On June 7, 2011, former IT professional Brian Farrell introduced the District of Columbia to homemade and gourmet lasagnas made with from-scratch pasta and served on the go. The "scratched" metal finish on this food truck is just where the hard work began for Basil Thyme. "It took me 250 hours with a drill and sandpaper to create the swirled-brushed aluminum look," said Farrell. "In the beginning, I had no funds for a fancy wrap, so I just hoped people would get it: scratched truck equals from-scratch food — and forgive our appearances in favor of our 100 percent hard work (and hopefully tasty) menu! People seem to like the finish, though, so I think It's going to stick."
People also seem to really enjoy the food Farrell serves with the help of chef Alberto Vega. There are five different kinds of artisan lasagnas, among them the Linda ("traditional" lasagna with seasoned beef), the Cantena (wine and shallot sautéed chicken with spinach), the Guiseppe (black truffle lasagna with gorgonzola and portobello truffle cream sauce), and the newer lobster or crab lasagnas — it was the Washington City Paper’s readers' pick for second-best food truck in the city. So it's no surprise that Basil Thyme's great work landed them a spot on The Daily Meal's 2012 list of 101 Best Food Trucks in America.
And it looks like Washingtonians are about to be rewarded with double the basil and thyme. Basil Thyme is about to launch its second truck: "Basil Thyme's Two." Farrell says it's going to focus exclusively on fresh pasta, with innovative techniques and specials. "Now I'm working 70 hours a week, just to do lunch — so I just wont have the same time to devote to decorating this new truck; it will definitely have to have a wrap," he joked.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Besides plans for a new truck, in this interview with Farrell, learn more about the inspiration for launching Basil Thyme, the vanity plates he'd like to have, and his general advice for how to budget for time to launch and investment.
What was the inspiration for going into this business?
Toward the end of 2010, I was growing tired of cold-calling as an IT sales guy, and the economy was telling me it was time to try something new. I wanted to pursue a passion of mine — cooking. I used to watch Food Network and Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the BBC version), and the F-Word, etc., and really any resonable cooking show I could get my eyes on. They all seemed to tell me, "If you put in the hard work and use quality ingredients, then you've got a formula for success." So I thought that if I combined my passion for food with my love of working with people it would be a great match for a food truck!
What's the story behind the origin of your truck's name?
I spent about four hours just brainstorming and was trying to come up with some clever acronyms when it hit me: Basil Thyme! I love basil and my thinking was that it's a way of saying, "It's time for fresh herbs and fresh cooking! Wake up, people. Wake up your taste buds and try some great from-scratch cooking. It's Basil Thyme!" Thus the alarm clock logo with motion and clock hands with two basil leaves instead.
How did you come up with your truck's design? Is there a designer you'd like to give a shout-out to?
I owe much to Ray Turner with getting me started. If you'd like help with getting a truck built, Ray is a great guy and can do a good deal (contact us and I can get you in touch). Also, I'd like to thank Deanna Doan. She's a fantastic artist who did PhoWheels in D.C., and is doing our design for Basil Thyme's Two. I loved the work she did on PhoWheels so I asked the owner and he got us connected. Can't wait get that wrap on!
Does your truck have a vanity license plate?
We don't. But I'd like to get "BasilX1" and "BasilX2."
What model truck do you have?
Basil Thyme is a Chevy P30 1987. Basil Thyme's Two is a 1997 GMC 350. They're both diesel.
What's your signature dish? Is it also your most popular dish?
Our signature dish is our lobster lasagna or our black truffle. Folks go crazy over them and they're probably our best reviewed dishes. Most popular is the default. When new customers say they want a "lasagna," they get the Linda, our traditional lasagna. It's named after my mom. It's a great comfort food!
What's the inspiration for your cuisine and recipes?
Italian has always been my favorite. Simple and delicious flavors are reminders of the good times my family in West Haven, Conn., used to have. We would do Thanksgiving the Italian way: nine courses including Italian wedding soup, a manicotti course, and more. My mom and aunt were both home and career skills teachers, so I guess something rubbed off — though much if not all of the credit goes to chef Vega for delivering consistently day after day.
What's the most challenging thing about running your food truck?
Finding parking and the D.C. government. Didn't expect I'd have to waste a resource in the kitchen for two hours each morning, just to have him go run downtown to secure parking. The proliferation of food trucks in D.C. — 17 when I started a year and a half ago and well over 130 now — has contributed to the parking challenge. It's not politically correct to say, but I think there are too many food trucks out there that don't really have a cullinary vision, but instead are just out to make a buck with uninspired and frozen/cookie-cutter food. We're established so it's not as hard for us. But for a new truck coming out, it's too bad they have to compete with what I'd view as just distracting noise, one more truck, one more space/thing to be looked at and competed with, but one that offers little culinary value. And it's a shame they are taking up a preciously rare spot that could be used by someone who's adding neat/new food/new twists that people would enjoy more.
If you haven't already, would you ever go brick-and-mortar? And if you have, is there anything you feel gets lost in the transition?
One of the ways we recruit top talent is that we give them their lives back with their significant others. While we start early (5 a.m.) we finish around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and seldom if ever work nights and weekends (maybe three a year?). I've said a few times that I'd rather own 20 trucks than one restaurant. However, since D.C. is getting more congested with trucks, I'm not sure we'll wait that long before leveraging our efforts to start a brick-and-mortar operation...
What one piece of advice would you give someone looking to get into the food truck business?
Whatever your budget for time to launch and investment — double them. Get the numbers down to where you've planned for absolutely everything where you're 100 percent certain you've captured all the caveats. Then double them both. There are always surprises. Also, don't open a food truck in D.C. All the current owners are starting trucks — two, and sometimes three and more — it's become saturated. If you think that's just a current owner trying to keep competition out, check out the parking situation at Metro Center or Farragut on a Friday. In two months, it will all start looking like that. And if you do launch a truck, at least bring something new to the table to distinguish yourself. We've got way too many of the same trucks serving some cuisines. Way too many. Again, not politically correct to say, but most customers I talk to share the same sentiment.
Any other advice?
Because the market is so saturated, plan to add $500 to your budget each month for parking tickets. The D.C. administration has proposed many regulations, some good, some bad parking-wise. Hours you can stay in a spot go up, but If you do violate the law, it will cost you $100 (instead of the $25 it currently might cost you). So If all things remain even, plan for $500 a month in parking tickets. I have $425 on my desk right now.
Do you pay the meter?
We always pay the meter, always. But the administration gives $25 tickets daily for being there longer than two hours. They created a special task force just for us — true story. Also, rush-hour violations now cost $100 when you park before 9:30 a.m., which is becoming more the norm at popular spots to ensure a spot for service that day. There are some locations where you just have to take a $100 ticket, or else not get a spot there where you've tweeted you'll be. That will cost you $300 in lost revenue at least, if you end up somewhere else that's not expecting you and throws your regulars through a loop...
Any new upcoming dishes planned that you can tell us about?
Chef Beckman from Susan Feniger's Street is planning some cool stuff for the new pasta truck Basil Thyme's Two. We just did a roasted-pear ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. Delish! I expect he's going to wow some palates. Chef Vega has continued to innovate, and came up with our beurre blanc shrimp fettuccine that I absolutely love. We aren't the cheapest truck on the block, but we hope you'll be thinking about the meal you had with us for longer than just lunch time!
Any new plans on the horizon you can share?
If or when the third truck happens, we're going to use a form of cooking found mostly in high-end restaurants and even then, hardly used. Let's put it this way, we have the domain suevgrill.com reserved. If you're not sure what that means, say it out loud a couple times. I'd hope to launch that in May or June depending on how things go with Basil Thyme's Two!
Lots of things happen when running a restaurant, and that probably goes double on the road. As such, be it weird, funny, good, or bad, what's one superlative or particularly outstanding moment or story that's ever occurred with your truck be it with customers, in the kitchen, or just in general?
Bad: the creator of several of our recipes — who had been on salary while creating them — left, taking them with him and demanded $6,500, basically to pay for his honeymoon. Thankfully, we were able to reverse engineer and improve on them with the help of chef Vega. It taught me an interesting lesson in intellectual property I never thought I'd face. Good: I think when my guys bought me a nice birthday cake surprise — candles, card, gift. I pride myself on paying the best wages in our industry, period. But still, these guys are service workers. For them to remember and to do that — I was touched.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.