The hottest food trend to come to the midstate is on wheels.
Mobile food trucks, from sleek trailers to makeshift barbecue setups, are popping up in the most unlikely places.
Signs along Paxton Street advertising Carolina pulled pork point to the Little Black Truck in Swatara Township. It’s easy to miss in a back parking lot sandwiched between Metro Bank and Faulkner Nissan.
Over lunch, customers walk up to the trailer’s takeout window for the pulled pork, hamburgers, hot dogs and Grandma’s Chili made with angus beef.
“I get sick of eating subs and pizza,” says Brian Schmiedel of West Hanover Township. “He has real good food.”
The mechanic with Life Team Emergency Medical Services and his co-worker, George Gardner of Wheatfield Township, order two hot dogs and some chili. They take a seat with their soda cans at a covered picnic table near the trailer.
“It’s cheap and it’s quick,” Schmiedel says.
A few vendors have joined the hot dog carts catering to city sidewalk corners and longtime trucks such as Mr. Frosty and the Mexico Lindo Taco Truck parked in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill.
This spring, EZ Eatz entered Harrisburg. The 25-foot-long truck parks in metered spaces in front of the Hilton Harrisburg for breakfast and lunch.
Last year, Redd’s Smokehouse BBQ pulled into a parking lot off of North Hanover Street in Carlisle with ribs, smoked chicken wings and pork barbecue. Scarlet O’Hara’s Southern BBQ truck occupies a spot off of Williams Grove Road in Upper Allen Township.
While it’s a new trend here, food trucks are big business in cities like New York, Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles where chefs are trading in running restaurants for gigs on the road.
Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence is hosting the second season of “The Great Food Truck Race,” a reality show in which food trucks battle it out for a $100,000 prize.
Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm, conducted a survey in which 91 percent of respondents familiar with food trucks regarded the trend as having staying power and not being a passing fad. Only 7 percent of food-truck customers said they plan to decrease their frequency of visits over the next year.
That roach-coach reputation is a thing of the past.
“People are respecting food vendors and lunch trucks more than ever before,” says Ed Carroll, owner of Ed’s Grill in Fairview Township.
This spring, he and his wife, Beth Carroll, opened the 16-foot trailer in the Mega Dealz parking lot. For them, it is cheaper than running a restaurant.
They secured an $8,000 smoker from Missouri and roll out an ambitious menu of Carolina barbecue, ribs, rotisserie chicken and Baltimore pit beef along with sides like jalapeno poppers, baked potatoes and corn on the cob.
The ambience is a mix of macadam and cars. The view — if you call it that — is a chain-link fence and tall grasses growing across the street at the Capital City Airport.
Ed’s emphasizes quality ingredients and serves smoked salmon and turkey.
“I want other people who do ’que to do it the best they can because it gives the whole genre a good name,” Ed Carroll says. “I want to be known as a good ticket.”
Barbecue is a big part of the midstate mobile vendor scene.
Little Black Truck owner Port Dare mans the tight quarters of the portable kitchen equipped with a range, flat-top griddle and deep-fryer. He’s a former culinary student-turned-retailer who earlier this year decided to venture into chasing the latest food trend.
“I wanted to try something a little different,” Dare says.
His menu is small but focuses on a few items such as the pulled pork and hamburgers, and he’s working on adding smoked chicken wings and kabobs. He’s got one smoker behind the trailer and another one off site.
“It’s really low overhead. The best thing is if it doesn’t work out, I can go some place else,” he says.
Customer Amy Gish of East Pennsboro Twp. stumbled upon the Little Black Truck while out for lunch. The former Greensboro, N.C., resident was more than happy to order pulled pork with no roll and extra hot sauce.
“I like it because it’s something a little unique. It fills that niche market,” she says.
In other parts of the country, food trucks dish out grub like Korean tacos, dumplings, falafel, gourmet ice cream and whoopie pies along with standbys like pizza and hot dogs.
Competition for top spots in New York City has led to a police crackdown on food trucks that park in metered spaces. Seattle’s city council recently gave food trucks permission to operate on city streets, not just in rented parking lots.
This spring, some restaurant owners in Harrisburg were up in arms when EZ Eatz pulled into town.
“It started with the idea of not being able to get a cheesesteak on Second Street late at night. We thought it would be cool to do it out of a food truck because there also are no food trucks along Second Street and we couldn’t afford to do a restaurant. This works for us,” says Angela Klobusicky, co-owner with Mike Ruell.
The truck rolled out to appeal to the late-night bar crowds and also parked in front of the Hilton Harrisburg at lunch. But restaurant owners said the portable kitchen selling sausage sandwiches, cheesesteaks and chicken tenders was taking away from their business.
At least 16 restaurant owners signed a petition in May and presented it to Harrisburg City Council. The business owners said they would like to see the vendors out of the city.
Klobusicky says she has permission from the Hilton and worked with the Harrisburg police to find an appropriate place for the truck. Vendors have been permitted to sell on the city streets for a long time, she says.
City spokesman Robert Philbin says the City Council has no plans to do anything about the truck.
The EZ Eatz truck has stopped catering to the late-night crowd as a result of staffing, Klobusicky says. But she says she has no plans to vacate the city.
“You’ll get anything from excited and ‘Oh, there’s a food truck here in Harrisburg’ and you get the people who are skeptical. They aren’t used to eating from a food truck. They’ll look and say, ‘Oh, it really is clean in there.’ ” she says. “For the most part, though, people are pretty excited to see us.”