Chameleon Concessions has built hundreds of food trucks for clients in Minnesota and around the country. One of its latest installations was the trickiest: getting a refurbished London double-decker bus up 11 stories to a rooftop park at a performing arts center in northern Virginia.
The rooftop installation stands apart from any other CEO Mark Palm knows of in the country.
Chameleon Concessions has built food trucks for big-name clients such as Andrew Zimmern and the Minnesota Twins, and first-time food vendors. On a recent day at the company's shop on E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, nearly two dozen projects were in progress.
During the pandemic, Chameleon's food truck business held steady with food trucks subbing for indoor dining. Palm said he expected that growth.
But the company did not expect the demand to outfit vehicles for other services as businesses from bike and cellphone repair to pet washing went mobile to meet customers during the pandemic. Chameleon also found itself outfitting trucks for outdoor bars and even an outreach program for homeless youth.
"We've been approached with just about everything now because of the pandemic," Palm said. "It's definitely branched out to new opportunities."
Palm gained industry experience and connections as a third-generation owner and employee of Palm Brothers Restaurant Equipment, a family business launched in 1910. He learned mobile food vending and operations as he designed, built and installed food stands at Home Depot stores and other retail locations in Minnesota and around the country.
When Minneapolis passed food-truck friendly ordinances in 2010, he was ready. Chameleon provides classes on how to run a food truck and design consultation; helps find equipment for customers, and then builds the trucks.
Just like the equipment business where Palm worked with his father and brothers, Chameleon is a family company. Wife Pam takes care of the books. Daughter Tori pitches in when needed on top of working her own full-time job. And Luke Palm is now full-time after graduating in May from Iowa State University, where he studied advertising and event management.
The upfront advice provided is important because it can cost $100,000 to go into the food truck business. A used 18-foot Freightliner step van, in shorter supply as online retailers snap them up for delivery services, may cost $30,000, Palm said. Building it out to code and equipping it may cost $50,000 to $70,000.
The partnership can ground a project as well.
Bill Evanoff and business partner John Connolly rent a Chameleon truck for their Wingman Matt business, which serves broasted chicken wings. The business, named after Connolly's son, who died from cancer at age 20, also has a storefront location in Eden Prairie.
Evanoff said Palm's mind started racing as soon as he tried the wings.
"He went from being truck builder to relationship builder to business builder and inspirational partner," he said.
Lisa Mears, who previously worked with Chameleon to build a mobile food pantry, reached out to Palm to convert a shuttle bus into an outreach vehicle for Bridge for Youth. It's outfitted with commercial refrigeration and a counter and window for serving soup, hot chocolate and other food and an area where medical and mental health professionals and housing assessors can meet with clients, said Mears, the nonprofit's executive director.
"Mark and his team are really passionate about helping people in need," Mears said. "They are the experts at what they do."
Work on Chameleon's highest-flying effort — for the rooftop park on Capital One Hall in Tysons, Va. — began more than two years ago, before the pandemic, Palm said. An employee at the center had seen the food truck hall Chameleon created for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Capital One Hall is a mixed-use complex that also includes the credit card company's corporate headquarters. Known as the Perch, the rooftop park includes a beer garden, space for performances, events, fitness classes and a planned 18-hole mini-golf course. It connects to a hotel and is open to guests and the public.
Palm's brother found the 1954 London double-decker in Portland, Ore. Palm bought a 1947 Flex bus he knew of in St. Paul. Both of those are now food trucks. A 1977 Airstream bus Chameleon refurbished serves as the check-in booth for mini-golf players.
Palm worked with Colfax Custom in New London, Minn., a fabrication shop and frequent collaborator, which helped convert the vehicles and then reinforce them for the crane ride up to the roof in November.
The trucks will be completely outfitted for a spring debut of expanded offerings at the Perch.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.