Eat on the street: Asheville’s evolving food truck culture

MOVABLE FEAST: Justin Smith grabs his weekly lunch order of bibimbap from El Kimchi at the 51 Coxe food truck lot downtown. Asheville's mobile food-vending culture is gradually expanding as more vendors enter the market and new dedicated venues open to cater to their needs. Photo by Carla Seidl

“Asheville is the kind of town, they love to eat,” says Santiago Vargas of Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine food truck. After working in Long Island restaurants for seven years, the Peruvian-born chef opened the mobile food unit five months ago with partners Rob Lowry and Chris Smith. “People like to try new things here,” he says, and that’s a good fit with Vargas’ creative energy and passion for preparing his native cuisine.

“When you’re working corporate, you work for the owner,” Vargas notes. “You have love or passion … and then someone kills your passion.” On his food truck, Vargas can indulge his wild ideas and not be vetoed by higher-ups. In the kitchen’s tight quarters, he cooks up his father’s sanguche de chicharrón fried pork sandwich and his mother’s famous fried rice, marinating his chicken in Green Man porter and Peruvian spices for 24 hours.

Vargas also likes preparing meals for 25 or 50 people a day rather than the higher volumes in most restaurants. He says he tries to put love in his food, which he found impossible in an impersonal corporate setting.

Family is another central element of Vargas’ work. As we speak on a Wednesday afternoon at 51 Coxe, a downtown food truck lot, his wife, Farrah Razuri-Vargas, comes to try the empanada of the day while their 2-year-old daughter, Cassandra, frolics by the truck.

Wild and crazy cuisine

Suzan Honey, co-owner of Happy Lucky food truck, which has also been open for less than a year, reports a similar experience. “It’s a dream for me,” she says, prepping bacon-wrapped, hickory-smoked pork tenderloin for high-end sandwiches outside Highland Brewing Co.

PERFECT FIT: Operating a food truck works well for Out of the Blue Peruvian Cuisine owner Santiago Vargas. The freedom and flexibility of food truck ownership is a good fit with Vargas’ creativity and passion for preparing his native cuisine.
PERFECT FIT: Operating a food truck works well for Out of the Blue Peruvian Cuisine owner Santiago Vargas. The freedom and flexibility of food truck ownership is a good fit with Vargas’ creativity and passion for preparing his native cuisine. Photo by Carla Seidl

Honey’s worked in restaurants since age 14; she loves being able to pick and choose where she wants to work. “There’s less and less security working for other people, especially when you get to be my age, so [the food truck is] a way to kind of take the future into your own hands,” she notes.

Honey’s husband, co-owner Steven Wilder, says Asheville’s food-oriented residents make this “a symbiotic community” for food trucks. Nonetheless, he continues, every day is a struggle for business, particularly given this small city’s large number of such vehicles.

There are 62 permitted mobile food units in Buncombe County, according to Jessica Silver, the county’s Environmental Health Services program manager. That works out to about 25 food trucks per 100,000 people — a concentration higher than you’ll find in such food truck meccas as Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. Nationwide, Asheville’s ratio is topped only by Orlando and Miami, Fla., and Washington, D.C., according to data compiled by Business Insider.

Asheville food truck pioneer Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine, who opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on Patton Avenue in October, says food truck chefs “just do some crazy stuff. Maybe it’s the atmosphere of a food truck that brings out people’s fun, creative side.”

For various reasons, many food trucks focus on niche offerings. Belly Up Truck does tacos and burritos; Melt Your Heart does grilled cheese. Happy Lucky goes high end with its smoked salmon sandwich and New Orleans-style muffuletta. El Kimchi offers Korean-Mexican fusion, and Lil’ Pizza My Heart peddles jumbo-sized slices with up to four toppings for $5.

Regulatory hurdles

Phillips, though, says overregulation creates unnecessary obstacles. “We’re not set up for success,” she maintains. Originally, Phillips wanted to open a falafel cart, but in North Carolina, the only nonprepackaged food a cart is allowed to sell is hot dogs.

“I think we do set a higher standard in the way our program is run,” says Silver. North Carolina, she notes, is one of the few states that posts an actual score and letter grade for food trucks. “Our overall goal is to minimize or limit the number of foodborne illness outbreaks,” she explains. “We are on the forefront of public health.”

There are also landscape and zoning regulations, rules about sidewalks and parking and, in downtown Asheville, a no-generator rule. Additionally, each food truck needs to be associated with a commissary where the operator can dump gray water and fill up on fresh water, explains Susan Robinson. Robinson is a co-owner of 51 Coxe, which offers a commissary as well as a bar, seating area and handicapped-accessible restrooms for patrons.

Both Phillips and El Kimchi owner Don Lee say their inability to provide shade or seats for customers is a major deterrent to business. Regulations prohibit these amenities unless there’s a handicapped-accessible bathroom and a parking area.

“Younger patrons,” says Phillips, “don’t care: They’ll sit on the floor and eat.” But she’s had trouble getting older folks to come out to her Gypsy Queen truck, because they’re less comfortable eating standing up. That’s why opening the restaurant was important, notes Phillips, surveying the varied faces in her new dining room. “I want to feed everyone, not just one kind of person.”

More common in places like East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, street food is “good, fun food anywhere you go,” says Phillips. But “Americans,” Lee asserts, “are not allowed to have street food.”

Within the U.S., regulations vary. Asheville banned food trucks until 2012, and then, it took tremendous effort to change a 25-year-old ordinance. “The regulations don’t fully allow what they’re doing in Austin or Portland,” says Steven Paulson of Melt Your Heart. “They’re not terrible laws; you just have to abide by them.”

Phillips, however, is less sanguine. If food trucks represent our best approximation of other countries’ street food culture, after dealing with all the regulations, she maintains, “You’re tired and disappointed.”

Low-cost, high-end food

Dedicated “food truckers,” though, find more to celebrate about the local culture. Justin Smith, who works for Valet Gourmet, comes to 51 Coxe on his lunch break every Wednesday to order bibimbap from El Kimchi. “I think it’s cool that they can go to different spots in town instead of being stuck in one place,” he says. “And I have a lot of admiration for people that can cook in such a limited space, get food out quick, and it’s still gourmet quality.”

Food trucks, continues Smith, are especially good for the person on the go. “It’s quick, easy, and it’s usually cheap, too, ’cause you don’t have to pay for the restaurant experience.” In addition, “Everyone here has the ‘go local’ mentality; I think it thrives here because of that.”

Kevin Jennings created AshevilleFoodTrucks.com, which tracks the trucks’ whereabouts on a daily basis to help folks find their favorites. “Everywhere I go, I hunt down food trucks,” he says. “I think it’s as good as brick-and-mortar, and some of it’s even better.”

Asheville’s high concentration of food trucks, says Jennings, is directly connected to the large number of breweries here. Several food truck owners said they get 80 percent of their business that way. “I set up almost primarily now with breweries,” Paulson reports. “Beer drinkers here are a nice mix of locals and beer tourists.”

Belly Up co-owner Hannah Starr says she and her husband chose Asheville because of all the breweries. “They really are an awesome harmony,” she observes. “That’s sort of why we called ourselves Belly Up, so you can belly up at the bar and then saunter over and belly up to our food truck and get your tummy full.”

Chelsea Hall of Wedge Brewing Co. sees this synergy all the time. “It’s a partnership,” she says. “We draw business for each other.”

The local scene, though, is still in its infancy. “I don’t think Asheville has gotten to be a food truck city yet,” says Robinson. With three food truck lots now open — Asheville Food Park and Market on Amboy Road, the Asheville Commissary on Sweeten Creek Road and 51 Coxe — residents are getting more exposure to food trucks. But Robinson believes locals need more encouragement to come out and support the trucks, especially in the winter months when the number of tourists ebbs. “There may have been some misconception of food trucks left over from carnival days,” she says. “So unless people have tried a local, high-end food truck, they might not recognize that you get gourmet food. It doesn’t just have to be a roasted ear of corn or a funnel cake.”

Incubating an industry

The potential benefits extend beyond truck owners’ pockets and customers’ bellies. Drawing on a 2008 study by the Urban Vitality group that found the trucks to have a positive impact on neighborhoods, sociologist Paolo Corvo has argued that they “should be a dynamic part of the strategy of all local and regional urban planning initiatives and neighborhood revitalization programs.”

In Asheville, in particular, says Grateful Roots co-owner Kent Seber, “Food trucks are providing a valuable service to the community in supporting local businesses.” Seber and his wife source all their produce locally, their bread from Geraldine’s Bakery and their deli meats from Troyer’s Country Amish market in Fairview. “Everything I do is supporting a local business in this town,” Seber asserts, adding that perhaps 70 percent of local food truck owners share his approach.

Asheville real estate agent Dean Pistor, who owns the newly opened Asheville Food Park, believes in smart growth, an urban planning theory focused on walkable urban centers and sustainable development. He’s incorporated some of those ideas in the food park, which also features a full-service bar, a coffeehouse, a common area and a fruit and vegetable stand.

Pistor provides the legally required setup and hookups, giving truck owners a much-needed infrastructure. “We’re trying to incubate the food truck industry in a time where they’re growing,” he notes. “It’s definitely a market that has a lot of energy forward.”

The Asheville Food Park sits across the street from Carrier Park and just half a mile from the Pisgah View public housing complex, which Pistor calls a “food desert.” Instead of irking restaurant owners by siting his operation near a lot of those businesses, he decided to place it where healthy and affordable eating options were scarce. Providing pedestrian access to affordable, good-quality food was an important consideration in planning the park, says Pistor, and he’s proud of the result. “The Asheville Food Park is a melting pot of all things community,” he says. “We’re providing an experience for all different types of culinary art and blending the type of folks that are from the neighborhood and from the park.”

Meanwhile, food truck owners are a remarkably tightknit community themselves. Vargas calls it “a family,” and Wilder, Robinson, Starr and Seber all speak to the sense of camaraderie that exists here despite the competition.

“It’s really different from a restaurant,” notes Starr. “Food trucks really need to rely on each other to cover shifts and help each other out.”

There’s no denying the competition, though, and Seber points out that the area’s many standout restaurants only add to the economic strain. Without a stronger year-round customer base and more lenient regulations, warns Seber, some of the current food trucks won’t survive. “People need to realize that there’s only so much room for so many here,” he says. “I think they should honestly set a limit to how many can open up, because we’re all just starting to flood each other’s business, and it’s not really fair.”

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About Carla Seidl
Carla Seidl is a writer, independent radio producer, and singer-songwriter based in Asheville, North Carolina. Read and listen to more of her work at carlaseidl.com. Follow me @carlaseidl

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