Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
When we learned that Lulu’s Local Eatery (luluslocaleatery.com) was inspired by “wwoofing,” we thought husband-and-wife owners Robbie Tucker and Lauren Loomis (a.k.a. Lulu) might have had some canine intervention. In fact, the couple spent two months in Australia with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that lets volunteer workers gain farm knowledge in exchange for room and board. The food truck paved the road for a second Lulu’s, which opened at 3201 S. Grand in mid-May—earning an after-work parking spot in the process.
What made you decide to do a food truck?
RT: We hadn’t even decided to move here, so a food truck gave us a chance to find our niche without investing a tremendous amount of money in a city we, quite frankly, didn’t know enough about. We saw it as the only viable option.
“Farm fresh food” and “food truck” are two popular buzzwords. Whose idea was it to combine the two?
LL: Robbie and I always dreamed about doing our own restaurant together. We’d stay at home on Friday nights and write menus. That was fun for us.
You guys were kind of nerds…
RT: We were!
LL: Total nerds.
RT: Complete nerds!
LL: But because of that, we got to do live our dream and do what we want to do.
How do food trucks source raw products? Do vendors come to a truck, or are they too small a player?
LL: We grow things at home, and we buy a lot from the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market while we’re parked there on Saturdays, and grow some on the patio at the brick-and-mortar location…and yes, farmers and vendors sell directly to us, too.
RT: Our commissary was at St. Patrick Center, and farmers and vendors sold directly to us there.
Do you have to compete for parking spots like food trucks do in other cities?
RT: No, but our situation is unusual. Initially, we started out like most trucks do—going to a different place each day—but we had the most success on a corner in the Central West End [at Scott and Taylor avenues]. We were asked to come back and come back, and now we’re there every Tuesday through Friday.
Not many food trucks can make that kind of claim.
LL: To some degree, the customers in a specific area determine which trucks will be successful in that area. We were lucky the students and medical staff took to us immediately. We see some of them every day.
Whose idea to put the garden on the roof?
LL: We contacted Marco Castro, who put a garden on a New York City bus for a thesis project, his theory being that bus roofs represented 40 acres of unused green space. He was so excited, he came to St. Louis to help us build it.
Were there any special permits required to do this?
LL: [Laughing.] Who’d want to be the villain who made the little food truck take the garden off their roof?
Was the rooftop garden as successful practically as it was conceptually?
LL: We used organic compost in what amounts to a 10-inch raised bed, but found lettuce and vegetables didn’t take to the wind and the heat, so we grow pretty much all herbs now. A mesh layer holds the soil in place, and the roots grow into a felt material, the same medium used in the green-roofing industry. Still, though, we don’t drive much above 50 miles per hour, or we start getting nervous.
In 2012, Lulu’s Local Eatery made The Daily Meal’s list of “The Top 10 Coolest Food Trucks in America.” How did that make you feel?
LL: It was a big deal—big for us and for the city. L.A. and San Francisco—big food-truck scenes—have had food trucks for 20 years, and along comes newcomer St. Louis. That was humbling to be a part of.
What happens in the winter months?
RT: You work within the means of the local food system. One of Lulu’s favorite foods is sweet potatoes, and they’re available year-round. Kale is available year-round. As more raised beds and greenhouses and hoop houses appear, it means more of everything.
What are Lulu’s best-selling items?
LL: Sweet potatoes.
RT: It’s true. Lulu’s convinced all doubters.
LL: They’re not as starchy as regular potatoes; they’re nutrient-dense, with fewer calories and more protein. We make falafel, a sweet potato-based burger, tacos, and a black bean burrito with sweet potato and mushrooms.
Was there ever an item that you thought would work, but didn’t?
RT: We had prepped hundreds of orders of vegan mac and cheese for Food Truck Friday. We’d tweeted about it, and people were excited to try it.
LL: And I dropped several trays of them.
RT: You trip on a crack, and say goodbye to hundreds of dollars.
LL: And had a lot of explaining to do. We felt horrible.
What was the creamy component for the vegan mac and cheese?
LL: Nut milk…almond milk. I can’t tell you the rest.
Did you ever consider using cashew cheese?
RT: I wish we could use it on a larger scale, but the best source for cashews here is Whole Foods, which means they’re expensive. We’re working in a market where it’s tough to support our practices. It makes me want to start a cashew farm in the Midwest.
Your menu for both places is entirely vegan, correct?
RT: We’re one of three all-vegan restaurants in St. Louis, but we have never marketed it that way… The connotations are too limiting. We say “plant-based” instead.
LL: People are curious about that term and ask more questions. It’s less of a freak-out term than vegan, an easier sell.
And the menu on South Grand will be as well?
RT: It will, and with more options—15 or so as opposed to eight-ish on the truck.
Who’s the chef?
RT: She’s the chef. I’m the sous chef/taster/repairman.
LL: But we get a lot of our best menu items from our employees. At the end of every shift, they get free reign in the kitchen to create whatever they want. One of them came up with Greek churros—cut up pita bread that’s fried and tossed in cinnamon sugar… They're the best little triangle donuts you’ve ever tasted. It's the same thing with our spring roll burrito—and it’s one of our biggest sellers.
One food truck owner said he would not recommend getting into the business unless there’s a bigger plan—starting a restaurant, a consumer-product line, or supplementing it with catering.
RT: It depends on the purpose. For some, it’s little more than a billboard on wheels; others hope it will provide a living. We couldn’t get any bigger without diversifying. We hope we can establish an urban farm…to supply the truck, the restaurant, and provide a type of restaurant CSA. Farmers have a hard time selling wholesale when they can triple that price at a farmers' market. There needs to be a source of inexpensive, local, wholesale food. We buy a lot of our produce from Chris Shearman over at Brick City Farm. He has aspirations to possibly take Brick City to restaurant-CSA level.
LL: In Chicago, I worked with a program called Green Youth Farms that taught young people urban farming in the neighborhoods where they live. It was a summer job that gave them something to do. It gave them purpose. But they also became super-connected to their food for the first time. I would love to start something like that here—restaurants would benefit, there would be interaction with chefs, possible restaurant jobs... Everyone benefits. We all have to join together to support our local food system.
Is local food truck legislation better or worse than when you started?
LL: The laws haven’t changed that much from when we started two and a half years ago. There were 20-something food trucks then, and there are well over 40 trucks now.
How does legislation in St. Louis County differ from St. Louis City?
LL: In the city, food trucks can’t operate within 200 feet of a restaurant, and some wards are not as amenable as others.
RT: In the county, some municipalities allow food trucks. Others don’t. But as far as I know, there’s no legislation that keeps trucks from doing business on private property, and there’s now a program that brings food trucks to several county parks.
Would you ever do another food truck?
RT: We’ve thought about doing one in another city.
At what point did you know a brick-and-mortar location would be viable?
RT: After a year and a half, we had outgrown the commissary facilities at St. Patrick Center. For the truck to continue to grow, we had to expand. So it was a choice of finding a new commissary or following the dream, and we had the proper staff in place that allowed us to do that.
What’s special about your location?
RT: The focal point is the mural made of moss that Lulu made. And I wrapped the entire ordering area with wood strips from eight pallets. My original plan was to do the entire ceiling, but this way people are drawn to where they need to go.
LL: For me, the patio’s the magnet—we painted a bunch of $5 metal filing cabinets bright yellow, and turned them into herb and vegetable planters… It was easy and cheap to do, and we ended up with something unique.
RT: Part of my dream was to make it feel like a little, hidden beer garden. We have bottles and a few seasonal taps that change all the time. But we’re not a bar—no late night hours.
On one wall are the original sketches for the food truck. How did the reality differ from the drawings?
RT: It got built out pretty much how we drew it. Recently, we did look into putting solar panels on the roof, but the technology’s not there yet.
LL: It was a huge investment that would have powered, like, a rice cooker.
What’s the most exciting aspect of going from a mobile to a fixed environment?
RT: To be able to take the energy of our food truck and transfer it to a restaurant setting is very exciting for us.
Did you ever think you could make a living from your food truck?
LL: We didn’t know. We wanted to test the concept more than anything. Our biggest goal was to create our own job—and work together. We just about killed ourselves working the shifts necessary to scrape up enough money to get the restaurant going.
RT: We’re lucky that we’re one of those crazy couples who just like to be together all the time.
With the boom in food trucks, it had to have been hard to even find a truck.
RT: We found ours in Phoenix and had to drive it back. Lulu had to sit on one of those little pop-down seats during the entire 30-hour drive. One of the several times we broke down, we required a specific tool and didn’t have it, so we pulled off the road, were wondering what the heck we were going to do, and then along comes another food truck! He just happened to have the tool we needed. Otherwise, we might still be there...
Did the driver have a beard and long, flowing robes?
RT: That dude had us back on our way in no time. He was the Food Truck Wizard.