Roppolo's Pioneering Pizza on Wheels
In March 2013, the City of Austin Health and Human Services Department estimated there were more than 1,400 food trucks in Travis County. Fourteen hundred! That's almost too many options, spanning too many food genres. How did this booming trend start? Who do we have to blame/thank for the endless parade of edibles on wheels?
Waco, Texas was a small college and cotton town during the 1930's. Like so many other places during that time, the Great Depression hit Waco with force. Anthony Roppolo, an immigrant from Sicily, would watch people shuffle into his grocery store starved to the bone. Anthony couldn't stand the sight - his neighbors were hungry, and he had means to help. He implemented a system of credit, telling them to take what they wanted and pay when they could.
"As long as he could feed you, he didn't care," Marc reflected. It was 1979 when Marc found the cigar boxes filled with slips documenting who owed what. Anthony, it seemed, had never collected. The generosity struck a deep chord within his grandson and is perhaps the resonating factor of Marc's own hospitality. His family always modeled the art of giving; it was commonplace in their home. Every Sunday of his childhood, anywhere from twenty to forty people from the county would come to enjoy a traditional Italian dinner his mother and grandmother had been preparing since the evening before.
You could say the need to feed people is in Roppolo's genes. It even inspired him take over a New York pizzeria once. Living in Manhattan during his twenties, Marc had one favorite pizza place he visited for lunch. One day he arrived to find it closed because Armando, the owner, wasn't there. However, his cook Mario was. So Marc walked down to the bank, took out five hundred dollars of his own money for the register and told Mario, "You make the pizza. I'll sell the pizza." It went that way for three days.
When Armando returned, he was impressed with Marc's brazen actions and from that day on became his mentor. They worked side by side together every day for a year, Armando teaching Marc everything he knew about the art of crafting pizza. Armando also shared with Marc the "saying he'll never forget," and the cornerstone of his business philosophy. Armando said, "In this country, we don't make money. We give people good food. And when we give people good food, they give us their money. You never go into business to make money. If you go into business to make money - you fail."
Marc took these words with him to Austin, where twenty-four years ago he opened his own pizza shop. The beginning was tough. Roppolo's first store was located on Spicewood Springs Road, and Marc was under the impression "people would come in just to try it." After two weeks, he realized waiting for customers wasn't working. So, he went to them. He would travel to the businesses along MoPac with samples of his bread rolls.
"We didn't order any pizza…." the secretaries would say. In response, he'd open the box to let out the fresh-baked smell and ask, "Are you sure?" It went that way for a year.
This "go where the people are" plan is what prompted Marc to start his store on Sixth Street, and then later his truck in the Warehouse District. "Obviously, the Warehouse District was the hottest spot in 2003 besides Sixth Street," he explains. "I knew that a huge volume of people were going there and a lot of bars were opening. It felt like the obvious place to open up."
But why a truck? Marc said it came to him during the Pecan Street Festival. They put food trucks on the streets then, so why couldn't he do that as a local business? Before he made such a gamble however, he had to be sure it would work. Which is why he started dispatching bicycle delivery boys to the Warehouse District every Friday and Saturday. When he was selling out of 240 boxes of pizza each night, he knew it was time to move forward.
"It took off immediately," he says. "It was like being at the airport two days before Christmas. People were flocking to the place."
Of course, it still came with certain hardship. The City of Austin wasn't particularly happy with Marc and his truck, and they stipulated that he needed to move it once a week. For two years he'd get up at 4am on Sundays, move the truck three blocks, then repeat the process back to Fourth and Colorado each Wednesday. This is not a condition anymore, but the food truck business still hasn't gotten much easier.
"I think a lot of people go into it thinking they'll make a lot of money. But for every food truck that's doing well there are probably 30-40 just barely surviving. You have to do some real volume to make it possible. Before, when there wasn't as many, more of them were successful," Marc claims. According to him, there are two hallmarks for trailer-food success: one is having a clientele that supports small, independent businesses; the other is gimmicks.
"You don't need to have great food, just good food with a gimmick. Put out a good product and come up with catchy names to draw people in. Make them stop and go, 'wow! Cool!' Look at Torchy's. With things like 'The Republican' they are a prime example of having not great food, but good food, with a good gimmick," Marc Roppolo says.
He also works under the philosophy that everyone has five dollars. "Keep it simple. Keep it something 4-5 fresh items go in, price it in the five dollar range, and bingo! You'll be good!" There is one last minor detail though… "You also have to want to work 80-100 hours a week."
Thus is the history of what Marc Roppolo claims is the first food truck in Austin. (Meanwhile, we're checking on dates for Midnight Taco, the Best Wurst, Flo's, and a few others.) One can only imagine how varied and numerous the other 1,400 journeys into the mobile food business must be, but we bet they all share one common root – a desire to feed people, just like the long ago owner of a small Italian grocery store in the heart of Texas.
316 E. Sixth Street
Okay, readers and other food truck operators, let us hear about your earliest Austin food truck memories in the comments section below. Can you come up with evidence that pre-dates Marc Roppolo's claims?