Nico Fini of Urban Escargot has been in the Food Truck business for around 23 years. Originally from France, where he worked as a head chef, Fini arrived in New Zealand 26 years ago. “I went to the World Food Festival in Hokitika as a punter, and I saw the humungous potential considering the queues everywhere,” Fini said. “I worked to figure out the system, and found a couple of products that were different, and it all started from there.”
Fini’s food truck initially sold lamb shanks and, of course, escargot. With these two products, Fini’s truck stood out from the rest. But his menu changed over the years, adapting to the dynamic food truck environment. Some of Fini’s biggest sellers include a pork belly burger with pomegranate salsa and aioli, as well as a beef fillet with bearnaise sauce and caramelised zucchini. In reality, though, Fini said that he does a bit of everything. Fini has continued to do the escargot, too, but the menus largely depend on the sort of gig he is attending.
In addition to his food truck, Fini does catering. Being based on Waiheke Island, he has found that working hard for Waiheke’s busy period gives him enough time to be more selective when it comes to which festivals and gigs he attends. A big trend at the moment, Fini noted, was people having their weddings catered to through food trucks. Last year alone, Fini did around 15 weddings, providing for up to 350 people at a time. “With weddings, it’s not all about the food out of the truck—it’s also the canapes and desserts. But it makes sense; people can save so much money having their wedding catered by food trucks. I wish I had my wedding like that; it’s totally different to a conventional wedding.”
Having spent many years in restaurants, it was interesting to hear Fini talk about the pros and cons of running a food truck. “It’s a hard business, running a restaurant—I admire those people. You are dependent on your team, and you need to be everywhere. A food truck is a good place to be. It’s a nice lifestyle, and once you get the system going, and don’t try to franchise or go too big, it’s easier.” But it’s not without its challenges, Fini noted. He said that the last few years has seen many people come and go in the industry. Highlighting issues like high overheads, and the up-and-down nature of the work, he said that people often struggle to stick around. Fini, for instance, has stopped doing gigs for the sake of it, he has got to a point where he can now stick to the ones that will be worth it. Fini also noted that it’s getting harder and harder to get council licensing. He said that in order to be successful, you need to make sure that you have structured systems in place. “There’s a lot of people wanting to get into the same spots as you, so you really have to push your way in.”
But Fini’s relaxed nature doesn’t stop him from having a unique point of difference. “I don’t think that anyone is as fast as we are. On a big day, we can produce 2000 burgers, all out of one food truck.” Especially at Field Days—a gig that Fini said was one of the best around—he is more than capable of keeping up with the high levels of orders. In addition to speed, Fini’s personalised interactions with his customers is another thing that he highlighted. “We like giving the punters a bit of an experience when they come up to the truck, a bit of a hard time. We’re always ready to talk a bit of smack.” With Fini’s teenage daughter having worked with him for the last little while, Fini said that she too is getting good at giving the guests a playful hard time, as well.
The food truck community is something that Fini said was collaborative. “There are no hard feelings or anything, and we often help each other out. If someone forgot gas, for instance, you could count on the person next to you to give you a hand. I mean, it’s a hard enough job as it is, right?”
In his downtime, Fini likes to go fishing. When asked about where he wants to develop his business, he simply said that he was happy where he is. “I mean, I live in the most beautiful place in the world, and I have a good wee business, so I am happy. If I could play some more tennis and do a bit more fishing instead of working too hard, that’s where I would eventually like to be in two or three years. But I’ll keep going because I love what I’m doing.”