Food truck builder David Ford in a truck destined for Nigeria. (Credit: Jessica Harlan)
Some of David Ford’s fondest childhood memories are tinkering with vintage cars alongside his dad, racing rigged-up hot rods with his brother, and helping his dad and his dad’s best friend convert an old city bus into an RV that the families later used as a lake house on Kentucky Lake.
So it’s not surprising that at a time when most men are thinking of retiring, Ford has found a second career that combines his longtime love for auto mechanics with his career in graphic design and screenprinting.
Ford, who’s in his mid-60s but has the energy level of a man half his age, owns Food Trucks South, a business that designs and builds food trucks and other merchandising vehicles.
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He opened the doors on his suburban Atlanta workshop in 2012, but his inspiration came a few years earlier, in 2008, when he read an article about the pending craze of food trucks. Ford liked the idea of retiring to the beach and selling hot dogs out of a food truck, but when he came up with the idea for his its design, he couldn’t find a company that could make a finished truck that met with his specifications and quality level.
Instead of heading to the coast with a make-do hot dog truck, he found himself instead filling what he saw as a void, making high-quality, well-designed and visually appealing food trucks.
Independent operators were his first customers — one young couple, for instance, challenged him to fit a nearly full-fledged kitchen inside their truck, complete with a 36-inch range. Soon he caught the eye of bigger companies, and he’s since designed a catering truck for Waffle House, a truck for the growing Jeni’s Ice Cream brand that headed to Los Angeles, a truck for Arby’s to use in testing new markets, and even a truck for the Andretti car racing brand — complete with a remote control that opens the entire side of the truck, and a collapsible viewing platform on top to watch the race. “It was an engineering marvel,” says Ford proudly.
The “Wall of Fame” - mock-ups of some of Food Trucks South’s completed projects. (Credit: Jessica Harlan)
So far he’s built around 30 trucks; each has a 6 to 8 week turnaround and his team is typically working on 3 or 4 at any given on time. Ford’s staff consists of 6 people, most under 30, and includes a father and son team: dad’s a talented builder who Ford discovered when he hired him to work on his country house; Ford then hired the son to serve as an apprentice of sorts to his father.
A current project involves building a mobile boutique for clothing retailer fab’rik; the retailer plans to use it for its Free fab’rik project, which provides a free shopping experience to women in need who are at shelters, safe houses or mobile homes. Another is for a client who plans to ship the truck to Nigeria to start a food truck business (“Possibly the first food truck in Nigeria,” Ford speculates.).
A staffer “wraps” a truck in its graphics. (Credit: Jessica Harlan)
Ford says that his team primarily repurposes trucks, such as those from delivery fleets, and outfits them with all-new cooking appliances. Most of the trucks are wrapped in bright, eye-catching graphics, a tribute to the years he spent working in the graphics business, working with everything from band T-shirts to screenprinted CDs to billboards.
“When you build a car, it has to look good, and the same thing with this — after all, you eat partly with your eyes,” he says.
So proud is Ford of the visual impact of his truck designs that he has a rule: clients aren’t allowed to see the trucks until they’re fully done. One of his favorite parts of his job is leading his client into his workshop to see the finished truck — “When you see that truck you’ve dreamed of,” he says, tears are not uncommon… both in the eyes of the client and Ford himself.
Realizing the dream doesn’t come cheap: Ford says that the typical completed truck runs between $85,000 and $100,000, and of course can quickly escalate depending on the vision of the client. “Our creativity is limited to the size of our clients’ checkbooks,” says Ford. In the future, he says, he hopes to offer food trucks in brand-new vehicles, which will be able to be financed, making the purchase process a little more doable.
And Ford’s new career is helping to finance his lifelong love for old cars: In the back of his workshop is one of his most recently obtained treasures, a 1946 International Metro truck that was discovered in an Oklahoma barn. But would he rather be enjoying a well-deserved retirement, swinging a golf club or sitting by a Florida pool? “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” admits Ford about his new career. “But I’ve never had so much fun.”
Here are a few more of Food Truck South’s creations:
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