On a cool October evening four years ago, a white truck served its first slider on W. Sixth Street in Austin. In 2010, Eric Silverstein was one of many mobile food entrepreneurs: just an ex-lawyer with a rental food truck.
Now, he thinks he’s ready to start building an empire.
Photos and Story by Sara Benner
After refining his brand, custom-building two trailers and catching food journalism press from Food & Wine to Bon Appetit, Silverstein is converting his food truck, The Peached Tortilla, into a brick and mortar restaurant on 5520 Burnet Rd. It’s a calculated decision — one Silverstein’s been set on since before he smashed together his southern-Asian fusion menu. “We knew it was what we wanted to do for a long time, even before we opened. That was our goal. I don’t think we fully believed we would get there until the last year,” he says.
Silverstein was born and grew up in Tokyo, Japan where he lived until he moved to Atlanta, Ga. when he was 11. He went college, then law school and landed a job as a litigator in St. Louis, Mo. But once he realized he had no passion for his law career, he decided to become a restaurateur like his father.
Silverstein says the truck had plenty of press coverage when it first opened, but in the spring of 2011, business slowed down. Eric remembers working long hours, coming home late, reeking of food and horribly filthy from scrubbing his truck on his hands and knees. He was losing money and felt utterly defeated. “I think that was the low point in my life— my entire life,” he explains.
But he persevered and business eventually picked up. In 2011, Eater Austin, a food news blog, named The Peached Tortilla the Food Truck of the Year. Then, it was one of Food & Wine’s best sliders in the U.S. in 2012. The next year, The Daily Mail declared it one of the country’s 101 Best Food Truck, with sales projected to be over $1 million in 2014. “Now I see why people fail, because it requires such mental toughness to be out here and to do it. You really don’t make money until you do it for a while,” Silverstein says.
When his brick and mortar restaurant opens later this year, he plans for the menu to be an extension of their existing flavor profile: more tacos and sliders with the same Austin-funk, but also new noodle and rice bowls with the added convenience of a full bar. “I want it to be an affordable, accessible, well-known brand in Austin. We’re not trying to compete with Uchiko, Congress or Wink or any of these places,” he says. He wants his new restaurant to be a place 20-somethings on a budget could afford to go a few times a week.
But Silverstein’s not the first mobile food entrepreneur to make the transition from street to storefront in Austin.
Kara Jordan, co-owner of Blenders and Bowls, made a similar jump this past year. After having her truck open for less than a year, she opened a cafe on Brazos Street and 4th Street in the same space as a yoga studio. “There are two kinds of people who open trailers. The people who have a family recipe and just want to own a trailer, and people like Eric and I, who really want to open a brick and mortar, but want to get started right away,” she says.
Since opening a brick and mortar requires lots of time and capital, going the trailer route first allows business owners to build a foundation of profit and brand awareness. This startup style is a path taken by some of the biggest names in trailers, including Gourdough’s and Torchy’s Tacos. In fact, Silverstein’s new neighbor on North Burnet Road will be Hey Cupcake!, a bakery that also got its start on wheels.
Jordan said going from trailer to restaurant is challenging, because, at some level, the truck itself is the brand. “But after you’ve been doing it for so long, it’s tiring and you just want it to be in one spot,” she adds.
A few months ago, Silverstein approached Joshua Henderson, a chef and established restaurateur from Seattle, with his idea to make The Peached Tortilla a brick and mortar. Although this project is Silverstein’s to execute, he wanted to consult Henderson for his experience. Henderson has opened several restaurants in the Seattle area over the last seven years. The first one was Skillet, a trailer. “Most of this stuff he knows, it’s just a matter of affirming what he knows,” Henderson says.
So far, Silverstein has it all planned out: The new storefront will be the central hub for their trucks and food catering company. Over the next several months he intends to finalize the menu, flip the building into a full-service restaurant and bar, buy appliances for the kitchen and hire all of he new employees. And, with $500,000 on the line, Silverstein’s about to risk every penny he’s ever made in the last four years.
Henderson says that given the success Silverstein has had, it’s not financially necessary for him to expand. Yet, Henderson notes that successful trucks, like The Peached Tortilla, must expand to brick and mortars to provide future stability over the long run. “If he’s planning on being a dad or getting married, but he’s stuck on a truck all the time having to be the guy in charge, that doesn’t leave much time for that kind of thing,” Henderson who is both a husband and a father, says. “You have to grow, from a business standpoint, to create that layer — so you can get to the point where you actually get to have a life.”
Silverstein hopes to continue capitalizing on the brand he’s built with more locations over the next few years, if his first venture is successful. If it’s not, he says he definitely is not going back to being a lawyer. “I’ll go on living my life and figure something out I guess. What else can I do? If I knew then what I know now, it’d be hard to go through it again. But I have no regrets about what I’ve done,” Silverstein says.