By Danielle Grady | News and Tribune
JEFFERSONVILLE — On Monday, May 18, the sleepy Vintage Fire Museum parking lot hosted little more than cracked concrete, but by the next day, a 14-foot former airport shuttle bus — now painted black with hot pink lettering — had sprung up in the once empty space.
And on Thursday, a small group of customers lined up in front of the bus, hoping for a taste of fried chicken: POLLO — a gourmet chicken restaurant’s key ingredient.
“We just popped up and showed up last Tuesday and we already got people waiting on us so that’s a good thing,” said co-owner Troy King.
The Kentucky-based food truck POLLO and its owners — husband-and-wife team King and Selena Johnson — aren’t in Jeffersonville on a whim. Shane Corbin, director of planning and zoning for the city, invited the business and other members of the Louisville Food Truck Association to set up in the parking lot.
“[Food trucks] are a way to attract people into places where nothing is going on,” Corbin said.
This is the city’s first trial-run in an attempt to create a more permanent food truck lot. King and his bus intend on serving Jeffersonville on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of next week, and hopefully for more days afterward.
FOOD TRUCKS: FRIEND OR FOE?
Three years ago, Corbin and other city officials began discussing the idea of a food truck lot.
“If you look at other big cities, food trucks are the fad right now,” he said.
The mobile restaurants have already made their mark in Louisville.
Louisville Food Truck Association founder and owner of the Louisville Dessert Truck Leah Stewart has taken her own truck to the streets and events of the city, but Jeffersonville is foreign territory to her and most of her members.
“It’s a whole new market,” she said. “It’s a whole new group of people to introduce to food trucks.”
Food trucks have not been as prevalent in Jeffersonville partly because of an ordinance passed last year to slow down mobile vendors eager to take advantage of crowds walking the Big Four Bridge. The law requires vendors and food trucks to apply for a permit a minimum of 10 days before they’d like to start business.
And for the most part, Corbin said, the city has been denying applications from vendors. Exceptions have been made for special events downtown or if employers express interest in hosting vendors during lunchtime.
“We’re being very specific about where we want [vendors] to locate,” Corbin said.
His motivation for the regulations have been Jeffersonville restaurants. Traditional ones, that is.
“We like buildings” Corbin said. “Especially as a planner, I like to see things built. If someone is going to take a risk, a big risk, to buy a building, buy a property, hire a staff, put in a kitchen and really put all of their finances on the line, we don’t want to undercut their efforts.”
Matt McMahan, owner of Big Four Burgers + Beer in Jeffersonville and New Albany, as well as Charlie Noble’s Eatery and Draught House in Sellersburg, said he isn’t opposed to food trucks in general.
“If they had five food trucks in front of us, it would probably be a different story,” he said.
He also agrees with the importance Corbin places on brick-and-mortar restaurants. He said he created jobs when he founded Big Four Burgers.
Robert Comings, owner of No Fork In Way, a downtown Jeffersonville food truck with a temporary permit, said he believes food trucks wouldn’t harm Jeffersonville’s restaurants, but help them.
The people attracted to businesses and events brought in from food trucks would eventually flow into the doors of eateries like Big Four Burgers, he said.
CREATING THE LOT
Corbin’s food truck lot solution languished until a couple months ago when the Jeffersonville Urban Enterprise Association provided $5,000 to sponsor the lot.
So tables and umbrellas were bought and Corbin re-ignited talks he had already been having with the Louisville Food Truck Association.
Corbin invited King to the Vintage Fire Museum lot, and a match was made.
“He instantly was like, ‘This is a perfect spot’ and pretty much said, ‘Do you know how many food trucks are going to want to come here and set up?’ Corbin said.
King’s reaction might have been reassuring, but Corbin is still taking things slow with the lot by employing a strategy called tactical urbanism.
“It’s a process of doing very small investments to get a big return,” said Corbin.
If a couple months pass and no one shows up to the lot, Corbin said the city and the food truck association can “pull the plug” on the idea.
If things are successful, Corbin’s next step is to market the lot with a social media presence and make it more appealing by upgrading the lighting or adding a landscaping element with the money from the Urban Enterprise Association. Eventually, Corbin would like to occasionally have entertainment and other events on the lot.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Corbin said he hopes the food truck lot could improve an area of Jeffersonville relatively untouched by the influence of the Big Four Bridge. Not even a mile away from the bridge, the potential food truck lot is still separate from the aimless route of many Big Four pedestrians.
That might not make it the most appealing locale for a strolling couple, but Stewart isn’t too worried about that.
Food trucks are a “build it and they will come” sort of thing, she said.
Comings is a little more skeptical.
He said he doesn’t think there’s enough parking and that the pavement will become too hot in the summer. He would want the city to invest all the money into the area right away, rather than follow Corbin’s wait-and-see approach.
Most of all, Comings said he doesn’t think the crowds will want to venture so far away from the bridge.
King is used to having people walk to his food truck, but he said that difference between Jeffersonville and Louisville might actually benefit him and the other food trucks.
He doesn’t get to serve drivers very often, he said.
That’s who Ben Beam and Adrian Shaffer are. The couple showed up to POLLO on Thursday after a visit to Clark Memorial Hospital.
“We thought we would swing by because it’s close,” said Beam.
A close drive anyway.
Beam and Shaffer order their food, but decide to leave once they receive it. Their departure leaves the lot empty, but King is not worried.
“A lot of people are thinking I want to be where the masses of people are,” he said. “But every location in Louisville had to be built up by someone or by some food truck. And this location is no different.”
SO YOU KNOW
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: Jeffersonville food truck lot
• WHERE: 723 Spring St., Jeffersonville
LOUISVILLE FOOD TRUCK ASSOCIATION
Leah Stewart, the founder of the Louisville Food Truck Association and a food truck owner herself, created the group in June 2012. Check out the 16 members of the group that may make an appearance at the Jeffersonville food truck lot:
• Boo Boo’s Smoke Shack
• Louisville Sushi Truck
• Boss Hog BBQ
• Moe-licious BBQ
• El Taco Luchador
• POLLO — a gourmet chicken restaurant
• Genius in a Box
• Ramiro’s Cantina
• Get It On a Bun at Booty’s Diner
• Reds Comfort Foods
• JGoodwin’s Fusion Grill
• The Traveling Kitchen
• Lexie Lou’s
• White Castle CraveMobile2
• Louisville Dessert Truck
• Zoom Zoom Yum