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"We have the trucks," Fulton says. "That's what drove us into it."
MAG's first food truck for a Kansas client was island-themed, with surfboards and blue-wave flames along the side. The next was for Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Café, who was developing a prototype Love All—Serve All truck for his nonprofit foundation. Then came a merchandising truck for the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks. (And one is in the works for the Philadelphia Flyers.) These trucks start at $50,000.
Fulton estimates that concession-truck sales now account for 4 percent of the company's revenue. To grow further, Carlson figured that MAG needed a signature truck, something likely to go viral while becoming the centerpiece of a planned showroom. (The company has made an offer on a space in the Kansas City area that is 10 times the size of its current 5,000-square-foot location.)
Carlson set his sights on Oklahoma Joe's. When a friend tipped him off that Jeff Stehney, the barbecue restaurant's co-owner, would be at a Retail Grocers Association event in the parking lot of an area supermarket this past summer, Carlson showed up with three tricked-out step vans.
"People are really visual," Carlson says. "I can show them a drawing, but in order for them to really imagine something, they have to be able to step inside the truck."
Stehney, who had thought about opening a sandwich shop, found himself imagining the possibilities for a mobile kitchen. The Z-Man, his barbecue empire's branded brisket sandwich that's topped with provolone and onion rings, could find its way into birthday parties and weddings.
"I saw those trucks and I was sold," Stehney says.
On the first Wednesday in September, Stehney is recalling an unfortunate incident involving a drive home from the American Royal in an uncooperative catering van. He's standing in the middle garage bay at MAG Trucks, next to a former paper-delivery van — the stripped hull that will become the Z-Man truck.
"We get on I-35, and the back doors of the catering van open. Then both awnings come out, and this thing looks like it's going to take off. We had to pull over on [the] 12th Street [viaduct]. So we had some new rules about what we wouldn't do with vending. And here we are, breaking all our rules."
Carlson has stretched the truck more than 40 inches to increase the amount of kitchen space and to accommodate what Stehney requires: a smoker to keep the brisket warm for Z-Man sandwiches.
"There's a barbecue trailer with a patio on back," Carlson says. "I'm not sure it's ever been done before on a step van."
As he and Stehney talk about where in the truck to put bread trays and refrigerators, a fabricator is busy soldering panels together. The finished truck will have more than 500 feet of electrical wiring and 30 circuit breakers. The generator powering the kitchen equipment weighs roughly 1,200 pounds. Even Stehney can't help joking about the size of his truck. "Just a little space vehicle to run to the store," he says.
The Z-Man sandwich is the only item the truck will share with the three Oklahoma Joe's restaurants in Kansas. Director of operations Ryan Barrows says he considers this a "french fry truck," capable of making hot fries and onion rings in a bank of three fryers nestled inside the main vending area.
The Oklahoma Joe's team knows that the truck needs to be finished in time for the American Royal, and the other part of the plan is to park it in the lot at the original Oklahoma Joe's location (3002 West 47th Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas) on Sunday, October 20. But the 33-foot-long, 11-foot-tall elephant in the room is what happens after that.
"We don't know yet where we're going to keep it," Stehney says.
The Z-Man truck, which Stehney plans to deploy on both sides of the state line, is driving into a crowded field. The Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department has 358 active permits for food trucks and food carts (a number that jumps to 470 if you include ice-cream trucks).