The food trucks have arrived in Greater Cincinnati. Three operators up and running around town, fourth on the way
Keep an eye out, or your Facebook page open, and you’ll find them around town: They are painted in bright colors and fitted with kitchens. You can walk up to the window and buy a burger, order tacos or a quick burrito.
“I thought this would be a great way to take our burritos straight to the people,” said Max Monks of Habañero.
Food trucks are popular in other parts of the country, especially in Southern California.
“Everyone knows the best Mexican food in L.A. is from the taco trucks of East L.A.,” said Gary Sims, a Cincinnati native who worked in L.A. and is the owner of Taco Azul. As the community in general began to appreciate the experience, all kinds of food trucks proliferated: Chinese, barbecue, Korean, Korean tacos. Many use Facebook or Twitter so followers can track them.
Some of the original-style taco trucks in other cities operate in the gray area of the law, often staying in a location until they get kicked out. The operators here plan to follow the rules. But, because the trucks are a new phenomenon, it’s not entirely clear what the rules are. Each operator has a different understanding of where and when it’s legal to sell food from a truck.
Señor Roy, otherwise known as Roy Silcott, usually parks for lunch at the corner of Central Parkway and Main Street. With the truck gently bouncing and swaying and the generator at a muffled roar, he fills doubled soft corn tortillas with grilled steak or chicken and slow-roasted pork shoulder, adding sides and condiments such as fresh jalapenos and pickled red onions. The truck is fully equipped with stove, refrigerator and ventilator hood, but he also uses the kitchen at the Hyde Park Tavern and Grill, where he’s the chef, as a commissary.
He pays for a spot in a private parking lot Downtown because, as he understands it, he’s allowed to park on the street anywhere in the city except the Central Business District and Short Vine in Corryville. In the evenings, he might park outside bars, such as in a lot across from Blackfinn on East Seventh Street, downtown, or in Northside. “Nobody’s told us about a time limitation,” he said. He’s the only one of the operators to have licenses to operate in Ohio and Kentucky, where he says he can park virtually anywhere.
Most lunch times, you can find the 25-foot truck of Café de Wheels a little further south than Silcott’s, in a parking lot at Court and Walnut streets. Tom Acito serves juicy, thick, $5 burgers with caramelized onions and spicy mayo, plus sweet potato and regular fries on the side. He also serves veggie burgers, pressed Cuban sandwiches and more. He’s a former film editor who spent most of his career in Los Angeles and much of his spare time thinking about food.
“I thought I’d be able to park anywhere in the city and have people follow me on Twitter,” he said. “But we’re not bouncing around as much as I thought.” He takes orders by text message, so people can shorten their wait. His understanding is that he cannot operate on the street Downtown, but any other place and time is fair game.
The Habañero Burrito Wagon operates a little differently from other trucks: owner Max Monks pre-makes popular burritos, like the Mad Max fish or calypso chicken, from his Habañero restaurants in Newport and Clifton.
“We do it like that because we can serve a lot of people in a short amount of time,” he said. He concentrates on concerts and sporting events more than daily lunch traffic.
“After the Phish concert, I sold 155 burritos in 25 minutes.” But he almost immediately ran into trouble when he parked in a lot near Great American Ball Park. “I was threatened with arrest, and told by a police officer that it was currently illegal to sell any type of product whatsoever from a vehicle on city streets.” He is working on agreements with as many private lots as he can.
Gary Sims, on the other hand, was told he could sell anywhere he wanted, though only until midnight. He wants his Taco Azul truck to be as close to an authentic L.A. style truck as possible: he’ll do carne asada (grilled steak), tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and tacos topped, as they are in L.A., with lots of cilantro and onions. “I want this to not be just another Chipotle,” he said. He’ll prep and cook everything on his 21-foot converted step-van. He’s a Cincinnati native who spent the last 18 years in Los Angeles working in the film industry.
John Curp, Cincinnati city solicitor, said that there are no regulations that specifically address selling food from a truck. Any food vendor is covered by Health Department regulations, but there’s nothing, he said, in the zoning and land use regulations that applies to food trucks.
“There’s nothing on the books that specifically regulates truck vendors,” he said. “But it’s safe to say that the city is looking into the issue to see if there’s need for additional regulations.” He says there are restrictions that affect how the trucks operate, in that they can’t be in the right of way, or block a garage, create a hazard, or stay in a space and feed a meter.
Some of the confusion may come from the fact that the city does regulate sidewalk vendors. Hot dog cart owners in the Central Business District, Short Vine, and the hospital area, actually lease a specific space on the sidewalk from the city.
The truck owners all hope that the city will look on their enterprises as an opportunity.
“I hope the current city leaders would see the arrival of trucks like mine as a way to increase revenue to the city… and improve its reputation as a hip, contemporary city,” said Monks.
“If the public likes this, there will be more,” said Acito. “I really want there to be more. I hope there’s a change in perception by the city that this could be a good thing.”
“Everybody who I’ve spoken to has really positive feedback about the trucks. We went from zero followers on Twitter to over 500 in a week,” Silcott said. “We’ve ordered a second truck.”