SXSW Festival with Nomad Street Cuisine

Nomad at SXSW
From left to right: Burro Grilled Cheese, Ms. P’s Electric Cock, Nomad Street Cuisine, and Garbo’s Main Lobster Rolls.

On the road headed back to Colorado, headed into a beautiful Texas sunset. Lubbock again tonight it seems, with another long day of driving tomorrow. Though it will be good to get home, it was a splendid adventure, and a successful one. Quite an undertaking this has been – one the longest sustained physical and intellectual efforts I’ve ever made, and it’s not even my show. For those who haven’t read my previous post, Curt travelled to Austin, TX with Blake Shepler of Nomad Street Cuisine, to work the Southbites Trailer Park as part of the South X Southwest Festival. Also travelling with us (and doing a yoeman’s work) is Ryan Martin, founder and former owner of Umami Mobile Eatery in Fort Collins. Three food truck entrepreneurs, travelling with a brand new trailer to engage in the chaos that is South X Southwest!

Apologies in advance for what is sure to be a longer-than-typical blog post.

Our festival challenges started on Thursday, when the commissary kitchen that Blake had lined up over the phone proved to be a dive, without the necessary and advertised amount of cooler space. We had visited and lined up another commissary within a few hours, but were now running behind on our prep duties. It was to be a late night and an early morning for this small team headed into Friday’s first sales day – expected to be rather slow. Also bothersome was the bakery product that had been lined up – the sourdough and French rolls weren’t as big as advertised, and they weren’t willing to slice the breads for a reasonable price. Calls and visits to other Austin bakeries produced no solutions – not during SXSW week anyway! So be it, we’d have to use the product we had for now, and as it turned out our portions and prices were competitive even with the smaller breads.

We started with a bang, opening about noon on Friday the 13th, and soon had a line of would-be customers stretching 20 persons deep. The beautiful wood-sided trailer, new and different on the Austin food truck scene, apparently caught people’s attention, and our line soon grew to around 50 and touched that level often during the afternoon and evening. When it was all said and done that first day, Blake, Ryan, and myself had served over 500 people, serving perhaps 300 signature Nomad Burgers. The smoke from grilling burgers was billowing through the kitchen and out into the crowds, and helped propel Nomad to what must have been the strongest sales in the park! Debbie, Blake’s mother, was sent out that afternoon to purchase swimming goggles, so that the hot smoke and steam from grilling burgers didn’t blind the person manning the grill station. Let’s just say that describing the station as hell-like is not overuse of metaphor. I was thankful to have the cashier window most of the day, deferring to Blake and Ryan who both have formal training and much more kitchen experience. We three worked a 20-hour day that first day, and it was clear to Blake that he would need more help or we would all be dead soon.

The start of that help came the next morning, when local kitchen veteran George responded to an ad Blake had placed for help. George helped us survive another hectic day – over 600 persons served and once again the most popular truck in the park! By the end of day two, we were becoming friendly with Ms. P and her staff at Ms. P’s Electric Cock – a fried chicken specialty trailer with a huge Austin following, and close on our heals for most popular truck through day 2. We were up late Saturday and up early again on Sunday, and the line started forming early. George was running the cashier station, while Curt learned the ropes at the fry station, grill station, and “in the pit”. Compared to Curt’s conversational style in the order window, George was all business, moving customers through the order process with speed and efficiency. Too much speed, as it turned out – George soon had both ticket rails filled, a stack of tickets to put on the board and a big line of people waiting to order. As the team churned through hell’s inferno to serve the last of this mass of people, we had our first breakdown – we’d been cooking on full-power for so long our propane tanks froze up, and when we swapped tanks we had a regulator issue and couldn’t get the fires relit. We served the hot food we could, gave refunds to a handful of customers we couldn’t serve, and Blake decided to close for the rest of the day. Fans were purchased the next day in an attempt to direct the smoke away from the line – even with the goggles it was rough back there!

We had served almost 350 customers in the roughly 3 hours we were open on Sunday, and were severely in need of restocking. Closing gave opportunity to establish a relationship with a Houston bakery that was delivering daily to Austin during SXSW, and to go shopping and prep a bunch of food for the remainder of the week. Reinforcements were coming on Monday, with experienced Nomad employee Jimmy and his friend Chris from Colorado, plus Blake’s friend Britt and local college student Ash, a recent transplant from Massachusetts and experienced restaurant hand. There was a bit of weather on Sunday afternoon, and as it turns out we were shut down during one of the slowest times the Southbites park experienced while we were there.

As our staffing increased, however, the customer volume fell off a bit on Monday through Wednesday, with customer counts in the 300-400 range daily (11 am – Midnight service hours). This allowed those off-shift to explore SXSW a bit, and there is so much to see! For my Fort Collins readers, imagine New West Fest but for 3 times as long a time period and covering 10 times the urban area, with 10 times as many people, plus elements of food and cinema and technology sharing the spotlight with the music. It’s a spectacle of the highest order. Though the customer volume didn’t require the staffing we now had in place, the word on the street was the last 3 days were the busiest, so Nomad stayed well-staffed heading into Thursday.

With Thursday came the sprinkles and light rain that were forecasted but not really believed by the locals experiencing a drought in Austin. Nomad acquired pop-up tents for the back-side of the trailer to shelter the breads, and for the front window area to shelter the people. The crowds continued to trickle rather than gush, and ensuring our gear and foods stayed dry was a constant battle. Thankfully, traffic remained steady despite the weather, and we served 300 – 500 customers per day each of the last three days – not the kinds of counts we knew were possible, but sufficient to ensure a profitable day even with the higher staffing costs and equipment purchases. The weather had impacted the operation, decreasing total sales and increasing costs, but Nomad prevailed and ultimately had the most successful event of its’ history, and us three and others with a lot of memories. Blake has a great festival to put on his events resume, Curt has some great experience for if/when Bear’s Backyard decides to take on an event like this, and Ryan has a sore back and far fewer arm hairs!

A splendid adventure indeed.