By Don Cazentre | Syracuse.com
Pam Dwyer, one of the trailblazers in Syracuse’s food truck scene, says the secret to the business is learning to adjust.
“You can have lines down the street or no one,” said the owner of the Lady Bug Lunchbox, which took to the streets selling curbside food in 2001. “It could be 20 degrees, or it could be 120 inside here. You have to deal with all of it.”
Now Dwyer is adjusting to something new in Syracuse: food truck competition.
It’s mostly coming in the form of the new style of food trucks, the ones that serve “gourmet” items through their windows and which have been a fad elsewhere in the country (and on the Food Network) for several years.
Just as Dwyer’s truck serving steak sandwiches and turkey burgers was a step up from hot dog carts a decade ago, the new trucks are pushing the limits of what people here expect in a kitchen on wheels.
One new mobile eatery, the Fresh Crepe Co., will specialize in sweet and savory fillings wrapped in French-style crepes. Another, STIR Mobile, plans gourmet sandwiches and salads with exotic aiolis (mayonnaise dressings), plus falafel and an emphasis on seasonal locally sourced ingredients.
A truck called Tortilla Jacks plans to roll around May 1, with a California born-and-bred chef doing tacos, enchiladas, burritos and more in a San Diego/Baja California style.
They join PB&J, a truck parked in Armory Square serving everything from dogs and burgers to a veggie wrap and a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
And this marks the second year on the road for Steve’s Street Eats, which caught customers’ attention last year with such items as Chicken Adobo Tacos, gourmet burgers with toppings like strawberry rhubarb bacon jam, and assorted cupcakes.
“When I look at Street Eats’ menu, even I get hungry,” said Dwyer, whose trailer spends most days from March to December on East Fayette Street, next to the city’s Firemen’s Park.
“It does seem like the time has come for this in Syracuse,” said Pete Stojanovski, who runs the Fresh Crepe Co., with his wife, Sonya. “It’s exciting that we might be on the beginning of a trend.”
The folks behind this trend like the culinary life on the road, especially the relatively low overhead — outfitting a truck costs from about $60,000 to $100,000. (Although the food truck news is not all positive).
They also enjoy the ability at times to go where the action is, like festivals and other events, using social media like Facebook and Twitter to let customers know where they are and alerting them to menu changes.
“We’re open to anything,” said Dave Marnell Jr., one of the three Fayetteville-Manlius High School graduates behind the STIR Mobile truck. “We can go anywhere, do anything. We’re versatile.”
Rules and regulations
Any place serving food – even mobile and temporary ones – must be licensed and inspected by the county health department. Parking on the street or public property requires a municipal permit.
There has been a recent uptick in the number of mobile food vendors in Onondaga County, especially the “fancier” ones, said Kevin Zimmerman, the county’s director of environmental health.
The health department licenses everything from hot dog carts to the mobile smoker rigs used by restaurants like the Dinosaur and Limp Lizard to some of the outfits that sell burgers and dogs at county fairs and firemen’s field days.
The department divides mobile food units into two categories, Zimmerman said.
One is pushcarts, the kind from which vendors sell hot dogs or ice cream and such. A pushcart can only serve food that has been fully cooked elsewhere, Zimmerman said. It’s reheated on the cart.
The other category includes the gourmet trucks and trailers. These are allowed to cook food – including raw meat – from scratch, as long as they have the proper equipment and follow the rules on food handling and temperature control, Zimmerman said.
All mobile vendors need something the department calls a commissary, a physical space with running water and sewer service where food and equipment can be stored, along with proper cleaning and sanitizing.
In the city of Syracuse, as in most other towns, mobile food carts only need a permit if they plan to occupy a public space or park on the street. (Trucks like Steve’s Street Eats don’t have a city permit because they park on private property).
The city amended its mobile food ordinance in 2010, expanding the hours permit holder can operate from one or two hours at a time to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and boosting the number of street locations from two to seven, said Alexander Marion, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Minor.
Each December, the city holds a lottery to assign the order in which vendors can choose public locations. There are still some open vending spots for this year, Marion said.
The veteran food truck operators say the rules and regulations are not overly difficult. “I found the city to be pretty helpful, really,” said Pat Orr of PB & J Lunch Box. “My big problem is the lottery. I think we should be able to stay where we are if we want to each year, because that’s how our customers know where to find us.”
LeClair said the biggest hurdle is the health department rule requiring a commissary.
“Because after you ‘ve got your $100,000 retrofitted truck, it’s like ‘You mean I have to have a commissary, too?’ “ said LeClair of Steve’s Street Eats. “But it’s real important, to have that place where you can prep, and where you can have storage.
“When you’re getting slammed on the truck, you can just call and say ‘Get me some more food out here, quick.’ “
Here’s a closer look at some of the food trucks operating or planning to operate in Onondaga County:
The truck: Fresh Crepe Co. Owners: Pete and Sonya Stojanovsky The food: Sweet crepes, like the Chunky French Monkey with Nutella, crushed peanuts and bananas and savory crepes like the vegetarian Meditango and the Croque Monsier and the Chicken Bacon Ranch (aka The Syracuse). Locations: Starting around April 10, it’ll have a daily spot on South State Street downtown, next to the Everson Museum of Art and across from the Onondaga War Memorial. On Tuesday’s in the summer, they’ll be at the Downtown Farmers Market. They’ve also been serving in Shed C at the Central New York Regional Market, but haven’t decided whether to return this season. Background: After a few years gaining customers at the regional market, Fresh Crepe Co. decided to join the food truck bandwagon. “It seemed good timing and a good opportunity to make this move,” Pete Stojanovsky said.
The truck: Lady Bug Lunch Box Owner/chef: Pam Dwyer Locations: Each year, starting around St. Patrick’s Day, Dwyer sets up her trailer “lunch box” next to Firemen’s Park on East Fayette Street, which she points out is the “biggest green spot downtown.” Because she’s on the street, she has to win the spot in the city’s annual lottery of spaces. She also does special events. The food: Burgers and hot dogs, plus Italian sausage, a steak sandwich, a grilled cheese and spinach combo she calls “Popeye,” and baby salt potatoes with gourmet butter etc. Background: Dwyer is the veteran among downtown food truck vendors, starting back in 2001. “When I started, I had to go knock on the door at City Hall and say, ‘Let’s talk about how to do this.’ “
The truck: PB &J’s Lunch Box Owner/chef: Pat Orr Locations: On Jefferson Street adjacent to the MOST, across from the Sugarman law firm (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily); also special events. The food: In addition to burgers, sausage, and chicken and veggie wraps, she offers a grilled PB & J (Peanut Butter & Jelly). Background: Orr is professional photographer, and the truck is her first professional food job. She considers PB & J a food truck, not a hot dog stand, “although a quarter of what I sell is hot dogs.” She started in 2012, and operates her truck year-round. “Business can be hit or miss,” she said, “but I enjoy it.”
The truck: Steve’s Street Eats
Owner/chefs: Steve LeClair, Danielle LeClair Locations: LeClair, a veteran chef for several local restaurants, plans to set up for lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays in a parking lot at West Fayette and Geddes streets, and on Thursdays in the Widewaters business park. For happy hour on Fridays, he’ll set up outside Hoosey’s Dog House, a bar on Williams Street on the city’s west side. “They’ll do the beer; I’ve got the food,” LeClair said. The background: LeClair started operating last year at Widewaters three days a week and the west side two days a week. In the fall, he began operating a “brick and mortar” eatery in the Imperial Gardens building on James Street, which will remain open even when the truck is on the road.
The truck: STIR Mobile Owner/chefs: Dave Marnell Jr., Sebatian Backer, Rob Sansone Locations: They plan to move around, probably setting up mostly at office parks, like those in the Carrier Circle area. Their truck is based at St. Matthew’s Church in East Syracuse. The food: Sandwiches, salads and more with an emphasis on local ingredients, with a menu that changes with the seasons. The background: Three friends from F-M, including two chefs (Backer and Sansone) are launching this truck in the next week or so. Their local suppliers include Drover Hill Farm near Earlville for beef and Mario’s Bakery in North Syracuse for bread. “We want to focus on educating people to eat healthy and we can all work together in this sort of business,” Sansone said. “You can find a lot of local stuff if you look for it.” Twitter: @stirmobile
The truck: Tortilla Jacks Owner/chef: Kathy Bible Locations: Bible plans to move around, using social media to alert customers. She hopes to find some vacant lots or other off-street locations. She’ll also show up at special events, and hope to organize a gathering of local food trucks on summer weekend nights. The food: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, Mexican soups and other examples of what Bible calls San Diego/Baja California food. The background: Bible grew up in California and moved to Central New York two years ago. She has been working as a personal chef, but looks forward to the food truck as an opportunity to be her own boss. “To be free to move around, working for yourself, doing what you want to do, is awesome,” she said.