By Bob Carlton | Alabama
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The movement has a name, and now it has an event around which to marshal support for the cause.
Sunday afternoon in Birmingham’s Lakeview District, a small but unified army of food trucks and push carts from around the city will circle the parking lot of the Martin Biscuit Building for the inaugural Street Food Rally.
It is both a show of solidarity and a coming-out party for the Greater Birmingham Street Food Coalition, an alliance of mobile food vendors that began as a Facebook movement last year before officially banding together in January to promote their businesses and protect themselves from too much government interference.
Just as importantly, though, the coalition’s first Street Food Rally is about the food from the streets — inspired, appetizing dishes that include the Southern Soul Bowl with roasted pork, sweet potatoes and collard greens from Spoonfed Grill; grilled mac-and-cheese sandwiches and tomato-basil soup from Melt; Vietnamese pork barbecue and pickled carrots from Fresh Off the Bun; and crispy catfish and grits fromShindigs Catering.
Sunday’s other food vendors include the Cantina on Wheels, Dreamcakes Bakery, Greg’s Hot Dogs, Repicci’s Real Italian Ice, Off the Hook and Slice.
“The purpose of the rally itself is to raise awareness for street food and the type of good eats that you can get out there – along with showing people that this is a legitimate, viable business that can do good things for the city,” Jason Parkman, owner of the Spoonfed Grill food truck, says.
“We are starting to get into spring, and this is one way to help kick it off,” Parkman adds. “This is about, ‘Hey, this is some food and it comes from a truck — check it out.'”
Last September, a similar event, Trucks By the Tracks, drew a huge crowd and long lines to Railroad Park. Many of the trucks ran out of food by the middle of the afternoon.
“Once we saw how fun and exciting that was, we wanted to do one of our own,” says Mac Russell, co-owner of the Shindigs Catering food truck and a member of the Greater Birmingham Street Food Coalition.
Long before there was any sort of united food truck front, Parkman was out on the streets practically all by himself when he cranked up Spoonfed Grill in the fall of 2009 and first ventured into downtown Birmingham a few months later.
And as his bacon cheeseburgers and braised pork burritos started to develop a following, he was the first to hear the grumbling from traditional “brick-and-mortar” restaurants that his little food wagon was taking away some of their customers.
In the three years since, the meals-on-wheels movement has grown to include a dozen or so trucks, carts and trailers around Birmingham — and so, too, have the complaints from a few downtown restaurateurs.
A simmering debate
To appease the restaurant owners without driving off the mobile food vendors, the Birmingham City Council has hemmed and hawed for about nine months now over a proposed street-food ordinance that would regulate when and where the food trucks and push carts may do business in the city and how much they should have to pay to do so.
The proposed ordinance, which came to a boil at a public hearing last July, is now simmering on the back burner at City Hall, where it has been undergoing revisions since September.
Jorge Castro, who co-owns both the Cantina restaurant in Lakeview and the Cantina on Wheels food truck, is in a position to see both sides of the issue, and he is optimistic that a happy resolution is coming soon.
“I think it is going to be something that, between the city and the coalition, we can work out together for the trucks to be successful without affecting the other businesses in the city,” Castro says.
Not coincidentally, Sunday’s Street Food Rally takes place right outside Castro’s restaurant, which is located in the Martin Biscuit Building. The property — which also includes Bettola restaurant and the Red Cat coffeehouse and borders the Pepper Place Saturday Market site — was developed by Sloss Real Estate to encourage just such entrepreneurial spirit.
“Jorge Castro has a fantastic relationship with the Sloss people, and they just have such a forward mindset,” Parkman says. “They are progressive-thinking about communal affairs.
“They have the farmers market down there, so they understand the viability of these types of events and how they can only enhance our city.”
Tickets to the rally are $20 in advance online and $25 at the gate, and each ticket includes seven tokens, which patrons will use to buy their food. Prices vary by vendor, but most entree items cost two tokens and most side dishes are one token. Beer and wine cost two tokens.
Proceeds will benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, as well as help the Greater Birmingham Street Food Coalition pay its legal and operational expenses.
“This event is to raise funds for our cause, but we also wanted to do our civic duty and give back,” Paget Pizitz, co-owner of the Melt grilled cheese truck, says.
The new kid on the block
The newest kid on the block, the Melt truck just hit the streets about two weeks ago, but already, Pizitz says, she and her business partner, Harriet Reis, have been welcomed by their fellow rolling restaurateurs.
“What’s really great about Birmingham is that, as a city, all of the food trucks, carts and trailers are so supportive of each other,” Pizitz says. “There are plenty of pieces of the pie to go around.
“We are all friends,” she adds. “We are all trying to help each other. We are all fighting for the same goal, which is for food trucks to have the same rights and privileges that restaurants do because, essentially, we are restaurants. We are just mobile restaurants.”
Russell, whose Shindigs Catering truck hit the streets of Birmingham in late November 2012, says he hopes Sunday’s rally won’t be just a one-time event.
Much like the Pepper Place farmers market, he can see it becoming a regular weekend happening, and one that could move all around the city.
“It should be more of a common occurrence, not just one big, fun day,” Russell says. “It’s what we envision Saturdays being like.”