By Jeff Wilkinson | The State
More than a decade ago, chef Brian Hay saw the rise of food trucks in Austin, Texas, where he ran a culinary school.
Hay, now the director of the University of South Carolina’s Culinary and Wine Institute, thought the trucks were inventive, creative and fun. Many of the owners also were pushing the boundaries of street cuisine. He thought the trend would be short-lived.
“We saw the boom start,” Hay said. “I thought it was a fad. But no, it was huge.”
A recent festival at the State Farmer’s Market featured 12 food trucks from as far away as Charlotte and Hilton Head. It was so popular most trucks ran out of food.
One Columbia truck – the 2fat2fly stuffed chicken-wing truck – has been featured on Steve Harvey’s TV show and landed a reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
“We’ve even got three trucks in Blythewood – Blythewood!” said longtime Columbia caterer and restaurateur Dupre Percival, who helped organize the farmer’s market festival. “I can call 10 and they’ll be here in three minutes.”
Hay, Percival and others predict that the Columbia’s food truck scene will continue to grow and morph in the future.
▪ The cuisine will branch out into new directions, as owners try to find new niches.
▪ Some food truck operators will transition into full-fledged restaurants, and more restaurants will get into the food truck business.
▪ In addition to more food truck rodeos, some owners will band together to form food truck parks, where groups of trucks stay permanently on a leased lot, creating a sort of outdoor food court.
“The big push is coming,” Hay said. “It’s already started.”
Food is fun
Although the modern version of the food truck popped up in trendy cities like Austin, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland in the 2000s, they have been around for as long as, well, trucks.
For nearly a century, there have been mobile cafeterias and sandwich wagons that would roll up in front of factory gates, construction sites and office towers. That’s not to mention the ubiquitous hot dog carts and ice cream trucks.
But modern food trucks are a step above – offering fusion cuisine like Asian tacos, gourmet hamburgers, chicken and waffles, and about anything else a creative chef can come up with.
They are popular because the food is fun, often as high quality as sit-down restaurants, and it’s usually cheaper. “It’s novel,” Percival said. “And people want to investigate new cuisines.”
Often the trucks’ changing locations are spread on social media, mostly Twitter, which also creates a healthy buzz and party atmosphere, particularly among younger people.
Last week, Jack Williford, a USC law student, stood in line outside of the General Sales Restaurant Equipment store on Huger Street for nearly an hour waiting to get some 2fat2fly wings. “It’s new. It’s the novelty of it,” Williford said. “I saw people talking about it on Twitter and decided to check it out.”
Indulging their passion
The reasons owners start trucks are varied.
Couples often see it as a way to quit the rat race and chase the dream of working together in an atmosphere they create, Percival said. “They go in with a passionate dream. It’s something they can do together.”
Others see mobile restaurants as a stepping stone to a fixed-location restaurant.
Gerard Lin opened the Wurst Wagon selling authentic German sausages “out of desperation” two years ago after being laid off from financial institutions twice. He wants to grow the truck operation into a larger business. “I would love to have a shop, or a kiosk in the mall,” Lin said. “This was a way to get started without as much risk.”
Others see it as a easy way to indulge their passion. Nicole Storey is converting a 1969 Shasta 16-by-8 foot camper into a cupcake wagon called The Bee Hive.
“There was nothing in the area that served sweet treats,” said Storey, who has appeared on the Food Network show “Cupcake Wars.” “It’s less scary to take a chance on a camper than to invest in bricks and mortar.”
The next step
While working festivals and tweeting street corners have been the traditional trade of food trucks, increasingly, they are branching out to other areas, Hay said.
They work private functions, draw people to retail stores and serve as mobile kitchens for bars and the city’s burgeoning craft breweries. Companies especially are trying to attract food trucks, Hay said, as both an amenity and a workforce issue.
“The biggest reason is it’s a time-saver for the company,” he said. “Employees don’t have to leave, drive, try to find parking, which is becoming increasingly difficult in Columbia.”
Hay added that a food truck park will probably be the next step in the development of business. He urged the city of Columbia to find ways to facilitate them.
Five Points would be an excellent location for a park, Hay suggested. Perhaps the vacant lot beside Cookout would work well because trucks could operate late night in conjunction with bars after most restaurants are closed.
“It’s definitely something that will grow, but will Columbia embrace it?” he asked. “Is the city going to build a mobile park, or will four or five trucks come together and do it themselves?
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”