Austin Grill Joins the Food Truck Race

The longtime Tex-Mex chain is giving its business a jolt of new energy with a new food truck, the hottest food trend in Washington.

By: Anna Spiegel

Austin Grill, a local Tex-Mex chain with six area locations, announced yesterday that the company is opening a seventh business: a food truck, hitting the streets of DC by March 1.

The arrival of the Austin Grill mobile vendor marks a change in the food-truck race. The majority of trucks, such as Eat Wonky and Fojol Bros., are helmed by young entrepreneurs who don’t own a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The trucks backed by a stand-alone spot, such as Dangerously Delicious Pies and Sweetgreen, are also youthful upstarts. They’re popular, but they haven’t come of age in the Washington restaurant scene.

In comparison, the Austin Grill flagship in Glover Park opened in 1988. It’s a stalwart that was founded by Robert Wilder, who left in 2006 to become CEO of Think Food Group, also known as the José Andrés empire. Ann Cashion, who opened Cashion’s Eat Place (she’s since sold it) and Johnny’s Half Shell, was once the head chef of Austin Grill.

Since Austin Grill’s glory days in the early 1990s, tastes and trends in Washington have changed. Some argue that the quality at Austin Grill has changed, too—and not for the better. For many, though, it’s still a neighborhood spot with a killer margarita and the best queso dip around. The move to mobile vending—one of the most popular food trends in Washington right now—may be the bolt of new energy the Tex-Mex institution needs. Fans of the restaurant can expect to see time-tested favorites on the truck menu: The bacon-topped chicken sandwich, the burger with poblano peppers and crispy onion straws, three kinds of burritos (skirt steak, chicken, and veggie), and dry-rubbed Austin wings. The restaurants’ complimentary, cilantro-flecked red salsa will also be on board.

Carl Levin, vice president of retail operations at parent company Thompson Hospitality, says Austin Grill hasn’t felt any backlash from fellow chains for venturing into the contentious food-truck business. He also says there aren’t any hesitations on the company’s part to dive straight in: A second truck has already been ordered.

“We’re hoping that our brand recognition will help us grow the business,” Levin said. “It’s a way to market our restaurants, and remind people we’re still around.”

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