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Amid complaints, chefs keep on [food] truckin'

Food trucks lining Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis on a sunny July day.
Photo by Wayne Djiubinski
Food trucks lining Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis on a sunny July day.

If you haven't noticed the proliferation of mobile eateries on city streets in the past couple of years, you've probably been on a prolonged journey to the Gamma Quadrant or maybe doing time in a maximum-security lock-up. Food trucks have become almost impossible to miss.

Just walk along downtown streets in either Minneapolis or St. Paul during the lunch hour, and you'll find trucks dishing out street food with pretensions -- duck confit, portobello mushroom sandwiches, mac and cheese and pulled pork -- to the huddled masses yearning to eat cheap.

Currently, there are about 40 food trucks in Minneapolis and 60 in St. Paul, up from none a few years ago. More could be on the way, and once-and-future chefs won't be the only ones launching them. A 2011 survey by the National Restaurant Association found that 36 percent of eateries in the "fast casual" category (think Panera's or Chipotle Mexican Grill) say that they are likely or somewhat likely to start food trucks of their own; they see the trucks as a good way to expand their businesses and to acquaint customers with their food.

Cities across the nation have viewed the trucks as a boon. They add to tax revenues and liven up the street. When I visited the other day, Marquette, which is normally as empty as the far side of the moon, had an almost festive air with seven trucks parked end-to-end and customers milling around deciding what to eat. Says Lisa Goodman, the 7th Ward Councilwoman who championed food trucks to in Minneapolis: "I'm ecstatic. It's been so successful."

Not everybody is thrilled. Kim Gruetzmacher, owner of the 8th Street Grill on Marquette, complains that the city is allowing the competition to sit right on his doorstep and take away customers.

“They [trucks] are cherry-picking the best hours of the day, 10 to 2, from those of us who have to pay rent 24/7," he says.

His restaurant is hurting less than eateries in the skyways because it's open for happy hour and dinner while they do only breakfast and lunch. "One woman told me that her business was down 40 percent, and she had to lay off employees," says Gruetzmacher.

$5 to $10 a dish

It's easy to see why the business has expanded so quickly. For recession-weary office workers, the trucks offer fare that at $5 to $10 a dish is cheaper than what's available at full-service restaurants and is a cut above fast food or a sandwich brought from home. Truck owners, some of them former executive chefs, have assembled inventive menus featuring veggies from local farms, meats that have been slow-roasted for eons and exotic ingredients like yuzo and tomatillo.  "I go to the fish market every day at 5 to get the best," says Billy Tserenbat, a former executive sushi chef who launched Sushi Fix forty days ago. 

For young chefs, like Kyle Olson, one of several who operate Get Sauced, trucks offer a toehold in an industry that's been whacked hard in the five-year economic downturn. "We hadn't the means to open a restaurant," says Olson. "A truck was more approachable."

Launching a restaurant, after all, can cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions; in contrast, a food truck can get off the ground for as little as $40,000, according to Richard Myrick, editor-in-chief of Mobile Cuisine Magaine and author of the forthcoming “Running a Food Truck for Dummies.”

To get licenses in Minneapolis or St. Paul, food trucks must comply with National Sanitation Foundation safety and cleanliness standards for commercial kitchens. Truck operators must have food management certification, which they earn in an eight-hour course renewed every two years. And, truck operations must do their food prep (the cutting, slicing, dicing and slow-roasting) in a commissary or professional kitchen. No home cooking allowed.

A St. Paul license costs $244. The city allows trucks to park anywhere. They may stay at meters for the specified limit, usually two hours, and can't return to the same space for another two hours -- although they don't always comply with that restriction. 

In Minneapolis, there are multiple fees: $818 for the annual operating permit, $359 for the city to review the truck's food offerings and a $64 for an inspection. Until last year, trucks were restricted to Nicollet Mall. Now they can operate anywhere downtown, but they must pledge to stay open for at least 150 days, not easy, given Minnesota weather. Minneapolis has also designated additional food truck areas, some that wouldn't seem to have enough foot traffic to support a food truck: the Phillips-Corcoran-Longfellow neighborhood along Hiawatha, for example, and the intersection of Penn Ave. North and Golden Valley Road. 

Marquette food truck crowds
Photo by Wayne DjiubinskiSays Lisa Goodman, the 7th Ward Councilwoman who championed food trucks to in Minneapolis: "I'm ecstatic. It's been so successful."

It's hard to say how much business, if any, food trucks are leaching from so-called bricks-and-mortar restaurants. Myrick says that there has been no study he's aware of in any city. Clearly, trucks are not competing with fine dining establishments; eating stuff out of a paper tray while perched on a flowerpot in front of an office building is not exactly elegant.

But it's not clear how much even fast-food rivals lose to the trucks, even in a head-to-head contest.  For example, the Bloomy's Roast Beef truck, which leases space at Kitchen in the Market at the Midtown Global Market, sits across Marquette from Arby's, which also specializes in roast beef sandwiches. "Arby's is still packed," says Bloomy's general manager Bridger Merkt.

A peek inside showed that it was. Arby's district manager did not comment. 

What sticks in the craw of competing restaurateurs is that "we're paying taxes, and they're not," says Gruetzmacher. "It's not a level playing field."

Taxes and overhead

Disputing that notion is Lisa Carlson, co-owner with Carrie Summer of the Chef Shack, which works several farmers markets as well as Marquette and provides catering for parties. "We do pay taxes. We pay sales taxes and employee taxes. We pay workers comp, and we pay for permits," she says. They also pay to rent a commissary, "which is not cheap," she adds, and a portion of that goes for property taxes.

Still, low overhead pays off. Chef Shack's profit margins are 20 percent. That's enormous when compared to the 3 percent profit earned by full-service restaurants serving meals under $15, according to National Restaurant Association.

On the other hand, the trucks can't operate full time. The winter shuts them down, and nobody comes when it rains. Last week, during the record heat wave, says Carlson, "we didn't work for four days." And there are amenities that they can't offer: a place to sit, bathrooms and air-conditioning.

And disamenities abound, according to neighborhood businesses. Wayne Dziubinski, who owns FastSigns on Marquette, says that the trucks arrive on the dot of nine and don't leave until 2, even though the parking limit is two hours. His own customers have to find parking elsewhere. On some days, he says, 11 trucks are packed end-to-end, creating what he calls "a circus atmosphere." The crowds are so thick, he adds, that people back up against his plate glass window while eating. He dubbed a picture he took of the scene "Butts on Marquette."

Gruetzmacher also has a litany of complaints: noise from the trucks' generators that drowns out customers' conversations on his patio; smells of tacos and other food pervading the atmosphere ("shouldn't my customers be entitled to clean air?" he asks), and truck customers taking seats on his patio or trying to use his restrooms. He also asserts that the food trucks are dirty. "They're not wearing hats, there's no hand washing, and there's crap all over the floors."

I didn't see that, but I did ask officials from both cities how they enforce food truck regulations. The answer seemed to be that they try to "work with" the trucks to see that they comply. Oren Larson of St. Paul's Department of Safety and Inspections, says he hasn't received many complaints. One about a noisy generator he resolved by getting the truck owner to install a quieter one. Lisa Carlson says that her trucks received 12 surprise inspections in the last year.

The City of Minneapolis says that food trucks are given health inspections at least once a year. Infringements in areas such as parking are addressed only if there are complaints.

'Nobody listens'

Gruetzmacher says that he and other storeowners on the street "complain all the time, but nobody listens."

Councilwoman Goodman says that she has received plenty of complaints, most of them "a concentrated effort by a small group who are upset about losing business to the food trucks." She says, however, that it's not the city's job to pick winners and losers in business. "If people determine that they want to eat lobster rolls instead of a sandwich, well, that's up to them."

But by allowing the food trucks to operate, the city has in effect picked winners, says Gruetzmacher. "And we were here first." 

It would be beyond nice if the two groups could somehow work out their problems. Lisa Carlson says that some trucks have started putting up rope lines to keep crowds from interfering with pedestrian traffic. And maybe it would make sense for the cities to restrict the number of food trucks per block. Or to assign them to special areas or allow trucks to bid for a specific space. Then there would be no scramble to arrive on the dot of nine.

"I don't want to see the food trucks disappear," says Dziubinski. "Maybe they could just spread out a little."

Of course, if the economy improves (a lot), the number of trucks might diminish. "The dream for all of us is to open a regular restaurant," says Carlson. Two trucks — Turkey to Go and Our World Kitchen — have already graduated. Both are launching brick-and-mortar operations. 

Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota, which includes the state restaurant association, takes the long view. Some members, he says, are concerned that food trucks have an unfair advantage; others don't care; and some members are food trucks. "I'm hopeful that they can all get together and run a safe and profitable business," he says.

Amen to that.

Correction

The City of Minneapolis says that food trucks are given health inspections at least once a year. Infringements in areas such as parking are addressed only if there are complaints.

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Comments (15)

Business

If the local restaurants can compete, they should. I'm definitely not adverse to spending a bit more to get good food. Contrary to popular belief, the food from the trucks is NOT cheap. It's more expensive than most fast food by a significant amount and not that much less than many sit down restaurants and have the inconvenience of providing no place to sit. The difference is that, in part, people just want to get out, and also, the food is GOOD. Many of the trucks have tasty dishes made with good ingredients that you're not going to find at any of the fast food places and only a few of the sit down restaurants.

As for noise complaints, parking violations, and food truck customer butts against windows, the city should certainly enforce those issues. You can't enforce parking differently for a food truck than you do a harried business person running in to get the briefcase he left in his office. And downtown is noisy enough as it is. There's no need to ruin the atmosphere of the outdoor patio of a restaurant by making it worse. Food trucks could have signs encouraging their customers to respect local businesses by lining up intelligently...or probably more likely to work...setting up those little line mazes.

Actually there is just no reason to go downtown

But I do like the idea of food trucks. I like the competition aspect and I like the creativity of good food on wheels. Too bad we can't recruit chefs to run our corporations.

Here's one

Here's a good reason, no, a really good reason to go downtown. Because you WORK there. That's where your JOB is. Why do you think the food trucks are there and not in Maple Grove or Woodbury?

Parks

On a couple of recent trips to Wash DC I noticed the food trucks parked along a couple of the downtown parks. This created an outdoor food court away from the permanent restaurants. Mpls doesn't have these central downtown parks like DC, but there are suitable parks on the outskirts (Loring, Mill City, St. Anthony, W. River Road) a short walk from the central office towers.

That would be nice

On the weekends, but the reality is that most downtown workers aren't going to walk to the outskirts of downtown. It really is too bad, though, that Minneapolis doesn't have any sort of central park.

It will never happen, but I

It will never happen, but I have long wished that they would turn the parking lot across Nicollet from the library into a park.

Minneapolis downtown parks

Why would Minneapolis ever establish a downtown park when you can have a dynamic and vibrant business friendly investment like Block -E. Minneapolis may not out last the stench of Block-E. Good thing it wasn't just money thrown away. Sorry my last sentence was a lie.

A question to all the "buy local" advocates

Regardless of whose side you are on, the other comments make it clear that the City of Mpls is giving away prime downtown real estate to these trucks and getting little in return. I tend to believe that these vendors produce revenue mainly for their own benefit and contribute little in the way of improvements to the areas they occupy for a few hours on sunny, pleasant weekdays to serve mainly "visitors" to the downtown area. Contrast their contributions with those neighborhood restaurants who pay wages & taxes to many additional staff (including non-direct payments to building custodial staff, parking attendants, etc) and work directly to improve neighborhood safety, amenities and overall livability for the entire downtown. If you want to argue that food trucks contribute "ambiance" then why not open up downtown sidewalks for transient merchants to set-up kiosks outside of Target, Macy’s and other merchants as that would certainly give downtown a “festive” atmosphere.

No, I’m not in the business but have two adult children that have worked within D’Amico empire, 112 eatery, LaGrassa, etc and I can attest to the good wages, taxes, neighborhood improvements paid for by their employers. I am a Loring Park resident who spends a great deal of time downtown and am really put off by the unpleasant environment and congestion these trucks create – ONLY during prime lunch hours. I like to buy local and I’m afraid that a transient vendor doesn’t meet that standard, I don’t see any of them lending a hand toward addressing neighborhood problems/improvement, just taking advantage of their favored status to be able to sell their food at prices lower than those with monthly lease/mortgage payments included in their overhead cost.

Since I'm not just a daily visitor I rely on local businesses for their services at all hours throughout the week and am buoyed to see that downtown is becoming more and more of a welcoming neighborhood to live in. If we want to continue this trend we need to "buy local" and support our full-time business establishments. I've got no interest in banning food trucks but can't we establish a "food court" setting for them to operate in, perhaps in the Gateway Park area or somewhere that will keep them from occupying the doorsteps to those businesses with locations that can't be moved at will.

.

Take A Closer Look

First, many of these trucks are owned by local chefs who live (and pay taxes) here. They are not "transient vendors," but a new wave of culinary entrepreneurs on wheels. Their food is often locally grown, and the people hired to work the trucks are locals, too.

Some of these 100 or so trucks will serve bad food, or provide bad service, or their business model will fail. They will be gone, soon enough. People may choose to go back indoors, or some of the downtown brick and mortar places will make some improvements in their food.

In the end, I believe we will have more vibrant downtowns, more choices for lunch, and more tourists enjoying their stay here. Keep on truckin!

food truck in St. Paul

I haven't been in lockup nor have I been on a long trip to an remote region. I seldom go downtown. No reason to. I don't work there, and downtown St Paul's shopping venues are limited to Macy's, I think.
But recently a food truck moved into my neighborhood, a block from Selby and Dale. It disappeared for a while, and maybe the owners had to go get licenses or something, but it's operating now for a few hours starting late morning. I've never walked over there to see what they have, and I am surprised there's enough business for them to survive..

Level Playing Field?

I'm not sure I resonate with the level playing field argument, frankly. Food trucks are a seasonal business that go dark November to March/April. They do not offer amenities like seating, table service, or even convenient access to a second cup of a beverage. Skyway or street level restaurants losing business to them need to step up their game. The novelty will soon wear off and only the good trucks will thrive. But there are also a lot of bad skyway restaurants serving bland, perfunctory iterations of fast food that survive because of office workers' need for a quick, proximate meal. I'm not a fan of all the inconveniences of the food truck universe, but to label them as having all the advantages is a cop-out.

Parks on outskirts are too far away

That's why you called them the outskirts. It takes at least 15 minutes each way to get from where I work to any of those. Our office gets 30 minutes for lunch.

30 minutes for lunch

Looking at that picture of the long lines just makes me wince! And with only 30 minutes for lunch, how is there time to wait in line, buy your food, eat it, and still make it back to work in time?

In any event, if I were someone who needed to go downtown and knew where the trucks were parking, I'd avoid those areas like the plague given the congestion that the trucks appear to create in their immediate vicinity. How unpleasant! I can see why the local merchants are upset over the crowding and the bustle and the general downgrading of the "experience" during the times the trucks and their attendant crowds are present.

Judging from the picture, it's like the State Fair but every day and on the streets of downtown!

Mathew according to the author

Mathew according to the author your are suppose to live downtown if you work there.

I do go downtown for work on occasion and have worked in downtown 2 years out of 40 work years and my career goals were always not to not work downtown, at least not downtown Minneapolis because there was no tradeoff that was enough to keep me there.

Blame the Developers and the City, not food trucks.

It's the city's fault, coupled with building owners and developers. They've killed the once vibrant street life of Minneapolis. Our city sidewalks are now lined with soul-less stone walls that contribute nothing to the street.

Take a walk down Nicollet and you can see how street level businesses that open up to the sidewalk promote street activity. Then take a walk away from these areas and notice how dead it is.

The city should have never allowed the second level become a food/retail space, but rather a public space for getting from building to building. The main level of these buildings is where this type of business should be. You should be able to access these small joints from the sidewalk, or from an interior court, and skyways should simply provide access to the main level.

Skyway eatereries that complain about losing business shouldn't have built on the second level in the middle of a building, especially with confusing and inconsistent access to the skyway from the street level.

Maybe Minneapolis will get a clue and encourage building owners to transform their street level fronts into useful areas.

Most indoor malls are dying off in favor of strip type malls with store front access from the sidewalk. This should be no different for Minneapolis. They should embrace the sidewalk.