From construction sites and office parks to bars, festivals and street corners, food trucks have been a ubiquitous fixture on the Las Vegas food scene for some time. And right now, while the pandemic has put many brick-and-mortar restaurants on shaky ground or indefinite hiatus, food trucks are one of the safest ways folks can dine out. They’re made for social distancing.
But have you ever stopped to think about the trucks themselves? Where are these unique kitchen/vehicle combos designed and built?
In Las Vegas, the answer usually involves Ibarra’s Mobile Kitchen Solutions. If you’ve eaten from one of the many food trucks roaming our Valley, you’ve most likely done so from a vehicle built by the Ibarra family.
The family estimates that it has created more than 90 percent of the trucks and trailers in Las Vegas, helping chefs get their show on the road, so to speak. Perspective food truckers can buy or rent a food truck or trailer, order custom builds, get repairs and even use the Ibarra’s commissary kitchen and secure parking lot.
One such Ibarra’s success story is Sista Kim’s Kitchen. Proprietor Ken Aman had always wanted to open a restaurant, but the cost of a traditional brick-and-mortar was prohibitively expensive. “[Ibarra’s] helped me get our dream started on a budget,” Aman says.
Sista Kim’s serves traditional American comfort food: burgers, chili dogs, pastrami sandwiches and loaded fries. In less than a year, the business has had so much success that Aman, a native of Ghana, says he’s planning a second food truck that would combine African and Haitian cuisines.
Iman says that he loves the family feel of Ibarra’s. “It’s not just a shop that takes your money and that’s it,” Iman says. “They go out of their way to help.”
All in the family
Sal Ibarra and his two adult sons run the operation. Jonathan handles the business end—contracts, design, paperwork—while his brother, Salvador Jr., maintains the machinery, stock and equipment. Sal oversees it all.
“He’s the one that’s been in this for the longest,” Jonathan says. “He’s got all the connections all around town.”
The Ibarras’ 20,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor shop at 3038 Rigel Avenue, just west of I-15 between Sahara and Desert Inn, can be seen from the freeway. Giant letters proudly proclaim “IBARRA’S FOOD TRUCKS.”
At first, the family says, it seemed cavernous, but the factory-warehouse is now filled to the brim. There’s a cozy office, where Jonathan makes pencil and whiteboard designs, preferring the old-fashioned method to CAD drawings. The workshop is broken up into areas such as welding, cutting and wood cutting. Supplies are organized by type: foam sheets, stainless steel sheets, fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP).
Ibarra’s recently implemented a new shop layout to increase capacity—necessary since the business is now routinely making 12 food trailers at a time and completing each under 10 weeks.
During the Weekly’s visit, a giant pizza truck takes center stage on the factory floor, its oven having arrived straight from Italy. Outside, various trucks and concession trailers fill the lot, like a food festival without the crowd.
With so much growth, space has become tight, and the family is scouting locations for a larger facility on the outskirts of town. The Ibarras say they’d like to expand to a 40,000-square-foot building on five acres. With that much space, they’d be able to fabricate those colorful vehicle wraps in-house. Right now, a third party provides that finishing touch.
“My No. 1 goal is for this place to be a one-stop shop—repairs, the commissary, you get your food truck—everything gets done here,” Jonathan says. “The only thing I’m missing is the wrap.”
In his personal time, Jonathan takes part in body-building competitions. Even as he helps others indulge, Jonathan follows a strict competition meal plan of lean meats, veggies and rice.
At work, he loves building the company. “When it was just mostly my dad at the very beginning, it was very small,” Jonathan says. He sees this time as a “race to build and expand the company all over the West.” That drive pulls him out of bed each morning, he says.
Inside the kitchen
Mobile kitchens are a marvel of engineering and design. To be roadworthy, they can be no larger than 16-feet long by 8-feet, 4-inches wide, yet they must be capable of containing everything a regular restaurant kitchen would.
The standard food truck includes heating elements (a fryer, a 36-inch flat top griddle, a two-burner stove); food storage and preparation surfaces (a three-compartment steam table, a two-door tall refrigerator, a prep table on top of a small refrigerator, a counter table for order and pickup); health and safety features (a three-compartment sink, a hand-washing sink, a fire-suppression system) and, of course, an air-conditioning unit.
Ibarra’s custom builds take that basic design and tailor it to fit the needs of a specific chef or cuisine: four extra fryers for a fried chicken truck; a large wok on a big burner for a Chinese food truck; three ovens for a bakery on wheels; extra countertops for a coffee truck; and a vertical grill that supports three gyros for a Mediterranean food truck.
“People think it’s easy to make these things, but they’re really not,” Jonathan says. That makes the end result even more rewarding. “It’s really fun going to a foodie festival and seeing all my projects.”
While the festival scene is dampened due to COVID-19, the food truck construction and rental business is booming due to the pandemic. Jonathan says that restaurant owners and people who’ve been laid off are looking to this mobile business opportunity.
Case in point: When restaurateur Derrick Eason, owner of Boss’s Slow Smoked BBQ, set out to acquire a food truck, he contacted Ibarra’s with specific requests. Boss’s specializes in pork ribs, brisket, tri-tip and catfish with traditional sides of coleslaw, candied yams, mac and cheese and collard greens, so Eason needed a food truck that not only could pull his smoker but also include plentiful fridge and counter space, an extra fryer and a warmer. And he wanted the truck decor to resemble that of his brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen. Ibarra’s met those needs and helped him rearrange the kitchen interior to match his preferred workflow.
“From the moment I walked in, Jonathan treated me like a brother,” says Eason, whose restaurant experience had not previously extended to food trucks. “They made it really simple.”
In fact, Eason says he’s “so satisfied,” he plans to have Ibarra’s build him a second food truck—focused on fish and fries—in the near future.
From burritos to brake pads
The Ibarras’ burgeoning food truck construction empire actually began as a burgeoning food service empire. The family ran a restaurant on Las Vegas’ east side called El Borrego de Oro while operating a few food trucks at construction sites. When the economy crashed in 2008, Las Vegas construction dried up, however, and suddenly there were fewer workers to feed.
In need of a new revenue stream, the Ibarras started making food trailers and placing them around the city. At first, nobody knew how they were going to work, Jonathan recalls, but people began catching on, and the family slowly realized it was more profitable to sell trucks and trailers than the food itself.
As they went from selling two or three trucks a year to four or five per month, Jonathan, who earned a business degree from UNLV, saw another opportunity: truck rentals. “My biggest plan for the rental was to give people the opportunity to start the business at a very low cost,” Jonathan says. “That’s so important to me.”
Purchasing a truck outright typically costs between $60,000 and $120,000—prohibitive for many aspiring business owners. But renting allows for a more affordable entry point without the same type of commitment.
“You’re buying a business. People sometimes get confused about that,” Jonathan says of purchase prices. “The only difference between a restaurant and a food truck or trailer is that the restaurant’s overhead is ridiculous.’ (His own family’s brick-and-mortar restaurant finally closed a little over a year ago.)
It was a huge financial risk to build those first rental food trucks, but six years later, Jonathan says it has paid off. The Ibarras have more than 65 trucks and trailers rented out right now, with a dozen more in the works. The family has expanded the business to nearby states, like Arizona and New Mexico. Utah is next.
“About 90% of our renters [become] our buyers,” Jonathan says. “They end up building up their business, they become profitable and then they go for it.”
Food truck village
Beyond all the health code and fire safety regulations, a food truck proprietor isn’t permitted to park a mobile kitchen in a home driveway at night. So a little over a year ago, Ibarra’s opened a commissary on two Downtown acres on Fremont Street. It can host roughly 30 food trucks right now, and Ibarra’s will soon break ground on an expansion to accommodate more than 80 additional food trucks. A large industrial kitchen also sits on the property, with food storage and prep options. Food truckers can pay to use any aspect of the commissary, from parking to cold storage.
Sista Kim’s Ken Aman uses the commissary and follows a rent-to-own plan for his food truck. He says he loves the full-service aspect of Ibarra’s, which helped him with both the truck and small details like licensing and permitting.
“He delivered on his word and helped me through the whole process,” Aman says. “I felt like I wasn’t alone. I had the right team behind me to push me through everything I encountered.”