ASHDOD – It’s a FedEx truck transformed into a restaurant on wheels. Its specialty is high-end hamburgers (“Made from the best entrecote,” boasts the chef), but vegetarian options are also on the menu. And everything is kosher. Its name, painted in large English letters over the old logo, is MasaEAT. (“Masa’it” is the Hebrew word for truck.)
Like almost every other hot American trend, it was only a matter of time before food trucks started popping up around Israel. And in this food-loving nation, they appear to have landed on fertile ground.
About 10 other food trucks are parked together in an outdoor lot near the beach in this southern coastal city. It is the middle of the holiday week of Sukkot and, as lunchtime approaches, families step in line to place their orders beside each truck.
The fare on offer includes everything from classic pizza to Asian noodles to arayes (Middle Eastern meat-stuffed pitas).
In charge of this holiday happening is Galit Rubin, who, together with her spouse, runs market-themed culinary tours around the country. As experts on the local foodie culture, she explains, they predicted that restaurants on wheels would become Israel’s next big thing. And their instincts, she says, have thus far proven correct.
“We’ve had thousands of people here every day during the holiday,” she says.
But it began before then. In July and August, a similar event was held here every Tuesday evening. It went so well that the Rubins decided to expand the event next year. “We’re not going to wait until July, but instead open as soon as April,” she says.
Ashdod is hardly the only place in Israel to join the food truck craze.
This summer, for three evenings every week, Sultan’s Pool – a large outdoor space just outside Jerusalem’s Old City – was transformed into a food truck park.
Inaugural food truck “festivals” have also been held in recent months as far south as Be’er Sheva and as far north as the Hefer Valley region.
In front of your eyes
A driving spirit behind the trend is Guy Peretz, a prominent Israeli chef and restaurateur. His latest venture, Food Trucks Company, imports food trucks from around the world and sells and rents them from a dealership – the only one of its kind in Israel right now – located on the premises of a small agricultural community near Ashdod.
He also hires out his services as a consultant for fledgling food truck entrepreneurs.
Since he opened the business about 18 months ago, Peretz says he’s sold more than 200 trucks.
“Everyone told me that food trucks would never take off in Israel because of all the regulatory restrictions. But we have proven otherwise,” he says.
In Israel, unlike the United States, you won’t find food trucks in the middle of big cities – because they are not allowed to park in areas where restaurants are located.
Nor will you find them moving on their own, since Israeli regulations require that their engines be removed as a safety precaution. In order to get from place to place, they need to be towed.
But these inconveniences are not a major deterrent, according to Peretz. “The advantages of working in this kind of business outweigh the [disadvantages] by far,” he says. “A food truck requires a much smaller investment than a proper restaurant; there’s much less overhead involved; and you don’t have to work as many hours as you do in a proper restaurant.”
And then there are the special bonuses that come with being in Israel.
“Israelis love food – especially freshly made food – and in a food truck you can see it being made right in front of your eyes,” says Peretz. “Besides that, this is a country that is all about events and celebrations, and you can’t have an event or celebration here without food – which is why we are seeing more and more food trucks at company events, at weddings, and all sorts of happenings and festivals.”
His next big project, scheduled to open next March, is a first-of-its-kind food truck “village” that will stay open all year around. Some of the venues being considered are Jerusalem, Ashdod and Ramat Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv.
“We’re talking about outdoor lots where about 10 different food trucks will be parked permanently,” says Peretz. “There will be tables and chairs for diners, and the space will include all the services and amenities needed to operate.”
MasaEAT was one of the first food truck businesses in the country. It started in Kfar Uria, a small rural community near Beit Shemesh, central Israel, where a resident farmer wanted to introduce visitors to dishes prepared with locally grown produce.
One of the food trucks is parked permanently at the entrance to his farm. The other two move around the country from event to event – like the one to be found in Ashdod.
“The idea was to provide people around the country, who might not be able to afford fancy restaurants, with great food at decent prices,” explains Tehila Kadosh, a partner in the business.
A fourth food truck owned by MasaEAT will move permanently to the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem later this month.
Digmi’s, which specializes in deli sandwiches, joined the Israeli food truck scene about three months ago and has since become a regular at events like the one in Ashdod.
Uriel Digmi, who runs the family-owned business, says he believes that “it’s important to leave the physical confines of the restaurant and come out and meet the people.”
It makes a lot more financial sense, too, he explains: “I charge the same price for the food here as I would in a restaurant, but here I don’t have to pay rent.”