owners enjoy the mobility and lower overhead costs than they would have with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. I recently spoke with two food truck owners in the Plattsburgh area to discuss their businesses.

I sat down with Marla Gilman, owner of Northern Feast Catering, which serves as both a food truck and catering service. Gilman grew up with a passion for food and loved to try new flavors. Her family has a long history of food service work and, while living in New Jersey, she recognized the growing food truck trend. While that area was saturated with food trucks, when she moved to the North Country, she realized there were none in the area. At the University of Vermont, she learned the importance of agriculture and environmental consciousness, especially the connection of cooking seasonally.

After working for Liquids and Solids in Lake Placid and attending culinary school in Ireland, Gilman set up her truck and began visiting locations in the area, especially Farmer’s Markets and Plattsburgh Downtown Rising events. Her vehicle was originally an old Snap-On Tools truck that took months of design work and construction to convert to the efficient work space it is today. Gilman is proud to be going into her seventh year of operation.

Her approach to food is what she calls “whole system eating.” While she considers the impact of her food on her customers and her business just like any other restaurant, she also factors in where she purchases her ingredients and their impact on the environment. All ingredients are regionally sourced. Her meat comes from a New York-based distributor, her sauerkraut comes from Rochester and her cheese is made in Vermont. All food is cooked from scratch.

Over time Gilman altered her menu as she tried out new flavor combinations to appeal to a broader customer base. Initially her specialty was crepes, both savory and sweet. However, when she found that some customers were hesitant to try something they were unfamiliar with she refocused her menu. She now features pub-style food, which works well at one of her permanent locations, the AuSable Brewing Company on the Mace Chasm Road in Keeseville. When COVID restrictions began, Gilman needed to limit her locations and since her husband and his brother own the Brewing Company it made for a convenient spot to reliably set up her food truck. Her menu is designed to complement the pub with foods like burrito bowls and pulled pork and sausage sandwiches.

Gilman operates the food truck on her own and, if that isn’t impressive enough, she also solo operates the catering side of her business. Most of her catering clients are out-of-town couples looking to have weddings in the Adirondacks, often in open fields. She works with the couples to create a customizable menu for the biggest day of their lives. Her goal is to get people excited about food and does this by asking about the kinds of restaurants they like and reviews sample menus from past events. Together they arrive at a menu and price point that is perfect for their special day. She also caters for parties as well as corporate events and offers private cooking classes.

I also spoke with Rebekah Hilpl, the owner of the mobile coffee bar, High Peaks Brew. Like Gilman, Hilpl operates in the Plattsburgh area and also caters weddings. She recognized the growing popularity of food trucks while living in Lynchburg, Virginia. After a year in college, she purchased a 1966 vintage camper and converted it to a mobile coffee bar. Her parents came from a food service background and were able to help set up her business. Hilpl learned her craft via YouTube videos on coffee brewing and, through trial and error, found the best flavor combinations.

Trial and error was also how she determined the best spots to set up her coffee bar. Hilpl now has a permanent spot at the Brennan Buick GMC dealership on Route 3 in Plattsburgh. Her efforts yielded results as she went from selling 30 to 40 cups of coffee per day when she started in November of 2020 to up to 200 cups a day now.

Quality matters to Hilpl. She uses locally sourced syrups and honey. Her coffee beans come from Lakeside Coffee in Rouses Point and her syrups are homemade. She started out as a basic Dunkin’ drinker, but now is a more experimental coffee drinker. To keep her menu fresh, she features a monthly special syrup and keeps an eye on what drinks are popular in local coffee shops. Her menu is heavily latte-based as well as drip coffee, iced coffee and espresso and, of course, baked goods made from scratch.

Asked why she prefers the camper over a brick-and-mortar coffee shop, Hilpl explained the mobility fits her lifestyle and the lower overhead versus a stationary store is a major plus. Her plans include renovating a 2008 camper purchased from Plattsburgh RV Store, which will be a major expansion of her business. The new camper will be powered by solar panels and batteries instead of a diesel-powered generator, which she notes will be significantly quieter and less costly to run.

Both Gilman and Hilpl have a passion for food and a desire to share that passion with a wide variety of customers. The advantage of a food truck is that its mobility lets its owners serve new customers on a regular basis and those new customers do not need to travel far to enjoy the food they appreciate. The businesses that host the food trucks also benefit from their employees having access to quality food that they can enjoy in their moments of free time on the job and it encourages customers to explore the host business. Food lovers in the North Country will have plenty of options available to as the food truck scene continues to grow and thrive.

From Chuck Wagons to Cruising Kitchens In the late 1800s, herding cattle from the Southwest to markets in the North and East kept cowboys on the trail for months at a time. In 1866, Charles Goodnight, a Texas cattle rancher, fitted a sturdy old U.S. Army wagon with interior shelving and drawers, stocked it with kitchenware, food and medical supplies, a water barrel, and kindling to heat and cook food and the food truck was born.

By the 1890 sausage vendors were selling their wares to hungry students outside eastern universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Cornell.

When the U.S. military went to war in Europe in 1917 and again in 1942 mobile kitchens helped feed the troops.

By the 1950s, entrepreneurs were setting up near factories and construction sites, and ice cream vans were touring neighborhoods across the country.

Today’s food trucks are a far cry from their earlier versions and their popularity continues to rise. Once commonplace in big cities, the gourmet food trucks of the 2020s can be found in cities large and small across the country, offering a dizzying array of menu choices. You will see them at special events, corporate gatherings and they are often used as marketing tools – think Oscar Mayer’s Weiner Mobile and the Spud Nation truck promoting potatoes.

A conservative estimate of food truck sales in the U.S. in 2020 was in excess of $3 billion. If you’re really interested in food trucks, check out the 2014 movie, Chef, streaming on a variety of sites.

Northern Feast Catering 765 Mace Chasm Road Keeseville, NY 12944 518 217-5150 High Peaks Brew 518 593-7672

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