Baton Rouge: Food Truck Wroundups Generate Local Interest

Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Jalapeños are a specialty dish for Kickers BBQ at the weekly food truck Wroundup.

By STEPHANIE RIEGEL | TheAdvocate.com

Curbside food truck employee Matt Haltzman shouts out a customer’s name for a placed order during the weekly food truck Wroundup at the Zeeland Street Market parking lot.

It’s a Wednesday evening in mid-February, one of the first mild nights in months, and a crowd of nearly 100 or so is milling around the parking lot of the Zeeland Street Market, downing juicy burgers, spicy crêpes, crispy tacos and other freshly prepared dishes from half-a-dozen food trucks gathered for a so-called food truck Wroundup.

It’s arguably one of the most exciting trends in the world of local foodies, a virally marketed, organically grown community dining event, and it’s the latest innovation of a cottage industry that made a splash on the local scene last year and has continued to grow.

Not that food trucks are universally popular in Baton Rouge. Some downtown restaurant owners complain about the unfair competitive advantage the trucks seemingly enjoy and the bad business practices of a few that earned the whole group a black eye last summer.

But the food trucks’ owners are increasingly sensitive to those concerns and are trying to become better corporate citizens. That’s one reason for the weekly Wroundups, which are spelled with a W to remind people they take place on Wednesdays. That’s also why they’re forming an association that will help them collectively address concerns, and also give them a voice in the inevitable dialog over how to regulate them.

“We want to be able to speak with a coordinated voice,” said John Snow, who is spearheading the organizational effort and co-owns the Taco de Paco food truck. “We want to be an umbrella organization where everyone can bring their concerns.”

Food trucks are like Facebook and Twitter, the social media sites on which they market themselves. If you’re not familiar with them, you’re probably a bit reticent to try them — if not downright hostile to the idea. They’re popular with 20- and 30-somethings and are part of a subculture that is only beginning to cross generational lines.

Jay Broussard, left, and his wife, Devon, eat dinner on the back of their car during the weekly food truck Wroundup at the Zeeland Street Market parking lot.

But as the crowd at the Wroundups is showing, food trucks are starting to appeal to a wider dining audience. Standing in lines nearly 10 deep that snake from the trucks are middle-aged professionals, soccer moms and even senior citizens, who are as interested in participating in an outdoor, community dining experience as they are about trying something a little different for dinner.

Which is where the food truck vendors say they really shine. Of the six trucks that participate in the weekly Wroundups, all pride themselves on preparing high-quality, innovative dishes, or at least updated versions of classics such as barbecue sandwiches and burgers. Some even describe their cooking as gourmet.

Take All Star Catering owner Brian Medlin, who operates a food truck and a catering business. At the Wroundup, he serves delicately fried ricotta-stuffed ravioli topped with a cream-reduction sauce that cooked for 12 hours before crawfish tails were added to it. For dessert, he offers oversized chocolate cupcakes baked from scratch and topped with thick white frosting.

Curbside Gourmet Hamburgers serves a half-pound patty topped with homemade pork belly preserves, which is a creation owner Nick Hufft adapted from a food trucker up north and is made from rendered-down bacon mixed with herbs and spices.

Taco de Paco’s menu includes tacos and burritos that appear to be influenced by a variety of ethnic genres, such as the Dat Foo taco made with pulled pork, hoisin and slaw. And Goyayas Gourmet Food Truck stuffs its paper-thin crepes with the fillings of either a Cuban sandwich, a Vietnamese spring roll or an Italian chicken caprese panini.

“I think the food trucks are great,” said Mike Cabell, who had eaten from the trucks for lunch but was bringing his family to try the Wednesday Wroundup for the first time.

“The kids like it, too, because they can run around and try different things.”

Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Jalapeños are a specialty dish for Kickers BBQ at the weekly food truck Wroundup.

Besides innovative dishes, food truck vendors also boast that they use mostly fresh, local products, something they say separates them from the many chain restaurants in the area.

“Eighty percent of my products come from the local farmers market,” said Luca DiMartino, whose Latte e Miele Gelato has both a brick-and-mortar storefront and mobile food unit. “Food trucks are all about keeping it in the community.”

Local produce vendors vouch for that assertion. Still, there are those in the local food industry who have concerns. Longtime downtown lunch haunts fear the competition — not because there are more players in the field but because they appear to be playing by different rules.

“We’re obligated to be open every day, and if they don’t have any business they can shut it down and go down the road,” PoorBoy Lloyd’s owner Fred Taylor said. “They’re not dedicated to downtown. They’re dedicated to where they can get the most business.”

Food truck owners disagree that they’re not committed to the community, and point out that while they understand such concerns, they pay the same occupational and sanitation fees and taxes as brick-and-mortar restaurants. They’re also subject to the same quarterly inspections from state health officials.

But they recognize they need to do a better job communicating those facts to their supporters and detractors alike, which is why they’re forming an association. It will be called the Baton Rouge Mobile Food Vendors Association and is intended to help the food truck vendors set parameters for best business practices and also give them a seat at the table when the Metro Council decides to take up the issue of regulating them.

“Baton Rouge always talks about these aspirant cities it wants to emulate, and I think our food trucks add a new dimension to the quality of life in Baton Rouge,” Snow said. “So our goal is to say, ‘Hey look, we’re an industry that needs to be heard.’ ”

While they don’t expect attitudes to change overnight, they’re heartened by the enthusiastic response they’ve gotten from the first few Wroundups and are hopeful they will become a weekly tradition that increases their following and wins over a few skeptics.

“I think it adds a new dimension to the quality of life in Baton Rouge,” Snow said. “It encourages people to try different kinds of food and to do it amongst your peers.”

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