For weeks, Leezette Bethea has played a culinary game of cat and mouse with a cupcake truck.
“I’ve seen them across town just driving,” said Bethea, a medical administrative assistant at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. “I didn’t know what they were.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, she spotted the elusive cupcake truck parked in the farmers market lot at the GBMC campus. So she dropped what she was doing and hurried down to the IcedGems Creations truck and snagged a lemon raspberry cupcake.
“I can’t wait to dig in,” she said.
Until recently, it was unusual for food trucks to cruise around looking for customers. But aided by a little bit of technology and old-school culinary know-how, Baltimore’s nascent gourmet food truck market has kicked into overdrive in the last year.
Now, trucks offering high-end burgers, soup and, yes, cupcakes crisscross the Baltimore area, posting their whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook.
Most of these trucks still spend much of their time around downtown Baltimore office buildings but the trend is starting to creep north of the city line. After food trucks ran into some bureaucratic tangles in the city (now largely resolved), some employees in downtown Towson say they’d be happy to have them.
“I think it might be great for Towson,” said Christine Carpenter, a Columbia resident who works in purchasing for Baltimore County government. “Even if it costs the x-amount for a permit, I think they could do it.”
Under new plans announced last week, city officials relaxed most restrictions on food trucks and created special parking zones for them. In Baltimore County, code requires food vendors to get a huckster’s permit and stay at least “100 feet away from the nearest permanent restaurant or similar establishment for the retail sale of food.”
County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said there was “no concerted effort” to bring food trucks in. But Carpenter and some of her co-workers are trying to encourage food truck owners to stop more often in Towson, even if just a day each week.
When Towson Patch found her, she was in line at Greco Bites, a mobile food stand parked at Washington and Chesapeake avenues. Owner Vasili Kouroublakis first began parking his trailer in Towson in November and has been visiting in front of the courthouse on Washington Avenue since March. He serves Greek-inspired lunch items and hot dogs. His most popular offering is the chicken souvlaki pita wrap.
“He’s clean, he’s personable, he’s got really good food, and we’d like to have more guys like him,” Carpenter said.
Some trucks have experimented in the county. Kooper’s Chowhound, considered the granddaddy of Baltimore’s food trucks with just over a year on the road, spends one lunch hour each week in Hunt Valley and has visited events such as,Towson Gardens Day and the Towsontown Spring Festival.
And after finding success with the IcedGems truck, owner Christine Richardson was able to open a Reisterstown bakery. The truck will be a weekly visitor to GBMC’s Thursday farmers’ market.
With wheels come flexibility. IcedGems can make three stops each day and mix things up depending on social networking feedback.
“If it’s a good location, then we’ll come back,” said Julie Medina, who works in the truck. “We really do read every comment that we get on Facebook.”
Larry Sagal, who owns Dillweed’s on West Chesapeake Avenue, is wary of mobile vendors. With little overhead and oversight, Sagal said, they’re a threat to brick-and-mortar establishments such as his restaurant.
“They start doing that, that’s a big impact. Some of these places have decent food, and it’s something different, so if there’s one every day…” he said, shaking his head in frustration.
Kouroblakis’ “rent” consists of a permit and $90 per month he spends to park his truck in a nearby lot. He said the tradeoff comes in being unable to offer many amenities and dismisses concerns from business owners such as Sagal.
“They have seats, they have ambiance,” he said. “They have service, full service, so whoever wants to go to that type of place will go. Whoever wants to come to a food trailer will come to a food trailer.”
And while many truck owners are amenable to spending more time in the county, most are just fine where they are and don’t see themselves moving to the suburbs for good unless problems arise with city government again.
“I live in the city. I own two businesses in the city,” said Irene Smith, owner of Souper Freak. “I have every intention of being in the city.”
Smith said she prefers to cater to people who work downtown, many of whom don’t often have access to high-quality food or have dietary concerns.
“I would like to be in a place that really needs me, rather than wants me,” she said