By Celeste Sepessy | Phoenix Magazine
Foodie entrepreneurs want to change how we perceive and govern mobile food trucks. Crème brûlée, anyone?
In July 2009, Jeff Kraus went to France on vacation. Kraus, a foodie confined to corporate America, avoided the tourist traps in favor of two truly French locales: the kitchen, where he learned how to prepare traditional macarons, and the local market.
The market stimulated Kraus’ senses with its rustic colors, constant bustling, new textures, sharp smells and cosmopolitan tastes that rivaled those from Paris’ most expensive restaurants. The vendors were approachable, warm, full of energy and passion. “These were modest people, mom ’n’ pop vendors, taking everything they had to serve customers the best food possible,” he says.
Kraus knew he had to bring a piece of this home to Arizona. He came back with a business idea.
In November 2009, Kraus and his wife, Erin, started Truckin’ Good Food, a Parisian-style street food truck specializing in crêpes and other French goodies. Today, it’s one of more than a dozen food trucks in the Valley, representing an industry that is experiencing a surge in popularity across the country.
Food trucks have been around for decades, and in worst-case scenarios faced a “roach coach” reputation. But in the past five years, mobile gourmet eateries have bucked stereotypes. The movement has been picking up serious steam in urban, pedestrian-friendly cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and New York City, which boasts more than 500 food trucks. From crème brûlée to clam chowder, some trucks are in such high demand that lines span city blocks.
Despite the hype, Phoenix has been slow to catch on, to say the least. The Valley lacks a steady pedestrian population, and its city codes governing mobile food vendors are strict and rigid compared with other major metropolitan cities. But that’s not stopping the current food truckers from rallying together to create awareness.
In September, a small group of frustrated but excited business owners came together. These foodie peers formed the Phoenix Street Food Coalition, which now boasts 25 members. But the membership is indicative of the sheer newness of the trend: Only a handful actually have ready-to-roll trucks.
In Arizona, the food truck trend is attracting home cooks and seasoned chefs alike. Eric Ireland, the coalition’s member director, is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who has been in the Valley’s restaurant business for more than 20 years. His résumé includes a stint at T. Cook’s at The Royal Palms Resort. Now, he runs Torched Goodness, a mobile crème brûlée truck that has become an instant hit at local farmers’ markets.
Then there’s Brad and Kat Moore of Short Leash Hot Dogs. The husband and wife duo perfected their fancy hot dog stand concept in 45 minutes on a lazy Sunday morning. What began as a relaxed brainstorming session has now become the Valley’s leading food truck, and to be honest, Brad was a little surprised.
“I wasn’t planning on quitting my job as soon as I did,” he says. But six weeks after opening on June 5, he left his job in the small business lending industry to create and serve gourmet hot dogs full time.
Moore always fantasized about owning his own restaurant, but it was too cost prohibitive, he says. And he’s not alone in this mindset.
Dave Danhi was one of L.A.’s prominent chefs for more than 10 years. In the fall of 2009, Danhi ditched the traditional restaurant world for The Grilled Cheese Truck, one of the most wildly popular trucks in that city.
“He saw an opportunity and said goodbye to the brick and mortar,” Jason Fimbrez, the coalition’s policy director, says of Danhi. “There’s not a lot of overhead.”
But the draws aren’t just for the business owners. In fact, these trucks are a perfect fit for today’s foodie. Moore says food trucks are fast, fresh and inexpensive, while maintaining a high quality comparable to their fixed-location counterparts and offering a unique product.
“It’s fine dining that we can provide for half of the price,” Ireland says.
Fimbrez says that growing up in west Phoenix in the late 1980s, he remembers people going to virtually any parking lot to buy tacos from a food truck. But Phoenix has grown, and now food trucks are struggling to prosper within strict guidelines. Fimbrez says they must work on private land that is commercially zoned and get the owner’s permission. The vendors are currently trying to work with private property owners in high-traffic areas, but not all business owners are on board with adding more competition to their locale.
In order for the industry to develop, Kraus says regulatory changes need to happen soon.
“For street food to be successful here, the cities definitely have to open to modern times,” he says.
For now, many food trucks are finding a safe haven in local farmers’ markets, where they can piggyback on the markets’ use permits. In November, the coalition launched its first mobile food court at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market near Central Avenue and McKinley Street. Hours of operation are Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The coalition also is looking to cities with a thriving street food culture to help gain this flexibility. In particular, Fimbrez hopes to follow Santa Monica’s lead and use the beachside L.A. city as an example for Valley policy makers. Food truck operators there formed a coalition and initially launched in January 2010 without the consent of the city. Eventually, truck operators agreed to pay the city a monthly fee.
“This is an opportunity for us to approach the cities with an idea that really worked in L.A.,” Fimbrez says. “I’m hoping that the City of Phoenix and the council members are open-minded and willing to work with us so this industry takes off.”
For now, the Phoenix mobile food court’s vendor list includes Moore’s Short Leash Dogs, Riteway Catering (barbecue), Paradise Melts (grilled cheese), and Sunshine and Spice (Asian fusion), among others.
It’s obvious this is a food court for a new generation of eaters who are thrilled with innovation in flavors and delivery: Patrons congregate at large, family-style tables, sharing reviews of their findings and planning out which truck to try next week.
Collaboration is huge for the street trucks, Moore explains. “Me setting up shop alone probably wouldn’t be very impacting,” he says. “But with a group of us, it creates a destination.”