Athens’ street food: behind the mobile restaurant industry

Ali Babas food truck

Athens’ street food is a staple menu option for many students at OU shuttling in between classes. It’s hot, it’s quick and you can eat it while standing. But what goes into making that gyro or burrito you can grab in 5 minutes and eat out of your hand? Local vendors talk about how they got started and nature of their trade.

Nisar Shaikh spends most of his days sitting in a fold-up chair behind the counter of his food truck called Ali Babas. His business has been operated since 1988. Shaikh was born in British colonized India in 1944. He has lived in England, Italy and Libya and holds bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science and a master’s in industrial engineering.

Nisar Shaikh
Nisar Shaikh

“In the morning when I wake up, I pray, I make coffee and watch Russian news, Chinese news, and American news. Then I leave the house for my business,” he said on how most of his days begin.

Shaikh decided to open a food truck after seeing a man selling gyros at Ohio State fair in Columbus. At the time, he was expecting his first child and finding steady work in the U.S. wasn’t easy.

Today, the Ali Babas truck is surprisingly well equipped for such a small space. The entire back of the truck is lined by industrial stainless steel appliances. A standard sink, gas range, griddle and cooler are situated side by side.

In the beginning, his truck was nothing more than a shed.

“I only bought the shell,” he explained. To equip his food truck his wife and he used metal found in local dumpsters.

To get a license to vend in Athens City took Shaikh 8 years. Back then, Athens had two separate vending areas. There was an A and B side. The A side required a license, but B side had metered parking.

“I wasn’t sleeping much because I am a responsible person,” he said. To operate his business he said he would leave the house at 4am then wait two hours until he could park on the street.

Now, Ali Babas has become a part of Athens scenery.

“All the men if they are responsible and they are married, they should be responsible for their families,” he said. Shaikh and his wife of 33 years raised 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls.

Marla Rutter
Marla Rutter

Marla Rutter owns the Burrito Buggy, located in front of Class Gates off of Court Street. Her day starts at around 7:30 am getting the truck stocked, the water tanks and everything needed to operate the truck on a daily basis. Her day doesn’t end until 9:30 pm on a weekday. Weekends can be even longer.

On average, Rutter said she serves around 50 to 100 people, depending on the day and the weather. When there are big events, such as Homecoming Weekend, she may have as many as 500 customers a day.

When asked why she thinks people like the Burrito Buggy, Rutter said it was nostalgia.

“It takes people back. They want to relive their freshman or sophomore year,” she said. Rutter said that a lot of her customers that come during events like Homecoming Weekend even get their pictures taken with the buggy.

Rutter also felt an attachment to the buggy, which is why she purchased the brand in 2010.

“I always loved the Burrito Buggy ever since I was a freshman I had been eating here. It came up for sale in 2010 and if they didn’t find a new owner it was going to close. I thought that couldn’t happen, so we bought it in March of 2010,” she said.

For the most part, operating a food truck is like operating a small local owned business. The days are long and there are many costs involved with the day-to-day operation. Rutter explained that her yearly sales range around $200,000 but she has to pay for food, staff, insurance and propane. In addition, Rutter said that the biggest challenge was maneuvering the truck into her vendor licensed spot.

“One of my personal challenges is that I’m not really good at backing this up. We have to come in a certain order,” she explained. “There are 10 spots. We have assigned spots, but we don’t have assigned times to be here.”

Despite obstacles, Rutter has purchased another buggy in addition to helping her daughter open a restaurant which will be included into the Burrito Buggy Corporation.

For more information about Athens food truck industry check out the The Post’s article.

Author: Samantha Peko

I'm a second year master's student at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. I enjoy reading, cooking and dancing (despite the fact that I can't). I can be found on either the second or fourth floor of the Alden Library about every day of the week. I'm a serious nerd and I have a love for historical journalism. For my thesis I will be investigating stunt women journalists, think Nellie Bly, which will consume my every waking moment until I graduate--hopefully, by the end of this year.

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