At the dawn of mankind, humans hunted for sustenance — and while civilization, eventually, brought us everything from grocers to pizza delivery, for many, there’s still a certain satisfaction in tracking down the next meal. In 2018, though, the hunter-gatherers of Asheville’s urban wild are armed not with bows and arrows, but with smartphones — which they use to scour the Facebook feeds of their favorite food trucks.
What tasty treats await outdoors? Pick up the scent of El Kimchi or Melt Your Heart and the hunt is on — replacing wild game with the promise of teriyaki tacos and a turkey raspberry-mustard melt.
For wanderers in the heart of downtown, food trucks have long been a scarce commodity, only arriving to accompany street festivals and fairs. Enter the 68 Haywood Street Food Truck Court, the latest addition to downtown’s grab-and-grub scene. Kicking off the new year and new space with two mobile eateries per day, the venue will allow pedestrians to choose from a rotating variety of mobile-made cuisines for both lunch and dinner, Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Previously nicknamed the “Pit of Despair,” the lot at 68 Haywood St. has long been a hot-button issue for both elected officials and lovers of downtown. It lies along one of downtown’s busiest stretches — across from the U.S. Cellular Center and Pack Memorial Library, within sight of the Basilica of St. Lawrence and just east of the Grove Arcade.
The vacant site has been considered for a park, hotel, small businesses and for a combination of these ideas (and various attempted compromises) — but over the summer it was approved for an array of temporary, multiuse projects and events ranging from pop-up gardens to “American Idol” auditions and, most recently, food trucks.
And the local restaurateurs-on-wheels couldn’t be more excited.
“We have customers coming up all the time telling us, ‘Hey, we’re from Charlotte, and they have this food truck lot and it’s so great,’” says Elena Saladukha of Amazing Pizza Co. “But, you know, we’re just food truck owners. We’re not in charge of [public spaces]. So to have the city provide us with the space, I think, is a really great thing. It’s something customers were inquiring for. We can get together and pretty much stay open the whole day.”
Guests at the brand-new Cambria Hotels, along with the Hyatt Place and Hotel Indigo, need only navigate a few blocks to grab a quick snack — or, with several parking garages nearby, others can head to the district to eat lunch or dinner from a fan favorite.
Locals who work downtown have been yearning for something like this on a whole other level. “If you have an office downtown, and you eat lunch out two or three days per week, you eventually run out of places,” Saladukha says.
Downtown restaurants are great, “but if I eat there five times every month, I’m going to eventually want something different,” she continues. “With food trucks — and there are a little over 40 or 50 trucks that are active — you always have some kind of new option. You can always try something different instead of going to the same places every day.”
The new open-air food court is part of the city’s Mobile Food Vending Pilot program, which was unanimously approved by Asheville City Council at a Dec. 19 meeting. Participating trucks must pay a fee of $50 for a one-year permit, which expires at the end of 2018, use on-site electrical hookups (no generators) and pledge to clean up all trash generated from their business.
For food truck owners, the opportunity to cash in on downtown foot traffic means one thing: good business. “It’s a great opportunity to all be in one place, where we know people are going to be — and where people know we’re going to be,” Saladukha says.
While 68 Haywood is starting out slowly for the winter season since fewer people are out and about looking for curbside dining, Saladukha explains that more times, dates and trucks will be added come spring. And rather than having a predetermined set schedule based on days of the week, food trucks will sign up for slots on a week-by-week basis. In the warmer months, hungry shoppers can expect to choose from up to four trucks anytime between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
In 2012, Asheville’s first food truck lot opened at 51 Coxe Ave., a vacant space just south of downtown. The location was originally managed by a group of food truck owners, the Asheville Street Food Coalition. After some controversy in 2014, the lot reopened under new ownership — with an all-new indoor bar space and commissary kitchen — but has since closed.
Then in 2016, a similar venture, the Asheville Food Park, opened in West Asheville at 219 Amboy Road. But due to its location in a mainly residential area, the park suffered from a lack of foot traffic. In November, owner Dean Pistor told Xpress he’s abandoning the food truck destination theme in favor of bringing in a brick-and-mortar restaurant to join the property’s bar, Cascade Lounge, which is currently undergoing renovations.
But the 68 Haywood Street Food Truck Court shouldn’t suffer from a lack of pedestrian flow with its highly accessible location in the center of the downtown action.
While more long-term plans are still in the works for the vacant “pit,” the food truck program — and all of 68 Haywood’s temporary uses — will continue for the foreseeable future. Trucks confirmed to appear at the lot so far include Amazing Pizza Co., El Kimchi, Foodstop, Nuwati Coffee, Ceci’s Culinary Tour, Farm to Fender, Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion, Street Level NC and Gypsy Queen Cuisine.
So bring on 2018: Channel your inner hunter-gatherer and celebrate the year of the food truck in Asheville.
For updates, look for “68 Haywood St Food Truck Court” on Facebook.