By Lowell Brown | Waco Trib
The sight of a food cart in downtown Waco stopped the woman in her tracks.
“I love this!” she said, studying a portable sign that lists a simple menu of hot dogs, chili dogs, chips and soda.
Behind the cart, under a blue-and-white umbrella, owner George Gaylord took notice.
“How you doing?” he asked.
The woman hesitated, then replied: “I think I want a hot dog.”
Her reaction — surprise, delight, sudden beef craving — is typical of what Gaylord has seen since opening the cart Monday on the blue-tiled grounds of the former Cox department store on Austin Avenue.
“I’ve always thought about doing this down here because I’ve never seen one,” Gaylord, a Connecticut native and 10-year Waco resident, says during a break between customers one recent afternoon. “Connecticut and New York, these (food carts) are on every street corner. So I told my wife, ‘You know, a hot dog cart would be good down here.’”
The result, G&K Hot Dogs Inc., is Gaylord’s first food-service venture after working in manufacturing and running a sports netting business. It could serve as a test case for whether food carts can thrive downtown, where the number of apartments and traditional restaurants has grown in recent years.
The city’s Imagine Waco plan envisions food carts sprouting from parking lots to serve lunchtime customers and boost foot traffic downtown. It sees the carts as a “placeholder” until property values and population density reach a critical mass to attract redevelopment.
“Those types of things create opportunities for people to exist out in the public realm,” said Chris McGowan, urban development director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. “It provides vibrancy. It’s also a pretty low barrier to entry for someone to start their own business. Rather than buy a whole building, a cart or a truck is a much easier way to get involved.”
Still, opening one isn’t easy. When a customer said Friday she wants to see more street vendors on Austin, Gaylord replied: “Well, if you knew the trouble it took to do this …”
Food cart and truck operators have to follow detailed state and local health codes to get a mobile vendor permit. For Gaylord, that meant buying the right equipment and submitting a complete site plan for city approval.
He also had to find an open location to lease and make a deal with a commissary, a licensed kitchen where he can prepare food and store supplies. By code, mobile food vendors can’t prepare food at home.
Many businesses offer commissary services in cities with vibrant food truck scenes, including Austin and Portland, Ore., but finding one in Waco wasn’t easy for Gaylord. Eventually, he found a nonprofit agency that let him use its licensed kitchen in exchange for feeding low-income kids each week.
Those hurdles keep some would-be operators out of the industry. Waco has 60 permitted mobile food vendors, a category that includes snow-cone stands, food trucks and catering vehicles, said David Litke of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.
Asked how many vendors regularly set up downtown besides Gaylord, Litke said: “Probably none.”
It took a year for Gaylord to clear the business and permitting hurdles, and it could have taken longer without a neighbor’s help.
Jake Black, who owns Jake’s Texas Tea House at 613 Austin Ave., agreed to let Gaylord set up at the former department store lot, even though he could have viewed him as competition. Gaylord needed Black’s permission by code because his cart is within 100 feet of the permanent restaurant.
“He was really great about everything,” Gaylord said. “I mean, without him I wouldn’t be able to be here.”
To Black, more foot traffic means more potential customers for all downtown merchants.
“Maybe every block or two, if there were some guy selling something, I think it would be great for downtown,” he said.
Black doesn’t see Gaylord as a direct competitor, since food carts and sit-down restaurants serve different customer needs.
“My wife and I have already bought hot dogs from them,” Black said. “He’s not our competition; he’s just someone trying to make it.”
Gaylord’s usual business hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. He serves only Nathan’s Famous all-beef franks, which originated in New York’s Coney Island and passed his friends’ rigorous taste tests.
During a recent visit, Gaylord smiled when a passer-by said he’s bringing a touch of New York to Waco.
“The looks and the talk I get from everybody who walks by, just like that guy, ‘Yeah, New York in Waco!’” Gaylord said with a laugh. “So it’s been kind of funny to see it.”