If you haven’t eaten from a food truck yet, grab the nearest fork and hang on. Downtown Cleveland’s relationship with trucks is in the fast lane for the fourth straight year.
The success of Walnut Wednesday, which regularly draws 1,500 lunch-hour fans to East 12th and Walnut streets, is spurring three new downtown gatherings, two sponsored by neighborhood development groups and one by the city itself.
Tuesdays at The Chomp, which opened in May at East 46th Street and Euclid Avenue.
Food Truck Friday, scheduled to kick off this week at Willard Park, East Ninth Street and Lakeside Avenue.
The bets are on that the festival-styled charm of the Walnut Wednesday at Perk Plaza will translate to other areas of the city, and on other days.
“It’s part of our goal,” said city spokeswoman Maureen Harper. “During the nice-weather months, you should see a food truck somewhere in the city every day of the week.”
Harper said the city is sponsoring Food Truck Fridays as a form of support for small businesses.
“The other part is through Mayor [Frank] Jackson’s ‘Art in Everything!’ initiative, to get people out and enjoying the arts and cultural benefits of Cleveland. Some of that is food.”
Like the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, which sponsors Walnut Wednesday and the coming Lunch by the Lake, and MidTown Cleveland, which operates The Chomp, the city also wants to demonstrate that there is an audience for new bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
None of the new gatherings, however, is starting out full-scale. The city experimented with food trucks and music in last year’s “Beats and Eats” at Public Square, and monthly visits by a single food truck in early spring in front of City Hall.
While Walnut Wednesday showcases about 15 trucks on a weekly basis, the three newcomers are starting with half as many trucks, with hopes that audiences will build.
Participant Izzy Schachner, owner of the truck StrEAT Mobile Bistro, said The Chomp “still has a way to go” to achieve the comfort and festival atmosphere of a Walnut Wednesday, but that the trucks participating are “doing well.”
“Everyone is still learning what will work,” he said.
James A. Haviland, executive director of MidTown, said he’s happy with the consistent response to the three-week-old event.
Still, he’d like to add more tables and better signage to direct people to two pockets of parklike seating nearby.
“This is a great location,” said Haviland. “We don’t have the population density that’s around Walnut Wednesday, but the area is growing in population, and we have [free] parking lots.”
With a lighter turnout, there is also less of a wait for popular trucks. It easily can take 20 minutes to stand in line at Walnut Wednesday, and a lot less at The Chomp.
Gina Morris, spokeswoman for Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Walnut Wednesday, said her group’s new reach to the lakefront with Lunch by the Lake is warranted.
“The public is demanding it,” she said, noting that Walnut Wednesday is starting a half- hour earlier this season.
“So many people are now living downtown, and the office market is growing. Food trucks are more than happy to meet that demand.”
Some 22 trucks are now licensed by the city, with more approved under Cuyahoga County. Schachner estimates there are 30-40 now operating in the city.
City, chefsworking together
Among a handful of newcomers is Orange Truk from Akron, a former FedEx vehicle retrofitted by chefs Steve Sabo and Jeffrey Winer. They use it to serve arancini (deep-fried Italian cheese and rice balls), blackened tuna tacos and other dishes.
Winer said the two started business in Cleveland, which now includes an alternate-week rotation at Walnut Wednesdays, and has nothing but praise for the city’s handling of the rolling restaurants.
Akron, he said, has regulations that don’t allow food trucks to park on city streets or property.
“We’re trying to open their eyes,” he said.
Cleveland’s relationship with food trucks looks cozy compared to Columbus, where there are continuing reports of friction between trucks and city officials, and New York City, where there are bidding wars for truck locations.
Still, trucks must face city oversight, including health department licensing and inspections. Harper, the city spokeswoman, said in an email that there have been 10 complaints registered against food truck operators in the last two years. Most were related to where the trucks were parked, but three were for improper food temperatures. Citations were issued and problems corrected, she said.
Schachner, who runs StrEAT Mobile Bistro, said many food truck operators come from the restaurant industry and have been thoroughly trained in food safety. Still, he said, there’s always room for more training.
“One of our goals is to standardize our practices,” he said of Cleveland food truck operators. “We’d like to make sure that one member on every truck is certified in food safety.”
Schachner plans to open StrEAT Burger, a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Lakewood, this month. It’s not his first restaurant, but the first since he’s had the truck.
And he’s keeping the wheels.
“I would never retire the truck,” he said. “That’s our foundation. It’s good business. It’s a commissary kitchen for catering. On the street, we can try out unique foods and bring new items to the restaurant. It’s also a traveling billboard for the restaurant, and, most importantly, it allows me to interact with customers and get feedback. It’s priceless for finding out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”
Check out Tweets from Cleveland-area food trucks and get a list of them, along with links to the sites or social media pages.