coverWednesday, June 8, 2011

Lafayette’s fledgling mobile food vendor scene is about to get rolling. By Nancy DeVille

Photos by Robin May

Our “cool town” is long overdue for its own food truck revolution, but many local residents seem surprisingly unaware of the momentum this movement has gained in the rest of the country, even our own state, and the potential economic growth it can offer our city.

Lafayette entrepreneur Shannon Wilkerson is an exception. Best known around Lafayette as a bar owner, Wilkerson opened his own food truck — Taco Mama — last November, selling authentic Mexican fare in a lot on Johnston Street across from The Boulevard. Taco Mama still works the location on Saturdays, but on Monday, June 6, the truck set up shop in a small lot on the 500 block of Jefferson Street downtown, just a few doors down from The Independent Weekly’s office, where it will serve customers Monday through Friday.

Wilkerson got the idea while honeymooning several years ago in San Diego, where food trucks are abundant. He says by this fall he will have three trucks — Taco Mama, a plate lunch truck cleverly named The Rolling Stove, and a truck associated with his flagship bar The Bulldog — operating in Lafayette.

“The cool thing about these things, what was so encouraging to me about doing this, is if I bring a truck and I set it up to do a plate lunch location and that menu isn’t working out, I can just change the menu,” Wilkerson says. “It’s not like a regular restaurant. What’s also cool about these things is if a location you’re at really isn’t working out, just move it across town and take it some place else. So, they’re very versatile in that way.”

While new to Lafayette, mobile food vendors (MFVs) have been around in the U.S. for quite some time, but the new generation of gourmet MFVs is a far cry from the sandwich trucks and lunch wagons of the ’60s and ’70s.

Today, one can reasonably expect to purchase fine foods from the side of a retrofitted food truck or trailer that rival the best restaurants, and for a fraction of the cost of a comparable dish. This phenomenon is an opportunity for cooks looking to flex their culinary muscle in a different arena than the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Take, for example, the city of Los Angeles, widely recognized as the birthplace of the current food truck craze, where Culinary Institute of the Arts-trained chef Roy Choi earned himself the title of Best New Chef 2010 by Food & Wine magazine after two years of selling his distinctive Korean-style gourmet tacos from his Kogi truck. Approximately 4,000 licensed food trucks now cruise the streets of L.A., of which 115 are considered gourmet. Over in Austin, Texas, at least 1,000 MFVs, traditional and gourmet, regularly provide sustenance at the city’s countless festivals. Even food carts have come a long way from their original circa-1936 ancestor, Oscar Meyer’s first portable hotdog cart — the Weiner Mobile. Portland, Ore., is now home to nearly 500 carts, dotting the cityscape with various “pods” as noted by Heather Shouse, author of Food Trucks. These pods exemplify a spirit of teamwork in which carts band together to create dining destinations in the most unexpected of places. Pat Marken, co-owner of Euphoria and 712 Designs in Lafayette, along with partner Tausha Lell will soon be bringing Cajun soul food, via the Ragin’ Cajun Gumbo trailer, to Portland’s scene, as soon as they find a buyer for their local store. (Yes, Euphoria is still very much open for business.)

New Orleans’ food truck scene was born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when loads of taco trucks sprang up to nourish the many Hispanic construction workers who streamed in to rebuild the city. A year later, Nathaniel Zimet set out to revolutionize the offerings of New Orleans street fare. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu, this chef and former North Carolinian describes New Orleans pre-Katrina as “a place where the cuisine was very stagnant.” His proposed solution? The now beloved purple truck — The Que Crawl — which has been serving gourmet barbecue, or “fine dining for the people,” for nearly five years. To say his concept was embraced by the locals would be an understatement. (Zimet was recently the target of a random act of violence, surviving three gunshots outside his residence around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, May 22.)

cover.1While difficult to estimate the current number of MFVs in New Orleans, we can easily tally the 10 that have acquired licenses in Baton Rouge since the end of 2009: Curbside (burgers), Go-Ya-Ya’s (crêpes), Kickers BBQ, Latte e Miele (gelato), Ninja Snowballs, Taco de Paco, All Star Catering (Louisiana specialties), Salivation Station (wraps and sandwiches), Three Bones Catering (Cajun) and A Coffee Truck. Of this assemblage, at least six meet up twice a week for the aptly named “Rolling Food Court” on Tuesdays at lunchtime outside the State Capitol, as well as the “BRWroundUp” on Wednesdays around dinner time at various local businesses around town. More businesses are looking to host the WroundUp, with attendance growing weekly as the collection of trucks offers greater variety than the average dining destination, and the resulting community gatherings strengthen the society both economically and socially.

So if residents of New Orleans, our food capital, and Baton Rouge, our state capital, have each cultivated unique MFV scenes, I think it would be fair to assume residents of Lafayette are capable of doing the same.
I can even offer hard evidence as to why our city is ideal for this street food culture. First, Lafayette was ranked 17th in the nation for best places to open a new restaurant, according to Restaurant Business’ annual Restaurant Growth Index report for 2011. Second, Lafayette not only outranked New Orleans by six places overall, but we also surpassed the de facto state food capital in restaurant sales as a percentage of per capita income; Lafayette residents are willing to spend almost $1 more out of every $100 we earn on dining out than New Orleans residents.

Food trucks are the increasingly preferred medium for those looking to grab their slice of that dining-out-pie, as the advantages over opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant are plentiful. The National Restaurant Association noted this shift in its “What’s Hot” survey in which food trucks were ranked the No. 1 hot trend for 2011, so it’s no surprise that in Austin, for example, eight out of 10 new food service operations are mobile. The necessary capital to get up and running is considerably lower for an MFV, as is the overhead since there’s no need to pay for a wait staff or busboys. The average cost to open the doors of a traditional restaurant is close to $400,000; food trucks can be adequately equipped and open for business for around $30,000. Euphoria’s Marken has budgeted and expects to spend around $25,000 to get her 15-foot trailer up to code for use in Portland.

Wilkerson, who buys used delivery trucks and retrofits them into mobile kitchens, pegs the start-up cost at $50,000.

Of course, the cost can be drastically higher depending on customization. A brand new truck with all new equipment can cost you as much as $100,000 (just ask the owners of the state-of-the-art Viva La Waffle truck once it hits the streets of Lafayette any day now), but a second-hand pushcart can cost you as little as $5,000. Total investment is really up to you, but is markedly lower across the board than a fixed-location restaurant.

Speaking of fixed-locations, an obvious advantage for a truck is no doubt its mobility. Whereas the old adage “location, location, location” is ever so critical for restaurant owners, an MFV has the inherent advantage of being able to spontaneously change its location in response to business, or lack thereof. You can go straight to your customers, or use Facebook, Twitter, and/or Foursquare to guide them to you. In other cities, the hunt becomes part of the adventure for fans and heightens their sense of enjoyment.

Viva La Waffle owner Collin Cormier is one such entrepreneur whose Facebook page currently boasts more than 300 “Likes,” despite having yet to sell a single waffle sandwich. While a truck’s mobility is its strongest competitive advantage, it should be noted, however, that the majority of successful MFVs find they spend most of their time in a few regular locations.

Entrepreneur Collin Cormier willsoon be selling high-end grub fromhis Viva La Waffle truck stationedon St. Mary Street near the UL campus.
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Furthermore, truck owners insist that despite their ability to change locations at any moment, they are still committed to their community. Viva La Waffle’s owners say they plan to source as much product locally as possible. If Lafayette’s coming truck owners make the same commitment to support local farmers/producers, these producers can grow their businesses and start supplying more of our existing restaurants. But for this goal to be accomplished, there must be open lines of communication between both sides and new regulations that establish boundaries for all.

Baton Rouge and New Orleans are perfect illustrations of the dangers of unregulated growth. For those who tried to play by the rules by obtaining required permits from the city of New Orleans (where many MFVs operate willfully outside local regulation), there were still reports of local police issuing tickets for parking and city code violations, prompting many to throw in the towel and avoid the hassle of dealing with a city council that proved ill-equipped to offer any clarification of the laws. Highlighting a missed opportunity for both the business owner and the city’s economy, one such New Orleans truck owner says, “The city basically made me fire 18 people. I don’t pay no more sales tax to the city from those trucks now. Why do they make it so complicated? I don’t know.” This is exactly the kind of situation in the future that we must start working to avoid now.

Baton Rouge truck owners responded to this need for guided regulation following a dispute last summer stemming from an outcry by existing restaurants in the city worried the trucks’ mobility was an unfair competitive advantage, especially when there is little regulation as to how close a truck can park next to an established eatery. Noticing the lack of clarity in legislation, Taco de Paco’s John Snow and others teamed up to form the Baton Rouge Mobile Food Vendor Association. 

Because Lafayette is barely on the cusp of this movement, now is the perfect time to start a dialogue between Lafayette Consolidated Government and aspiring business owners. Cormier, Lafayette’s second official truck owner along with business partner Fred Nonato, has no doubts that our city is ready for its own food truck scene, but he recognizes our need for new legislation: “I think Lafayette is going to embrace it wholeheartedly,” he says. “But we should really start regulating it now.”

Wilkerson agrees, saying he believes forming an MFV association in Lafayette will head off problems at the pass; the Lafayette Mobile Vendors Association, he adds, is being formed right now. “Eventually issues are going to surface,” he says. “As this continues to grow in this area, I believe this is going to bring problems and issues that will need to be addressed. And it’s going to be really helpful if all the operators are on the same page.”

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Some of Cormier’s specific concerns regard an ordinance passed in 2005 stipulating that any food vendor permitted to sell in the Central Business District (i.e. Jefferson Street downtown) cannot be motorized and must be capable of being pushed by one person. This ordinance also bans the sale of any food outside the hours of 7 a.m. to midnight, leaving but a miniscule window for truck owners to fill the niche for late-night downtown dining.

“I don’t think the pushcart ordinance really applies here,” says Dee Stanley, LCG’s chief administrative officer. “It certainly doesn’t regulate a truck because that’s not a vehicle being pushed by one person. So there would need to be legislation or local ordinance that would be specific to this type of vendor.”

City-Parish President Joey Durel echoes this sentiment by advising new truck owners to “be proactive and work with the local government

Baton Rouge sports nearly a dozen mobile food vendors, including these four, which gathered in a shopping center parking lot last week for an event called the “BRWroundUp.”




to set regulations that would keep the abusive businesses out, or at least make them play by the same rules.” By abusive businesses, Durel refers to a truck being parked directly outside a brick-and-mortar restaurant selling the exact same or similar product. (The ordinance was drafted in response to complaints about the hamburger trailer once operated in a downtown lot by “Frankie” Yaghobi, who has since moved into a fixed location on Jefferson Street.)

But Wilkerson has little but praise for local government when it comes to permitting. “If you just do what they need you to do and follow the regulations, they’re very helpful,” he says.

cover.7cover.8There is a “delicate balance” that must be maintained, Stanley continues, and we must “respect the viable businesses we have, not only downtown but everywhere [in the city].” There is a way for both types of businesses to coexist, but a mutually beneficial solution will only be found if we start a dialogue between both sides now, which is why Cormier has already been seeking advice from members of the Baton Rouge MFV Association. He cites Portland as a great example of a city that has embraced the movement and regulated it properly from the start, and now the city benefits from tax revenue from many previously abandoned parking lots that are transformed into various sorts of prepared-foods farmer’s markets. Stanley agrees that forming our own MFV association will be a key element for the food truck scene’s growth here in Lafayette: “There is certainly strength in numbers and there’s an ability to convey information and education in a meaningful way,” he says.

We all stand to benefit from the development of this food truck scene, from the top down. The city stands to gain additional sales tax revenue, new entrepreneurs stand to gain independence and financial success, existing restaurants stand to gain renewed motivation to strive for greatness (or a truck of their own), local farmers stand to gain exponentially greater awareness and support, and we, at the very bottom, stand to gain an appetizing array of new, exciting food choices. Local businesses will, by extension, benefit from weekly gatherings of trucks such as in Baton Rouge. Currently unused, but privately owned parking lots around town will generate income for their owners as trucks rent space. It’s a win-win situation, all around, assuming we start off on the right foot with appropriate regulation. Our city is an ideal community capable of sustaining a unique street food culture, mutually supporting our existing local businesses and generating new income for the city as a whole. So what are you all waiting for? Freetown Fries is coming soon, and I personally know of many others of you who have mentioned a desire to start your own truck.

Best known as a Lafayette bar owner, Shannon Wilkerson, right,
used a stand-in Taco Mama truck (equipped with a generator)
Monday in a lot on the 500 block of Jefferson Street downtown
while he waited for the city to run electricity to the location.

      Marken’s advice to the rest of you? “Instead of just waiting around to see who’s gonna do it, you know: ‘Should I?’ Just do it!”

      (An unrepentant foodie, Lafayette’s Nancy DeVille spent nine years in the restaurant industry in Baton Rouge, most recently serving as chef de cuisine at        Juban’s Creole Restaurant under executive chef Terry McDonner. The LSU alumna also boasts of having spent four months eating her way across France and
     western Europe.)


GOING MOBILE

Question: What do I need before I can start operating as an MFV in Lafayette?

Answer: You will need a state sales tax identification number, as well as a federal employer ID number. Also required: certification from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Modern MFVs are subject to the same strict health code regulations as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Trucks/trailers must pass a full, physical inspection by the state’s health department before the permit is issued. You must also have a commissary kitchen, which serves as your headquarters for major food preparation, storage, etc.

Operators will also need to acquire a food vendor permit/peddler’s license from Lafayette Consolidated Government.

According to Andrew Duhon of the special permitting section of revenue collections for LCG, the only requirement from the city for MFVs is a vendor permit. Viva La Waffle owner Collin Cormier, however, only cites having to obtain a peddler’s license for his Viva La Waffle truck, from the parish permitting office.

Either way, this permit/license can only be obtained after receiving certification from the state Department of Health.
While the process appears somewhat ambiguous for now, it’s still manageable to obtain all necessary permits and licenses, and our state and local governments are becoming better versed in the process every day. Cormier notes that when he initially contacted the Health Department in October 2010 with questions about requirements, they were unclear as to how to guide him. When he called back six months later, the same officials were able to answer his questions in far greater detail. Besides that, Taco Mama has been serving the city for several months now, so the bureaucratic wheels are already greased.

Question: Where can I park?

Answer: Because of several, dare I say, outdated ordinances currently in effect, truck owners will be limited to selling their food from the locations specified in their permits or from privately owned parking lots, with permission from the owner, of course. This is why Taco Mama is in its current location on Johnston, and why you can expect to find Cormier’s Viva La Waffle truck in either the abandoned lot behind Burger King on campus or the various Tsunami-owned lots downtown. As more trucks hit the streets, and the budding Lafayette Mobile Food Vendor Association grows in members, we can expect to have a voice in creating new ordinances that will facilitate the mobility of our trucks. — ND


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