El Churrasco Deli Inc., operator of the wildly popular “El Churry” food trucks, is getting ready to open its first sit-down restaurant in the Cupey sector of San Juan in early April, company executives told News is my Business Wednesday.
The 1,200 square-foot restaurant will feature the company’s signature home-made chicken and skirt steak, or churrasco, sandwiches and burgers, as well as new menu items that are still being determined. The casual dining eatery will have seating capacity for 60, Francisco Rivera, one of the company’s co-founders, said.
“We decided to open a restaurant because we found that setting it up will cost us less than buying another truck, plus its daytime operating hours will complement the business we do through the trucks, which operate at night,” said Rivera, noting the company expects to invest about $60,000 to retrofit the location on San Claudio Avenue formerly occupied by a sandwich shop.
The restaurant will open Monday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will generate at least eight new jobs, which will be added to the 24 that El Churrasco Deli Inc. already has on its payroll.
El Churrasco Deli Inc. got its start in February 1998 when Rivera and lifelong friend José Nogueras each put up $500 to fill a niche they thought was not being served: feeding the hungry late-night crowd looking for a meal. Initially, the business was run out of a hot dog cart near the Inter American University in Cupey that soon evolved into a full-fledged food truck, Rivera said.
At present, the business runs three food trucks at fixed locations: at the Inter American University parking lot in Cupey, on Roosevelt Avenue in Hato Rey and on Isla Verde Avenue in Carolina.
It was that latter truck that was featured and seen by millions of viewers of the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food” show in June 2010. During the taping, host Adam Richman — who was not shy about expressing his appreciation for the hearty, gut-busting sandwiches — predicted business would double as a result of the exposure, Rivera said.
“Honestly, when I got the call that the show wanted to include us, I thought it was a hoax. That day, Adam told us we would see our business double. We didn’t, but still, being on that show helped us a lot,” Rivera said. “I’m still getting calls about reruns of the show being aired. We’re still so grateful that happened.”
While the business has had its ups and downs, as have most island restaurants during the protracted economic downturn, Rivera said the company’s goal is to reach $2.5 million in sales this year.
That goal will also be fueled by the acquisition of a fourth truck, which Rivera said would likely be rolled out to Caguas later this year. Also on the horizon is establishing presence in Mayagüez, whether through a fifth meals-on-wheels operation or a sit-down restaurant.
Aside from making its sandwiches out of fresh chicken, meat and produce every day, El Churrasco Deli Inc. also makes its own sweet bread at its 3,000 square-foot warehouse in San Juan.
Food truck industry gaining ground
For Rivera, the momentum that the food truck industry has been gaining in recent months has to do with a growing awareness by consumers that “there is good food to be had” at these rolling restaurants.
While there are no statistics to show just how many food trucks there are on the island — they have been around for decades — it is evident that the operations are getting fancier not just in their outward appearance, but as it relates to the mobile cuisine options they offer.
“It’s gotten to a point now where if your food truck is not wrapped in colorful designs, then it’s not good,” he said. “We did that. Way back then, we set the standard for what food trucks had to do to be successful.”
Early last month, dozens of trucks came together for the island’s first Puerto Rico Street Food Fest gathering in Hato Rey, an event Rivera said was not organized as well as it could have been, but “showed just how strong we are as a movement.”
“I never expected it to be as full as it was. I didn’t go to the event to make money, which we did, but rather to take part in it,” he said. “We know there’s another one being planned, but I’m not sure we’ll go because it’s a great sacrifice. I can’t really afford to pull one of our trucks out from its permanent location, especially on a busy Saturday.”