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Putting it on the line

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Food truck program participants show proof of concept to investors, community leaders, organizations that can help business startups

LOVINGTON — Food trucks have been one of the hottest restaurant trends for several years and for the past two years Lovington MainStreet has given the opportunity to several candidates to experience what it takes to run one — and on Tuesday, they showed community leaders, business support organizations and potential investors they do have what it takes to operate a food establishment successfully.

“We’re really excited to be able to showcase our graduates,” Lovington MainStreet Executive Director Mara Salcido told the News-Sun. “The candidates have worked extremely hard in the program, plus seeing the different entities and business owners come together to teach was amazing.”

The whole program goes under the name Downtown Bites and through MainStreet’s Local Innovators Institute five participants were selected for each cohort of the program in 2020 and 2021.

The program has been extremely successful Salcido said, with several participants already either open with a food truck or sit-down restaurant, or are close to opening soon. Opening a permanent food business in Lovington, be it a food truck, or sit-down restaurant is a goal of the program.

“(There have been) two in each cohort so far. We would have been excited to have just one, but now we’re at four basically,” she said smiling. “And, we only have five participants per cohort.”

“We want to build our economy here in Lovington so we don’t have to go outside (the area) for good food,” Baja Grill co-owner, and program mentor, Kenny Kim said. “It’s a great little town that supports small businesses.”

Those participants in the Demo Day on Tuesday included TriniLov (Caribbean) and B Crabby (Cajun) from the 2020 cohort, as well as Trinity Farms (Farm to Table), Pastify (Pasta), and RG’s Tacos (Street Tacos) from this year’s program participants. Each of the participants had a variety of their food offerings for attendees to sample and were excited to talk about not only their culinary creations but also current and future plans for operating a food business in the area.

“We’re looking at putting in our store again and having a food court with different food trucks, including our own,” Trinity Farms’ Jeannie Alexander said excitedly.

Alexander said the most likely time frame is in the fall for the opening.

“When everything gets redone and revamped, we’re looking at October,” she said.

“We got a food truck,” Ray Gutierrez of RG’s Tacos said with a smile stretched wide across his face. “We sold out in the first three hours (at the 4th of July celebration at Chaparral Park). By 5 p.m. we were done, so the reaction from people has been really good. We’re going to continue.”

Monica Gutierrez expounded on what the goal is for RG’s Tacos.

“Our goal is to get the food truck going and eventually invest into a small restaurant here in (Lovington),” she said.

B Crabby was a 2020 participant which never spent time in Big Blue because Baja Grill needed to borrow the food truck trailer due to a fire at the restaurant. So B Crabby’s owners purchased their own food truck just before their two-weeks in Big Blue was to begin.

“We’ve been open a just a skosh over one year now,” B Crabby’s Brad Clayton said. “We opened last July. We’ve done a little more investing into the building we’re in.”

B Crabby is open at its location in their food truck three days a week, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri. at 510 South 3rd St., in Lovington. The adjacent building is used primarily for food preparation and food storage with a large walk-in cooler and freezer.

Clayton said they are looking at the possibility of expanding into dining in the building but there are no solid plans at the moment.

Some participants are finding ways to still serve the public while getting everything in order to open a food truck or restaurant.

Pastify’s Kevin Stamps said they are wanting to open a location but have yet to identify where it will be.

“We’re looking really hard, but we don’t know when (we’ll open up),” Stamps said. ““We’re searching for anything — trailer, truck, or brick and mortar — anything.”

While Stamps said a food truck would get them open quickly they are looking more toward opening an actual sit-down restaurant.

TriniLov is also looking to open soon.

“I’m not going to stop until I get my food truck,” TriniLov’s SherryAnn Baggoo said smiling. She added that she is close to opening her very own TriniLov food truck. “By the end of the year, I will get my food truck.”

In the mean time she will open and sell her food at the Lea County Fair, which starts Friday.

The MainStreet program consists of a one-month session of classes designed to teach candidates how to run a food truck business or restaurant. Those classes focus on everything from how to estimate food costs, to overhead, taxes and marketing. Participants also earn a food handlers license and certification from the state of New Mexico, as well as a certificate of completion for the course.

After course completion, participants test their concept in MainStreet’s food truck trailer, Big Blue. The fully equipped trailer, that normally sits outside of the Lea Theater, was funded through a USDA grant. MainStreet has earned USDA grants for each year of the program. The course also includes local restaurant mentors, like Kim, who are available to participants in the program even after it ends.

“Restaurants are a huge risk. However, this program reduces that and gives candidates a real chance to do it right,” said Kim. Baja Grill has been located in Lovington for about 11 years.

About being a mentor, Kim said he is happy to do it.

“I love that they ask for advice and I’m willing to give every bit of it. I wish we would have had someone to help us out along the way — it would have saved a lot of time, a lot of stress and some money,” he said laughing.

Since the restrictions for gatherings were handed down from the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 cohort of participants did not get to hold a Demo Day program and were included with the 2021 group.

“We got put off a little bit because of COVID restrictions,” Clayton said. “This is kind of our graduation. … The program is amazing, it puts people out there without them having to take the big gamble. It’s great getting to work in Big Blue with your designs and ideas and see if you really want to do it — labor-wise and popularity-wise.”

Lovington MainStreet is also looking ahead to the next cohort of potential food truck entrepreneurs, with the 2022 program starting in the Spring. Applications are typically accepted in January and February with the classroom portion starting in March. Then each participant gets two weeks in Big Blue to offer their food concept to the public.

“Sign up,” Clayton said. “It’s an adventure that turns into an honor. … I’ll take all of this knowledge with me all through my career with what we’re doing.”

“The next program is starting up soon. Please join and get on board. Be your own boss and work for yourself,” Kim said.

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