A new North Charleston business is feeding off the rapid rise of the food truck industry.
Using sheet metal, lumber and old vehicles, Gorilla Fabrication creates an array of local and national food trucks, from modern, sleek designs to rustic, rolling kitchens.
Among its local clients are Coastal Crust, Boogie’s Bar-Be-Que and Ye Old Fashioned Ice Cream and Sandwich Cafe, just to name a few. It also builds food trucks for clients across the country, namely in Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.
Headed by co-owners Bill Tillson and Dusty Brant, the 5-year-old company makes about 20 food-related vehicles a year, including custom-made barbecue trailers in a wing of the 15,000-square-foot rented warehouse off Ashley Phosphate Road.
Last year, the business grossed nearly $900,000. The owners expect to surpass $1 million this year in total revenue.
“If you know what you are doing is solid and you are hiring capable people, you know you are going to grow,” Tillson said.
The business first launched in 2011 with three employees in a rented facility on Dorchester Road.
“We were struggling to pay the rent,” Brant said.
It eventually outgrew the site and last summer moved to its current location. It now employs 11, and the owners say it’s not out of the question the company will have to add more workers for the seven-day-a-week operation.
Most of the workers are young men with some experience in metal working, welding or woodworking, but Tillson said it’s not required.
“You can learn everything on the job here,” he said.
Employee Steven Curry, 31, can attest to that.
He used to work in a food truck. “Now I make them,” he said.
Two years on the job, the Charleston resident is studying welding at Trident Technical College, but he said working on the food preparation vehicles is always an adventure.
“You get to be creative,” said Curry, surrounded by benches filled with tools, small machines and several vehicles in different stages of completion. “You never do the same things over and over. We do woodworking, welding, other things. You never get bored working here, and we get to restore these old trucks. How cool is that!”
Welder Josh Posey echoed his remarks.
Posey, 25, moved to West Ashley from Orlando seven months ago and said he loves the job.
“They are great bosses,” he said. “It’s like a family. If you have a great attitude and a good personality, I would recommend this job.”
Tillson and Brant met when they were former neighbors. They never set out to start a business together.
“We really kind of fell into it,” Tillson said. “Dusty had a lot of experience. I had zero.”
Brant quipped of his partner, “He has the gift of gab,” referring to Tillson’s proclivity to talk as part of his business acumen.
When they met, Brant made company signs from sheet metal by day. Tillson was working in event staging, and Brant moonlighted with him by night.
One day Tillson backed one of the event vehicles into a tree and damaged the door so that it wouldn’t open. He enlisted Brant to help him fix it.
After that, the two started building barbecue trailers. That was seven years ago.
“Someone later asked, ‘Can you build a food truck?’” Tillson said.
After working together in their backyards for about two years, the two incorporated the business in 2011, naming it after a fiberglass statue of a gorilla that reportedly came from a mini-golf course in Santee and was used later as part of a Halloween display in their neighborhood. Someone gave it to them, and now the 7-foot-tall gorilla now looks watch over truck assembly in the warehouse.
The company mainly takes old vehicles, strips them down and customizes them to customers’ specifications.
“There are very few people rolling around with new food trucks,” Tillson said. “The price is so high. It’s tough to get new ones when you can buy a used one for $30,000.”
Outfitting a food truck can run from $65,000 to $85,000, but someone can easily spend over $100,000 for all the bells and whistles, Tillson said. “But it’s not necessary,” he said.
Gorilla Fabrication can handle seven vehicles at a time. It’s assembly area is full, and it has other customers in the queue.
“People hear about us and want us to do their work,” Tillson said.
“We do everything from start to finish, from raw materials to finished product,” Brant said.
One of its finished products is the Absolut Elyx Water Truck Boutique.
Last summer, they took the cab off an old truck that had a motor home chassis and created a barrel-shaped design with a wooden floor that slides out under an awning. Cost: $230,000.
It’s the most expensive truck they’ve made to date and the one they are the proudest to talk about and feature on their website.
“It was just an over-the-top build and it turned out really well,” Brant said.
One of Gorilla’s local customers is Coastal Crust, a mobile pizza eatery with wood- and coal-fired grills, refrigerator, freezer, three-bay sink, generator, espresso machine and sound system. Gorilla Fabrication is building other vehicles for Coastal Crust to sell to its clients.
Coastal Crust owner Brian Piesner said he couldn’t be happier with the work Gorilla has done for his food delivery business.
“The trucks are great, and the people love them,” he said. “They operate well, and they are fantastic.”
Piesner said he brought the design for his first truck to them in 2013, and they have since made a second vehicle for Coastal Crust and others for other clients.
“We are real happy with them,” he said.
Gorilla Fabrication includes a paint and body shop and is considering venturing into the boat-building business at some point.
“When people get tired of food trucks or the market gets saturated, then what do you do?” Tillson said. “We have a wide range of ability, tools and knowledge.”
Brant insisted the company already has everything it needs to consider other options.
“Anything that needs manufacturing, the tools are already there,” he said.
“There is nothing we can’t do, nothing we won’t do,” Tillson said, taking a line from the company’s website.
Reach Warren L. Wise at (843) 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.