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Lee Campbell kneels next to a food truck on the hot asphalt outside a Manassas garage and calls out to his coworkers. They’re installing 12,000-kW generators in the truck, a mobile meal purveyor franchised from Tampa-based Bonefish Grill. When they’re done with that, they’ve got to get back to replacing the generator in the DC Empanadas truck.
Campbell praises the workers, tells them to stay cool, and promises to let them go home early. “If you want to be here,” he says, “you’re going to leave tired, because you go home and you know that you did a really great job, that you didn’t just put something up and hope it stays there until it gets out of the parking lot.” He retreats inside to the relative cool of the garage and its high ceilings.
The 53-year-old general manager of East Coast Custom Coaches, the largest mobile food truck outfitter in the greater Washington area, assumes you prefer your Cajun taco without trickled sweat from the neck of your food truck chef. That’s why he ensures that every truck the company works on is framed, insulated, and equipped with air conditioning.
Dorothy Moon’s Gourmet Burgers, Curbside Cupcakes, Bayou Bros, Borinquen Lunch Box, and MojoTruck are just a few of the local food trucks that have emerged from the East Coast Custom Coaches shop. Its 12 employees have built out nearly 220 trucks—of the food, mobile command, and emergency response vehicle variety—in the last three years. Food truck operators can find other outfitting companies in California and New Jersey and, more locally, in Beltsville, Md. But East Coast Custom Coaches is the go-to spot for 110 food trucks, 60 of which operate in the D.C. area.
Jeff Kelley, co-founder of the D.C. Food Truck Association and former owner of Eat Wonky, operated one of the first area food trucks on which Campbell worked. Since then, as food trucks have boomed in the District, Kelley has referred business to East Coast. “[Campbell is] a big country guy with a really, really big personality,” Kelley says. “That really comes through in a lot of the work that he does.”
Build-out is the single most expensive start-up cost for a mobile food vendor, usually notching between $40,000 and $65,000. The process can take anywhere from three to seven months or longer, depending on equipment and installation requirements. Some D.C. food truck entrepreneurs choose to purchase preoutfitted trucks and tweak them on their own. Campbell insists his custom-built trucks are safer.
East Coast will make sure trucks are properly outfitted, but the design—what Campbell calls the “sex appeal”—is left to outside graphic designers. (Campbell’s staff then wraps or paints a graphic onto the truck.) The company doesn’t sell trucks, but works with a vendor to connect buyers to popular models like the Nissan Sprinter and the Chevy P30.
The team tailors every detail to the client’s needs, from the hood to the radio system. “If you’re right-handed, left-handed, tall, heavy, we’ll custom-build it to the chef,” Campbell says.
The build-out takes place in the garage next to Campbell’s desk, and the shop’s smells of paint and cut lumber permeate through the adjacent office. Between sips of Arizona Southern Style Sweet Tea, he discusses layout options, quickly sketching a diagram of haphazard rectangles. He stops to pull up project photos on a display monitor over his desk.
“You’ve gotta enjoy what you do, not just show up and punch the clock,” Campbell says proudly, pointing out misplaced wires and problematic generators that his team repaired. “If you don’t like your job then get up and go find another one.”
Campbell doesn’t just like his job. It’s kept him going in his darkest moments. After a long career building mobile command units as a contractor for the federal government, Campbell was working for Camping World in 2005, when a diagnosis of genetic male breast cancer left him feeling as though he couldn’t meet his boss’ demands. It was a few months later, while Campbell was still undergoing chemotherapy, when a taco food truck owner approached him with a proposal: If the taco cook bought a warehouse, would Campbell run a company that builds customized food trucks? Today, he credits the shop with keeping him going. His cancer is in remission, and the business has grown in the U.S. and overseas, sending nine food trucks abroad.
Some trucks are crazier than others: One client requested a truck that could roast an entire pig inside—which went unfulfilled, due to the potential dangers of a pork-butt grease flare-up. But East Coast Custom Coaches is responsible for other quirky vehicles, including a mobile pet spa and a Loudoun County-based sheep-shearing truck.
Outfitting a truck for on-the-go puppy pampering may seem like the makings of a reality show—Pimp My Commercial Vehicle, anyone?—so it’s no surprise that East Coast Custom Coaches has been approached about the possibility of appearing on TV. “I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Campbell says.
Most customization requests have more to do with functionality than show. One of Campbell’s biggest challenges is figuring out ways to maximize space. After all, menu variety can depend on layout and design; trucks often don’t have space to prepare a lot of different dishes because of the tight cooking quarters.
MojoTruck owner Damian Dajcz, whose truck was outfitted by Campbell’s team, was particularly concerned with having enough space to prepare chivito sandwiches. “Even though I have 20 years of experience in the kitchen, it’s a whole different monster,” he says. “You have to be self-sufficient in a tiny space.”
Customization requests aren’t limited to pragmatism, though. The owner of a fried chicken food truck based in North Carolina asked East Coast Custom Coaches to incorporate a photo of her father with a note on the back telling her to chase her dreams. Campbell put the keepsake in a custom-built frame above the sun visor on the passenger’s side.
Some of the most interesting trucks East Coast has worked on, though, aren’t destined for D.C. streets. The District limits vendors to trucks that are no more than 18.5 feet long, 10.5 feet tall, and 8 feet wide. A food truck Campbell built to look like a fire truck for Connecticut-based Firehouse Chowder & Grill wouldn’t work here. Neither would the vision of D.C.’s CapMac food truck chef Brian Arnoff. Arnoff, who used a New Jersey company to outfit a truck he bought from his family’s 87-year-old moving and storage business, dreams of a food truck with foldable wraparound bar-style stools for patron seating and a full frame of windows for an open kitchen feel. That setup wouldn’t be allowed under current D.C. regulations.
In the end, one of Campbell’s biggest services may be a reality check on the runaway design dreams of would-be truck operators. Take Kelley’s Eat Wonky: Yes, Campbell customized the truck with a multi-function boat horn, complete with air horn and siren sounds to attract attention. But he still wouldn’t let Kelley get away with too much impractical big thinking.
“When it comes to opinions,” Kelley says, “he’s certainly not short of any.”
Correction, Dec. 17, 2014: Due to a reporting error, this story originally incorrectly referred to Lee Campbell as the founder of East Coast Custom Coaches and implied in several places that he was an owner of the company. In fact, he was only the general manager, never an owner, and he was not one of the firm’s founders.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery