By Heidi Smith | Thurston Talk
It’s hard to imagine today, but not so long ago the multicultural dining spot at 4th and Plum was a mostly vacant lot. When Olympia restaurant manager Cindy Dickson first took over The Filling Station espresso stand on the property, “It was sort of a bad spot,” says her daughter Carissa. “It was an easy place for people to congregate at night.”
But Dickson, who passed away in January from cancer, had a dream of what the site could be. “She really wanted to make a space for the community,” says Carissa. Dickson began working with a friend who was a landscaper, creating a garden space. Over time, she added the food trucks, which have become a destination for the Olympia lunch and dinner crowd.
“Cindy had the vision for it, to put the different trucks together,” says Jacob David, who operates the Nineveh Assyrian food truck along with his sister, owner Lisa David. “We’ve got four very distinct ethnic cuisines here. We’re not necessarily in competition with each other. We actually complement each other. You see groups of people come from an office building and someone gets a burrito, someone gets arepa – then they all just sit in the garden and eat. It’s a wonderful thing to watch.”
Dickson’s vision has allowed a growing group of entrepreneurial chefs to pursue their own dreams on the site, bringing welcome diversity to Olympia cuisine and culture. The newest addition is Arepa Latin Street Food, named after the type of Venezuelan street food it serves. Husband and wife team Marianne Socorro and Luis Amengual were inspired to start the business when, “We couldn’t find anything from our country,” says Marianne. “Luis was a corporate chef at the Hyatt, and it’s what he loves. We moved to Olympia and decided, why not here?”
Martin Moreno was the first to bring a food truck to the site nearly nine years ago with Tacos California. “I love tacos and there was not a taco place in the area,” he says. “I wanted people to know what real Mexican street food is.”
For Jacob and Lisa David, the motivation was similar. “We’re Assyrian and we wanted to have really traditional food available in Olympia,” says Lisa. “Both our parents have a deli in Toledo, Ohio, so we’ve done restaurant work our whole lives,” adds Jacob. It was Cindy, along with some neighbors who run a tattoo shop, who first contacted them. “They just called me up one day and said, ‘Would you ever consider having a food truck? We really want to have your food here,’” recalls Lisa.
Ian Shulman, whose All Fed Up Curbside Kitchen offers vegan and vegetarian cuisine, has fond memories of Cindy. “She was a really special lady who did a lot of things for a lot of people,” he says. “It was always her dream to have this kind of thing. It’s nice to be part of something bigger.” For him, that means exceeding expectations. “We just think we can do sandwiches and really fresh food better than most,” he says. “The one goal that I have is to raise the bar a little bit. It’s fun to blow people’s minds and show people that there’s more out there.”
All of the owners say they’ve been embraced by the Olympia community. “Since we started, it’s been way better than I expected,” says Moreno. He originally started the Tacos California as a hobby along with his wife at the time, but soon got so busy that, “I had no choice but to quit my regular job and come help.” Today he owns five food trucks in the South Sound.
Socorro agrees. “It’s been beautiful,” she says. “It was hard in the beginning because people didn’t recognize Venezuelan food. They had to get out of the box. But once you get out of the box, you don’t want to go back again. People keep coming back and every day gets better.”
Shulman says he’s willing to bend over backwards for his regular customers. “They’re easy to take care of because they’re such nice people,” he says. “We want to remove obstacles so they come back, even when it’s rainy and nasty and blowing sideways.” Every year has gotten better since All Fed Up opened three and a half years ago, he says, and now “People are supporting us from outlying areas for miles around.”
During the recent conflict in Syria, Jacob and Lisa David have discovered that the community supported more than just their food. “We’ve done different events and the turnout for those has been great,” says Jacob. “We did a dine-out event where we donated the proceeds to a relief organization working in Iraq and Syria. The community support for it was really overwhelming in a way and really touching.”
For Carissa Dickson, it means that her mother’s vision is being fulfilled. “It’s so amazing to me to see how many people congregate here every day,” she says. “It’s exactly what my mom wanted.”
Shulman has a similar view. “It’s hard to miss Cindy because I feel like she’s never really left,” he says. “There’s always a piece of her down here.”
To find the food trucks, go to the intersection of 4th Avenue and Plum Street in downtown Olympia.