Plymouth company is go-to builder-designer for food truck craze
Cruising around the Twin Cities is a fleet of brightly colored vehicles equipped with refrigerators, grills and deep fryers driven by restaurant owners, families or entrepreneurs. Food truck culture has hit the metro.
More than likely, if a rolling hamburger joint or mobile diner passes by, it bears the insignia of Chameleon Concessions – a food truck design and fabrication company in Plymouth.
Mark Palm, owner of Chameleon Concessions, estimates that he’s built more than 100 food trucks, about 75 tow-behind trailers and hundreds of food carts since forming the company 12 years ago.
However, the story of Chameleon can be traced back to more than 100 years ago.
A Family Affair
In 1910, Mark’s grandfather began a restaurant equipment business – Palm Brothers – and specialized in building refrigerated trucks for the dairy industry.
From there, Palm Brothers entered the soda fountain industry, establishing small grills and fountains in drugstores around the country.
When the interstate highway system began to form, the business focused on roadside restaurants. Palm Brothers can be credited with many of the first truckstops built in the country.
Palm Brothers was sold in 2000, but the food industry and the family model of business stuck with Mark.
Next to the Wonka-esque Chameleon shop at 12960 Highway 55 is Mark’s twin brother’s business. Rick operates Palm Trading at 12970 Highway 55 and specializes in new and used restaurant equipment.
Though the brothers’ businesses have separate addresses, they have long since knocked down the wall that separates them – literally.
“We’ve never left each other,” Mark said of his twin brother. “From going to the same high school, to being in the same fraternity in college and to this. We’ve always been together.”
The Palm brothers both reside in Orono and were raised in the Palm family business. Their first jobs out of high school were cleaning, installing and selling restaurant equipment. It’s in their blood.
Building a Fleet
After Palm Brothers was sold, Mark formed the beginnings of Chameleon Concessions. He was building hot dog stands for Home Depot and Lowe’s stores across the country.
However, business really took off when Minneapolis approved an ordinance allowing mobile food vehicle vendors to cater to hungry folks downtown three years ago.
Food trucks, which previously held a viable market at festivals and special events, were now an increasingly attractive option for anyone entering the restaurant business.
And because Mark had experience in mobile food vending, and because Rick’s business offered most of the necessary equipment next door, Chameleon Concessions soon became the premier builder and designer of food trucks in the region and around the country.
Chameleon is essentially a one-stop shop for clients. Mark doesn’t sell the actual trucks, but he can easily connect a buyer with a number of different sellers. Most trucks are repurposed linen service or courier service vehicles.
Once the truck is purchased, Mark will draft a floor plan and design based on the client’s finances, needs, menu and desire. The truck is gutted, sanitized and fitted with gas, electric and water connections.
A client can then shop Rick’s Palm Trading inventory for the equipment necessary to their desired menu.
Once the truck is outfitted with the basics, options such as flat screen televisions, surround sound systems and external graphics are added.
Pixelwerx, a graphics company a few doors down from Mark’s shop, is the preferred business to “wrap” a Chameleon food truck in a logo, designs and photos that add to the appeal and mobile marketing of the truck.
The trucks are also equipped with and checked for sanitation and fire code conformity. Rick said Minnesota has one of the toughest health departments in the country, so everything has to be top-notch.
Mark said the entire process – from idea to road-ready – usually takes about six weeks.
Because of the experience and convenience within the Chameleon process, Mark has been involved in many of the most notable food trucks on the market today.
He’s done a truck for the Minnesota Twins – complete with mustard and ketchup bottle-shaped propane tanks – as well as the AZ Canteen by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, Anchor Fish and Chips, Rusty Tacos, Falafel King and others.
Chameleon-built trucks can also be found in Tennessee, California, Oregon, North Carolina and around the Midwest. Mark has also custom-built food carts for Valley Fair, Disney’s Epcot and Mystic Lake Casino Hotel.
More Than a Trend
There’s been an explosion in the popularity of food trucks as a dining option in the past few years. However, Mark believes the popularity is less of a trend and more of a business model that’s beginning to come into its own.
“There’s always been concessions at fairs and festivals – they always need food,” Mark said. “And [food trucks] are an easier way to travel, when compared to lugging a huge trailer around.”
“A lot of corporate cafeterias bring the trucks in too,” Rick added. “It gives people something different to eat. I think a lot of people are enjoying that.”
Food trucks have also become popular for private events, graduation parties and outside brewery taprooms as an alternate to a traditional catering service.
That popularity has offered new means for folks entering the food industry. If an inexperienced restaurateur would like to break into the market, a food truck is an option that allows them to test a menu or model with a smaller investment compared to purchasing or leasing a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Mark said only about 25 percent of his clients are existing restaurant owners who add trucks to their lineup. The majority of his business comes from independent mom-and-pop shops.
Trucks likes Smack Shack, Hot Indian and Chef Shack have gone on to build restaurants after first establishing themselves in one of Mark’s food trucks.
“I think it’s here to stay,” Mark added. “A lot of people are very successful in it. It’s really not much different than building a standalone restaurant. People just really like food trucks.”
Mark and Rick have been at their Plymouth locations for a little more than a year. And they said the location and facility are ideal for their business partnership.
Mark said he’s currently lining up clients for the winter food truck build, and things are looking good.
Chicago recently approved an ordinance similar to Minneapolis, and Chameleon sent its first truck downtown shortly thereafter. Mark said he’s been getting calls from other Chicago businesses to design and build trucks.
Other emerging markets are Portland, Des Moines and the oil fields in North Dakota. Mark also built a truck that will serve the peaks of Afton Alps near Hastings, as an alternative to the chalet down the slopes.
When asked what the typical reaction is when Mark tells people what he does for a living, he said the usual response is, “You’re the guy?”
He continued to say, while he does get free food on occasion, his favorite part of Chameleon Concession is seeing his trucks help entrepreneurs realize their dreams.
“Seeing the lines at the truck when it’s all done; that’s the best,” Mark said. “Seeing the owner successful. It’s their love and it’s their joy. It’s nice for us to see them do that out of something we built.”