It's a steamy Saturday night, and Austin Daily Press is open for business in the Club de Ville parking lot at Red River and Ninth street. The generator that powers the setup growls loudly, drowning out any soft voices. With the air conditioner broken inside the small trailer, Amy Hildenbrand is red from the heat as she gingerly slices bread and cheese for two sandwiches.
Compared with a lot of people hanging around Red River clubs, Hildenbrand, in a black T-shirt and jeans, looks fairly conservative. She talks, as she places the sandwiches onto a hot press, about how sometimes she can predict whether it's going to be a busy night based on what kind of concert is happening.
"The heavy metal fans will eat," she says with a smile.
Recently, Hildenbrand, along with her partner Cory Nunez and Nunez's girlfriend Melani Feinberg, had the chance to hone her ability to read customer appetites on the road as one of seven food trucks competing for $50,000 on the Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race," which premieres tonight. The show, an "Amazing Race" of sorts for foodies hosted by Food Network personality Tyler Florence, tests the businesses' ability to sell their wares in cities across the country, starting from scratch in each location.
Getting picked to compete came as a bit of a surprise for the Austin Daily Press team. They had only been operating for a few months before the show's producers invited them to take part in late March, as they were still recuperating from working long hours during South by Southwest. In April, they hitched their trailer to a pickup belonging to Hildenbrand's uncle and made their way to Los Angeles.
When they got there, they realized they were the only team not based in California. In fact, with the exception of a team from San Francisco, all of the other competitors operated in the Los Angeles area. Nunez says that geographical differences put them at a disadvantage. Unlike Austin, where food trailers often will find permanent locations in empty lots, Los Angeles trucks tend to park in a new location each day, a skill at the heart of "The Great Food Truck Race."
"You can say we were the underdogs," Nunez laughs.
Being the underdog doesn't seem like the type of thing that bothers the sandwich-slinger, however. A Georgia native with a few tattoos and a light goatee, Nunez moved to Austin a little over three years ago with the idea of owning a hot dog truck with his brother-in-law. After a few false starts, Hildenbrand, whom Nunez had met through a family friend and who had recently returned home to Texas after living in New York City for several years, bought out Nunez's brother-in-law. Austin Daily Press was born.
The pair did not have much direction at the outset. The one thing they did know was that they wanted to be able to deliver their food to nearby bars. "We didn't really have a game plan; we didn't really know what kind of food we were going to do; we didn't really have a name for the business," says Nunez. "The original idea was just finding something we could deliver."
The slogan on the Austin Daily Press logo reads, "As Toasted As You Are." Indeed, the menu, a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches made that much more tempting with extras such as pastrami or meatballs and marinara, is perfect for the concert-goer hungry after a few PBR's at the Mohawk. With their delivery service, which consists of an old red mountain bike, they are also able to bring their food to the drinkers, as well as hungry bartenders.
Because "The Great Food Truck Race" required that they purchase new supplies in each city, Hildenbrand and Nunez were not always able to replicate their sandwiches on the road. Being forced to improvise their menu was just one of many challenges the team faced. Hildenbrand describes the routine of the game in somewhat Sisyphean terms.
"You're dealing with finding your way around in a new city, figuring out where you want to go, trying to get to a store that's still open, buying food and then taking it back and prepping it, and then trying to find a spot to sell it, then actually trying to sell it," she says.
This emphasis on the business side of the food world sets "The Great Food Truck Race" apart from other food-focused shows. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether a certain dish is well-cooked or presented in a creative way — the team with the most money wins; the team with the least goes home.
All of this is not to say that taking part in the show was all work and no play. Nunez, Hildenbrand and Feinberg became friends with many of their competitors, including the Grill 'Em All team, a "heavy metal" hamburger truck. "They were hilarious guys," Nunez says, showing off the Grill 'Em All logo he got tattooed on his forearm during the show.
As for the future of Austin Daily Press, Nunez and Hildebrand say they would like to eventually open a more permanent location in a storefront somewhere downtown. Nunez acknowledges that is not something that will happen overnight, however. "It's not a business you get into to make money," he says. "If you want to make a living, you can probably do it, but if you don't enjoy it, it's not something to get into."
'The Great Food Truck Race'
9 p.m. Sunday, August 15