Treatbot is no ordinary ice cream truck.
This San Jose based truck is a supercharged silver bullet on wheels that churns out delicious ice cream cookie sandwiches to the entrance music of karaoke tunes. “A karaoke ice cream truck from the future“, indeed. Wherever the truck goes, it’s followed by flocks of South Bay residents who order up scoops of Horchata, Ube, and the “408″ – a sugar rush of vanilla, fudge, caramel, and Oreo bits. All of this creamy goodness is smashed against chewy chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies.
Founded by Ryan Sebastian and his wife Christine, the pair originally started Treatbot as a fun side business so that she could stay home with their son. As a graduate of culinary school and former caterer, Christine is the head of Treatbot‘s creamy creations and event bookings, while Ryan is the idea generator.
The couple visited Off the Grid one day in San Francisco and they thought “We could do this, too. We can bring this to San Jose.” On April 2, 2011, the first installation of SJ Eats debuted to a flood of attendees in downtown San Jose – a collaborative effort led by Treatbot and The Usuals of SJMade. This event, the largest grassroots event organized in downtown San Jose with nearly 10,000 people, included several Bay Area food trucks and local independent designers and artisans. Yes, there were chaotic lines. Some trucks ran out of food. It was jam-packed crowded. People were irritable, but the message was clear: the demand for a South Bay food truck culture echoed in waves that day. Ryan Sebastian provided a personal response to the event, attesting to this demand.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Christine to hear more about Treatbot‘s role in leading the South Bay food truck revolution, her thoughts on starting SJ Eats, their new event called Moveable Feast, and future plans for Treatbot.
Pauline: What inspired you to spearhead SJ Eats?
Christine: Because of all the relationships that we built with other food trucks, we thought, well why don’t we do it here [in San Jose]? My husband is a big idea thinker and I’m the small idea detailed person. It’s a good mix. We were more concerned if food trucks wanted to come to San Jose. It’s never been done before here. He’ll take my hand and we’ll make it happen.
Christine: We heard the comments, we made some improvements. We went above and beyond the second time [May 7, 2011]. Off the Grid started off the same way, too. You don’t know what to expect and how many people are really going to come. It was what it was; there’s obviously a demand for it. A lot of people were scared by the first one [SJ Eats]. [The second had] a lot more space, but it was a lot more enjoyable. There was more space, live music, a communal table, and 40% more food trucks. When we had the first installation, we had SJMade at the same time. The businesses around benefited from the first one [but] we couldn’t handle the crowds.
Pauline: I’m sure downtown appreciated the foot traffic. It’s never seen such a huge crowd. How is it working with the officials of downtown San Jose now?
Christine: The local businesses didn’t want us there at first, but now they’re pretty stoked after the first one. They were very happy we came back the second time. It was a good opportunity to make good with our neighbors.
Pauline: I didn’t get to attend the second installation of SJ Eats. What’s the communal table?
Christine: There will be a long communal table at each SJ Eats. We want people to interact and not [just] in their little pods talking to each other. The aim is community, too, wherever we go. That’s what we aim for in the karaoke truck – to create community in whatever space we go to.
Christine: SJ Eats was our kick off event for Moveable Feast, based in San Jose because that’s where we’re from. Moveable Feast is going to be local in San Mateo county. [We have] four events lined up at San Mateo county fairgrounds. [It'll be the] biggest one on the Peninsula. [And] it’ll be enclosed, not in a downtown area. Since it’s at a fairgrounds, we have a captive audience. We’re aiming to have 30 trucks and we don’t know how many people [are going to attend]. We want to make it kind of epic.
Pauline: What does the future look like for the South Bay food truck culture?
Christine: Our vision and our hope is for it to become like the culture that has become formed in Seattle. It’s normal there. [Restaurants there don't think] “What’s this? They’re going to take away our business.” I want to see a symbiotic relationship between the food trucks and the restaurants. Food trucks bring street awareness to the city. People that normally wouldn’t be walking around, would be searching for the truck and then see something they want to come back to another time [on the street]. It’s not to take away business from brick and mortars, [...] it’s to bring more foot traffic and community to the area. It’s all nebulous right now. We’ve taken on that responsibility as the South Bay representative for food trucks.
Pauline: Any other future events and plans in the works for Treatbot?
Christine: We’re opening up a brick and mortar store in downtown San Jose. We’re going to have our own Treatbot store inside the Urban Market [San Pedro Square Market]. We purchased another truck that’s identical to the truck we have right now, it will [serve as] a kiosk inside the store. Instead of being silver, it’ll be gold.
Pauline: Wow, I’m sure you’re both really excited for that.
Christine: It’ll be an extremely busy season for us. SJ Eats, the second installation, was kind of an experiment to see if it [food truck events] could work – to see if it could be a permanent and weekly thing at the market. We want to activate downtown san jose and make it awesome and cool, but it has to turn a profit, too. We started the truck as something that will be a side business in order for me to stay at home. It’s exploding into something more than anything we could ever imagine. We’re excited, [but] I’m nervous, too. That comes with anything new like this.
Pauline: And the last, important question, what are some new ice cream flavors we can look forward to?
Christine: We’re working on our Vietnamese coffee ice cream. It’s really good. There’s a lot of Asians here in the South Bay, [so] we want to develop more Asian and tropical flavors. I had a few Vietnamese people taste test [it] and give it the thumbs up.
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About Moveable Feast: SJ Eats helped kick off Moveable Feast, an event series of local food truck festivals throughout the South Bay and Peninsula. The next Moveable Feast – SJ Eats event will occur on June 18, 2011 at 5pm in downtown San Jose. The largest food truck festival coming to the Peninsula, Moveable Feast will also be held at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds beginning July 1st and every first Friday of the month until October. With the goal of featuring 30 Bay Area based food truck vendors, the fair will be held in conjunction with the Local Label Faire, which will showcase local artists, jewelry-makers, and independent clothing. There will also be live music. More information can be found on the Moveable Feast‘s Facebook event page and Twitter.
About San Pedro Square Market [Urban Market]: Located in the heart of downtown San Jose in the historic Peralta Adobe Plaza, the oldest building of San Jose, the public market will include fresh fruit, produce, local vendors, including Treatbot and Barefoot Coffee, a deli, and arts and crafts. The anticipated grand opening for the market is set for late summer/early fall.