By Lizzy Alfs | Tennessean.com
Nashville diners — some dressed in business suits, others wearing winter jackets and gloves — ate street food from cardboard containers downtown on a 35-degree day in early February.
Twelve food trucks lined Deaderick Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues for the bimonthly Street Food Thursdays event, which closes the block from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Launched in 2014, the event was popular during the summer, but the crowd kept coming even as temperatures dropped.
“I come to every Street Food Thursdays event,” said Tom Riley, a downtown worker who braved the February cold that day. “I like being able to try something new and inventive each time.”
Nashville’s support of food trucks is reflective of a nationwide trend: Street food has exploded as more entrepreneurs and chefs take gourmet food mobile.
More than 4,000 food trucks operate in U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 people, according to a study from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. Emergent Research predicts food truck revenue will reach $2.7 billion by 2017, accounting for nearly 4 percent of total restaurant sales.
The Nashville Food Truck Association has more than 40 vendors — a number that has risen steadily since 2010. But unlike Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and other cities, Nashville doesn’t have a daily, designated food truck park that diners can frequent and where a group of vendors can park on a daily basis.
Nashville property owners have toyed with the idea. The owners of Rippy’s and Honky Tonk Central downtown considered establishing one on the site at Third Avenue South and Demonbreun Street after plans for the 24-hour Avenue Diner hit a snag. The idea for a food truck park eventually fell by the wayside after the diner was granted city approval.
B.J. Lofback, owner of Riffs Fine Street Food and founder of the Nashville Food Truck Association, said people have approached him over the past few years about establishing a park. So far, nothing has come to fruition, leaving food truck owners and diners wondering if it’s a viable option for Music City.
Evolving street food scene
A limited mobile food truck scene with a handful of vendors in 2010 has evolved into a diverse and growing group of 40-plus street food vendors that operate across the city. Nashville also has a vibrant group of stationary truck vendors, including several trucks along Nolensville Pike, though those vendors are not association members.
Nashville’s food truck evolution mimicked that of other cities; the modern trend — where mobile vendors offer gourmet street food — is thought to have originated in Los Angeles in 2008 before it spread to other U.S. cities.
“In 2011 and 2012, food trucks were really trying to find a foothold in (Nashville) as far as people finding out who we are, what we serve and people learning food trucks are a viable place to eat. We are serving gourmet food from a truck, and it took a little while for people to understand that,” said Dallas Shaw, owner of Hoss’ Loaded Burgers and president of the Nashville Food Truck Association.
Street food options in Nashville now include green chili pork carnitas, smoked chicken wings, Chinese steamed buns with fillings, crepes, chicken shawarma, catfish tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches and gourmet burgers.
The popularity of street food in Nashville grew as more trucks hit the road and vendors helped organize events, including Street Food Thursdays, the Nashville Street Food Awards and Nashville Street Food Month.
Justin Roman, Bacon Nation owner and organizer of Street Food Thursdays, said an average of 1,500 people order street food at each event.
Food trucks also became staples at live music events such as the Live On The Green concert series and Musicians Corner in Centennial Park. Yazoo Brewing Co. and other local businesses frequently partner with food trucks to serve customers. A rotating lineup of food vendors can be found outside Yazoo several days a week.
“We prefer to focus on the beer, so having the food trucks here allows folks to come in and get dinner while they’re drinking beer,” said Alan Fey, manager of the Yazoo taproom.
In 2012, Metro launched its Mobile Food Vendor Pilot Program, which designates nine food truck zones downtown where vendors are authorized to operate. Vendors are required to obtain permits from the city and pay a yearly $55 fee for regular use in the downtown zones, which are open to vendors daily with time restrictions.
Metro Public Works spokeswoman Jenna Smith said a new reservation system allows vendors to book certain locations up to 10 days in advance.
The program is still in its pilot phase, Smith said, because officials from Metro Public Works have been working with food truck vendors, businesses and the community to make tweaks and improve regulations before introducing legislation.
The downtown zones are one source of business for food trucks, which mostly use social media to update customers on their whereabouts. Most vendors roam the city; a typical week also might include serving lunch at an office park, catering private events, serving outside a local bar and attending a live music event.
Nashville has plenty of food truck success stories, including Biscuit Love Truck opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in The Gulch, Riffs Fine Street Food opening two cafes and Hoss’ Loaded Burgers launching a second truck. Some established restaurants have even launched food trucks to take their business mobile.
Still, food truck owners face increasing competition as the industry grows and a lack of commissary kitchen space presents a challenge.
Jeff Romstedt, who launched the Steaming Goat in May, said his first summer was much busier than he anticipated, but business dipped with the temperatures. He operated the truck three or four days a week this winter, versus six or seven days during the spring and summer.
A Nashville food truck park?
Scot Keliher, the new owner of the historic Chapman’s II food truck in Franklin, said a food truck park could “level out” vendors’ income for the year, giving food trucks a consistent place to operate.
“I would love for there to be two, three or four food truck parks,” Keliher said.
In Houston, entrepreneurs Tirzo Ponce and Miguel Villegas have found success with the 2-year-old Houston Food Park, and they are already developing plans for several more locations in different areas of the city. As the owners of the food park, they operate the bar on the property, organize events and entertainment and then invite five to eight food trucks on the site every day.
“You have to have events constantly — at least two to three times each month — and you have to be open on a consistent basis and control the beverages. Put all those things together and it’s a minimum investment with heavy upside,” Ponce said.
Ponce said location is crucial; a food truck park needs pedestrian traffic.
Shaw said it can be difficult to find available, affordable real estate in the most pedestrian-active areas of downtown Nashville.
“The difference with Nashville as opposed to, say, Portland, is trying to find a location that has enough foot traffic but that also has the space. Right now, tourism is between First and Fifth avenues on Broadway — that’s where you go to find a lot of people. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of space for food trucks there,” Shaw said.
Lofback said a park isn’t a necessity in Nashville; popular vendors often have full calendars with all the city’s different events. But he said a model that might work and enhance Nashville’s street food scene is if a property owner were to build a bar, invite food trucks to serve on the site and host frequent live music events — similar to the concept in Houston.
The Nashville Farmers’ Market has filled that need to some extent. Frequent events at the market include a group of food trucks, and Farmers’ Market Director Tasha Kennard said plans are in the works to launch an event series that would have a food truck park atmosphere.
“In a way, that has been the food truck park,” Lofback said. “I think what that shows is there is a need for a food truck park, but it needs to have those essential elements that really any restaurant would have: good food, great drinks and great entertainment.”
Reach Lizzy Alfs at 615-726-5948 and on Twitter @lizzyalfs.
A sampling of offerings from Nashville food trucks:
• Electric Sliders: Beef, pulled pork, chicken and portobello mushroom sliders. www.electricsliders.com
• Bao Down: Chinese steamed buns with sweet or savory fillings. www.baodownnashville.com
• Grilled Cheeserie: Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup and desserts. http://thegrilledcheeserietruck.com
• King Tut’s: Egyptian and Mediterranean cuisine. http://kingtutstruck.com
• Crepe A Diem: Sweet and savory French crepes. www.crepeadiem.com
• The Confeastador: Tacos and empanadas. www.confeastador.com
• Bradley’s Curbside Creamery: Ice cream treats. http://bradleyscurbsidecreamery.com