Liberty grad takes food truck to head of the class

February 12, 2013

By David Hayes

Michael Kramer grew up in the kitchen. So, it’s no surprise to his closest family members and friends that his food truck Za’aTar is receiving rave reviews.

As a youngster, if he weren’t entwined in his grandmother’s legs while she was cooking comfort food worthy of any diner, he’d be underfoot while his dad whipped up a pretty mean homestyle Italian meal

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Now 22, the Liberty High School graduate said that in looking back, it was perhaps his mother who provided the most memorable life lessons to prepare him for what not to do while running a kitchen.

Contributed Late-night customers line up for fresh Mediterranean food from the Liberty High School graduate Michael Kramer’s food truck Za’atar Dec. 13 when it set up shop at Second and Pike in downtown Seattle.

Late-night customers line up for fresh Mediterranean food from the Liberty High School graduate Michael Kramer’s food truck Za’atar Dec. 13 when it set up shop at Second and Pike in downtown Seattle.

“One time when we went camping, she was trying to fry up some potatoes for breakfast when she asked, ‘Why is the oil bubbling up?’” Kramer recalled.

It turns out, she’d tried to sauté with dish soap rather than canola oil.

After graduating from high school, Kramer decided to hone his love of cooking and enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Ore. His first jobs in the outside world came in the kitchens of Seattle restaurants Serafina and Ciccetti.

An opportunity soon presented itself to skip years of serving on the line to get him that much closer to owning his own restaurant. A fellow Le Cordon Bleu College graduate, Brandon Ochs, had some money burning a hole in his pocket from years of contracting in Afghanistan and he had an idea — that the two of them open a food truck.

With food trucks dotting the landscape in cities across the United States, offering everything from hot dogs to haute cuisine, Kramer jumped at the opportunity.

Thanks to the Labor and Industries requirements, their first idea was short lived — the southern comfort food staple chicken and waffles.

“LNI said if we we’re going to have a deep fryer, our truck would need to have a fire suppressant system installed,” Kramer said.

To keep their startup costs as low as possible, they decided to go instead with what they knew, freshly made falafels and other Mediterranean cuisine they’d learned while at Serafina and Ciccetti.

“It turns out, we needed to get a fire system anyway,” Kramer said.

Some research of the area showed there were about six to eight startup food trucks per month. Kramer wanted their idea to last and stand out.

“There were two falafel trucks already, but I thought neither was very outstanding,” he said.

So, they slapped some red paint on their truck, called it Za’aTar (pronounced Za-tar), after the Mediterranean spice, and stocked up on all fresh ingredients. Kramer became the head chef and Ochs would concentrate on the business end of operations.

They kept their menu simple, offering just eight dishes.

The next trick is finding a prime location to serve up to some hungry masses. Business parks in South Lake Union, Renton and Kent proved to be perfect matches.

Word of mouth spread that Za’aTar was offering up something special. Kramer added it didn’t hurt at all that Seattle food blogger Roll of Jen named it one of her top three food trucks in Seattle.

“We really wanted to change how people looked at food trucks,” Kramer said. “It’s not just a roach coach offering greasy food. You can actually get restaurant qualify meals from them.”

It also didn’t hurt Za’aTar’s reputation that it received a perfect score during the state health department’s last inspection. Even they couldn’t wait for it to open.

“The health inspector said he couldn’t eat the food served in his jurisdiction,” Kramer said. “But, he said he’s got spies and they said our food was good.”

They use social media to get the word out where they’ll be any given day, from Twitter and Facebook to their website. Kramer admits the winter months can be slow for food trucks. However, to get the business to spring and the busy season that lasts through August, Za’aTar recently beat out about 16 other trucks to exclusively serve up its cuisine at Smash Putt, a combination pub crawl and miniature golf extravaganza, from March 1 to May 5.

While Kramer hopes to open some day his own 15- to 20-seater, brick-and-mortar restaurant, he’s content to be serving the hungry masses from his truck, one falafel at a time.


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