Food trucks aren't exactly hot rods. In fact, some of the kitchens on wheels travel just four miles on a gallon of gas.
Slow and steady seems to be the motto of the food truck owner, on the highway and in business. The industry has grown slowly but solidly over the past couple of years.
In 2010, food trucks were prohibited downtown. Today, 10 of them visit The Lot on Coxe Avenue (four at a time), and soon, more mobile eateries could be on the way.
Last week, City Council revised the ordinance that governs the number of food trucks that can operate downtown. Previously, that number was capped at 10. Now, any number of food trucks may set up within the Central Business District if they lease an approved space, such as at The Lot.
“It wasn't a big, big change, but it seems kind of like an emotional thing,” says Alan Glines, an urban planner for the city who processes food truck applications. “It's really healthy for the community to circle back around and look at ordinances that are in place to make sure they're relevant from time to time.”
Food truck owners, including Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine and Nate Kelly of The Lowdown, spent more than a year pushing for laws that would allow them to set up truck in 2010 and 2011.
The changes to the ordinance won't result in a food truck free-for-all. Trucks still have to find an approved site and apply for a permit to operate downtown, which can be a lengthy process, although Green Man Brewing and the Masonic Lodge have contacted Glines about hosting trucks in the future. Still, the changes in regulations show that attitudes toward the trucks are evolving.
“When we first got the mobile food vending ordinance approved, there was concern from a number of people that this is going to overwhelm downtown,” Glines says. “Some of the naysayers felt it could have a negative effect on the experience of downtown Asheville for being the food scene. It didn't really do that. After a year and a half, it was like, 'Wow, OK, this really hasn't been bad at all.'”
As the law becomes permissive, the industry is also becoming more viable, Kelly explains. “The clientele base has definitely grown,” he says. “All the trucks are known now, and customers have their favorite trucks, and every truck has a different following.”
The open road?
Kelly sees the food trucks of today as distinct from the “roach coaches” of decades past. Modern food trucks are like restaurants on wheels, and just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they require city permits and health inspections, and many of their owners have high aspirations.
“I think a lot of the food trucks want to have a restaurant or storefront or something and just couldn't come up with the funds,” he says. “They thought a food truck was a way of doing what they love, making money and maybe leading to something else.”
Kelly says he's not sure if that perception is accurate. “As far as the financial aspect, you're not going to be able to start a food truck and afford to start a restaurant in a couple of years,” he says.
There's a misconception that food trucks have low overhead when, in fact, they come with their own set of financial burdens, Kelly explains: gas costs, festival and permitting fees, electricity and propane bills and maintenance expenses.
Kelly started The Lowdown after he and his wife decided to have a child. He had been working in kitchens but enrolled in nursing school to help support his family. Eventually, though, he missed cooking and decided nursing wasn't for him. “The monetary quality of life might be less, but the overall quality of life is better,” he says. “I'm probably making less money now than I've ever made in my entire life. But it's also working for myself and having the freedom.”
Nestor and Ashley Teran launched Smash Box Mobile Kitchen earlier this year. They sell Latin-American eats from their brightly decorated food trailer.
The Terans weren't able to get a permit to open downtown — they were the 11th applicant for 10 permits — but they found other locations, such as the Odditorium on Haywood Road and, more recently, Metro Wines on Charlotte Street. Now that the city has relaxed the ordinance, Nestor hopes to get a downtown permit, although he'll have to find a space to park first. “There's a lot of popularity for The Lot,” he says. “Being there would just really get [us] more exposure.”
Nestor thinks of Smash Box as a “driving advertisement” for their catering and events company, Smash Events. Since they haven't had the business that The Lot offers, the Terans have balanced their books by serving food at parties and festivals. “A catering job, you've got a guaranteed number of people, and you're going to get paid,” he says.
Still, Smash Box will remain a street food venture, too. “As much as we love the catering jobs, operating a food truck also opens up a lot of doors,” Nestor says. “It shows people what you can do, people who otherwise may not know.”
Like the the Terans, Jeremiah Jackson opened his truck, Farm to Fender, after the downtown permits had been exhausted. But Jackson says he won't seek a downtown permit now that they're easier to come by. “People who live in south Asheville and Hendersonville, they want the same thing, but nobody's doing it,” he says. “I'm trying to bring the coolness of downtown. I'm trying to cool sprawl, I guess you could say.”
Among the strip malls of Sweeten Creek Road, Jackson's food stands out more than it might downtown. He serves breakfasts of steel-cut oats, gluten-free waffles and omelets (at any time of day), fresh salads topped with fruit, nuts and goat cheese, and sandwiches on homemade bread. The goal is to offer slow food in a fast food part of town, Jackson explains.
“I've always wanted a restaurant,” he says. “If my restaurant happens to be this size, it's my restaurant, and I'm going to give you a restaurant menu. There's no reason not to.”
In the six weeks since he launched Farm to Fender at 177 Sweeten Creek Road and outside of Patton Avenue Pet Co., the truck has developed a following of Mission Hospital employees and other office workers. He also serves dinner at Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville. “If I can't go downtown, I won't,” he says.