Birmingham, AL: The Rise of the Food Truck

By Andy McWhorter | Birmingham Weekly

When you hear “street food,” a few images immediately come to mind. A man sitting next to a stainless steel cart with a red and white umbrella overhead, selling hotdogs that were cooked in what looks like primordial soup. Or perhaps you’re standing next to a rusty truck and getting handed what you thought was a taco, but, on closer inspection, looks like a small pile of cheese and grease. Those images aren’t entirely wrong. Street food is intimately related to fast food. Enterprising businessmen were selling cheap hot dogs and hamburgers out of push carts long before McDonalds first opened its doors.

While that old image of street food is still true in plenty of cases, there is a new group of food trucks that are changing the game for the better. This new breed uses fresh, local ingredients, cooks their food to order and makes sure what they’re selling is delicious before it ever makes in onto the street. They have more in common with upscale restaurants than they do with good old Mickey D’s, but their prices are still affordable. This style of truck has become a phenomenon in big cities like San Francisco and New York in the past few years, but there is also a growing food truck movement here in Birmingham. To find out what they’re all about, we talked to the operators of three different trucks, each unique in its own way: Spoonfed Grill, “The Original Taco Jockeys,” one of the oldest and most established trucks in the city; The Cupcake Truck, the food truck extension of Homewood bakery Dreamcakes; and Shindigs Catering Truck, newcomers who just hit the streets a week ago.

These new mobile eateries run their trucks in very different ways, but one thing is constant with all three: they care deeply about the quality of their food. Says Michael Brandon, the chef at Spoonfed Grill, “There’s nothing on this truck that we don’t first make and eat and say, ‘Man this is phenomenal. This is something that I’d eat and it’d have me coming back day after day.’ Because there’s restaurants that are out there that you go to and it’s good maybe once or twice,but after that you kind of lose it. If we don’t like it we’re not going to sell it.”

It definitely shows. The slow-roasted pork wrap was, honestly, better than a meal at some of the nicer restaurants in Birmingham. Made with lemon-feta cheese, mixed greens, pulled pork, kalamata olives, pico de gallo and avocado aioli all rolled up in a whole wheat tortilla, the wrap not only tasted fantastic, but was the perfect size, not so small as to be unsatisfying and not so large as to leave me feeling like I had just tried to swallow a tractor tire.

Shindigs Catering Truck has a similar attitude about their food. They work hard to ensure that the food they’re selling is not just tasty, but healthy as well. “What we’re kind of trying to do is do healthy fast food,” according to Chad Schofield, co-owner of Shindigs.

“We’re doing things like using grass-fed beef, bison, the sort of thing that’s lower in fat but still packs a good flavor. Even our fryer oil, we’re using rice bran oil.”

“It’s the healthiest oil,” Mac Russel, Schofield’s partner at Shindigs, adds. “It still has a good nutritional value. That and avocado oil is the best, but avocado oil you couldn’t afford to fill a fryer.”

Russel and Schofield make good partners and, between them, have nearly 30 years of experience in in the restaurant business. Russel is excited and innovative in his approach to cooking, while Schofield is more grounded in classic, basic techniques done simply and done well. The two balance each other out in the kitchen perfectly.

“He’s the one that taught me, ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’” Russel says. “I’m always outside the box, floating around trying to do the coolest stuff. I played with molecular gastronomy, tried to do the newest, coolest stuff. Whereas he knows, ‘Good? Good.’ Together that’s what makes us a good team. We balance each other out.”

I’m trying to avoid using superlatives like “best (blank) in the city,” but Shindigs makes a good argument for their usage. The burgers are interesting and innovative, like the Bueno, a free-range bison burger with chorizo, manchego (a type of sheep’s milk cheese), a fried yard egg, cilantro crema and romesco sauce on a sweet potato bun. The fries are fantastic, lightly seasoned with truffle salt and served with a spicy “Not 2 Fancy” sauce. The “Elvis Bread Pudding” is likewise delicious, with hints of banana and peanut butter. That menu looks like something you would get at an upscale bistro, but everything was handed to me through the window of a little truck parked next to Railroad Park.

I’m not kidding when I tell you that you can get some of the highest quality, tastiest food in the city handed to you while you stand on the sidewalk. We’ve come a long way from the days of dirty carts and questionable foodstuffs, as any one of the chefs working in the truck will tell you. “Cleanliness is the biggest thing,” says Brandon. “People in Birmingham have maybe taken a negative connotation. It’s not the roach-coach era anymore. It’s definitely beyond that.”

Food trucks must go through a long and arduous process to get approval from the city. Food trucks actually must have two health scores in order to operate legally: one for their commissary and another for the truck itself. “You basically have two facilities that you’re certified with,” Brandon of Spoonfed says. “You’re certified to operate out of [the truck] just as if it’s a free-standing restaurant.”

“It’s just as tough, if not a little bit tougher, than running a restaurant,” according to Schofield of Shindigs. “We still have to follow the same guidelines as far as getting health inspections. We have to have an approved kitchen. The commissary is out of Stones Throw Bar and Grill. . . that’s the place we actually prep and store all our food.”

It’s those same regulations, though, that help to dispel the image of street food as unclean. “I’m really happy for what they’ve done,” Russel of Shindigs says. “Birmingham citizens don’t have to worry about their food

trucks. They’re making it to where, if there’s a food truck out there, it’s going to be legit. That gets rid of the whole stereotype.”

However, despite all the progress they have made in the last few years, all is not well with the food trucks. They’re so new to the city that the structure still isn’t quite in place for government ordinances to handle them. In fact, The Cupcake Truck was kicked out of Pelham recently after a confrontation with a city official. “A lot of the local municipalities, Pelham, Hoover, Alabaster, Trussville, Hueytown.They have a rule that in order to operate as a mobile food vendor in their city, you also have to have a physical location in their city,” says Brad Jones, operator of The Cupcake Truck. “So, of course, that’s going to prohibit us right now, with only having one store, from going a lot of places.”

Food trucks have a tough time moving around much presently because of the difficulty of getting licenses outside of City of Birmingham. “I think the governments are having a hard time right now deciding how to work with food trucks, just because it’s been unregulated in the past,” Brandon of Spoonfed says. “There’s a lot of red tape and hoops. You’ve got to go through the process and the process is what keeps more people out of it…Each city has their own regulations and so when different jurisdictions and…certain counties ask you to do different things, that’s where you run into the problems. But really it’s just patience and fortitude that makes it happen. If you’re willing to do the work, the opportunity is there.

But don’t expect it to happen overnight. It’s a month-long process.”

Expediting that process or working with local municipalities might be what it takes to allow food trucks to truly flourish in Birmingham. “Our customers want us to be in other cities,” Jones says. “We want to be in other cities. We would love, if anybody’s open, working out something where we could come to those cities and be able to vend.”

For now, food trucks must work with the guidelines local governments give them,  but the continued success and growth of food trucks in Birmingham relies on their acceptance and popularity with the people. Their food is definitely good enough to make its own argument for growth. But food trucks rely on word of mouth to do business. So spread the word. Find one of the trucks, grab a bite and thank me later.

Shindigs Catering Truck can be found online at www.shindigscateringtrucks.com. Follow them on Twitter @ShindigsTrucks and like their Facebook page. Find out where they’re parked by checking their website or Twitter feed. If you can’t find them that way, you can always call them at (205) 538-1170.

Spoonfed Grill can be found online at www.spoonfedgrill.com. Follow them on Twitter @SpoonFedGrill and like their Facebook page. Spoonfed usually parks at the intersection of 20th Street North and Fifth Avenue. If you’re not sure, call them at (205) 937-3788.

Dreamcakes can be found online at dreamcakes-bakery.com. Follow them on Twitter @dreamcakesbham and like them on Facebook. They also have an iPhone app. Just search “Dreamcakes” to find it. You can find out where they are by checking their Facebook page, their iPhone app or by calling (205) 515-7748.

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