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Food-truck boom inspires appetites, community and culinary startups

If your life is lacking in wonderment these days, maybe you haven’t been dining curbside via food trucks.

Food trucks line Mears Park in St. Paul
Courtesy of Visit St. Paul

If your life is lacking in wonderment these days, maybe you haven’t been dining curbside via food trucks. According to Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District, food trucks are a must-have part of the mix for a vital and livable city.

“We want Minneapolis to be known for a consistently compelling street experience, with wonderment around every corner,” Cramer says. Food trucks are key to accomplishing that goal, Cramer says. They not only “show off the strong, some might even say amazing, restaurant culture we have,” he says, but food trucks also encourage street life and generate community — a view that crosses city borders.

“St. Paul employees and residents love the many food options throughout downtown,” says Tonya Tennessen, communications director for the City of Saint Paul and Office of Mayor Chris Coleman. “But the food trucks bring people outside and onto the sidewalks — creating a sense of vibrancy and vitality that makes our downtown unique.”

These days, a vibrant urban scene practically demands an active food truck presence. In-the-know urbanites who heavily patronize the trucks are seeking an authentic personal experience that’s never the same way twice. In an eating environment that requires constant variety, along with an endless supply of “just for me” customization, food trucks are a natural evolution of a food-centric culture.

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Following a local food truck creates its own micro-community within the larger context of city living, with fans who follow the Tweeted locations of their top trucks with fierce dedication. The Twin Cities’ lifestyle — which includes fleeing outside by wheel or foot at the first hint of warm weather — makes MSP an ideal place for a food truck culture to take root and flourish.

Megan Gaffney is the Marketing Officer of the Minnesota Food Truck Association, which has more than 65 members and represents more than 95 percent of the total active food trucks in the state. When commenting on the reasons for the food-truck boom she cites the area’s creative culture, high food standards and increasingly mobile lifestyle.

“St. Paul employees and residents love the many food options throughout downtown. The food trucks and restaurants bring people outside and onto the sidewalks – creating a sense of vibrancy and vitality that makes our downtown unique.”

From ‘good idea’ to ‘thriving business’

The mobile dining trend has become not just a local business engine, as the trucks give entrepreneurs a start by acting as business incubators; but the trend also has an emerging national voice. The 11-state National Food Truck Association, of which Minnesota is a member, estimates that the businesses generate $1 billion annually in the U.S.

The increasingly powerful association is run by Venice, California-based Matt Geller, who was profiled in The New York Times recently. In the article, Geller mentioned he’d been raised in California, but had spent summers with grandparents in the Land of 10,000 Lakes: “I grew up Venice tough, but Minnesota nice.”

Since they were first introduced in the Twin Cities four years ago, food trucks have become a big player on the local eat-and-be-seen scene. In 2010, Minneapolis issued only 10 food truck licenses and trucks were only allowed to park on Nicollet Mall. That number has grown to 87 trucks registered in Minneapolis, according to Linda Roberts, assistant manager of Licenses and Consumer Services for the City of Minneapolis.

About 100 mobile food units, including food trucks, are operating in St. Paul, according to the licensing department at the Minnesota Department of Health. Since mobility is their reason for being, the food trucks criss-cross the metro area to appear at farmers’ markets, concerts and other outdoor events.

Roberts and her boss, Cathy Polasky, director of Economic Policy and Development, have been involved in the growth of city-based food trucks from “good idea” to “thriving businesses.” Roberts says that several policymakers initially looked to the burgeoning food truck movement in Portland, Oregon, when the concept was under development here.

Today, the trucks have evolved to meet the needs of the local community.

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“Initially, for example, we thought it would be a good idea to park the trucks on the sidewalks, but we changed that after the first season,” Roberts says. “With each year, we’ve learned more and have been evaluating our results.”

The proprietors of MSP’s food trucks have been learning a lot as well. They’ve moved from catering to local tastes to expanding the range of those tastes in some delicious new ways. Early startups featured food everyone might be comfortable eating at the State Fair. But there’s been an explosion of flavors and tastes that span the globe. Food trucks have done a good job educating the traditionally mild-mannered Minnesotan palette.

Incubating business, from mobile to bricks-and-mortar

From a business perspective, the rolling restaurants give food professionals, or even just avid foodies, a chance to start up a business with lower initial overhead than a standard restaurant would require. With eye-catching truck graphics and a frequent updates on Twitter and Facebook, the new business owner is ready to start selling — and hopefully turning a profit — in a relatively short time.

Make no mistake: Entrepreneurs whose trucks become successful must contend with long, long hours of work. They also bear the regular restaurateurs’ challenges relating to product, margin and staffing. Then pile on new issues brought about by a short selling season, inclement weather and the occasional less-than-ideal location.

Still, food trucks have generally been considered the lower-risk way to test a new food concept or trend — and incubate a new business.

“When I launched the food truck last year, it was with the intent of using the truck as a lab for something bigger,” says Amol Dixit, owner of the bright-orange Hot Indian Foods truck.

Dixit was so successful with his remixes of traditional Indian food — including the Indurrito, an Indian-style burrito — he opened a restaurant inside Midtown Global Market last year.

“During our first summer of operation, it became clear that a Indian quick-serve restaurant would be the natural next step,” Dixit says, adding that there is still much more he wants to learn.

“Just as the truck was a lab for deciding if this concept has legs, the new location is a lab for a broader quick-serve expansion.” When asked what those plans might include, he says, “I want to be the Chipotle of Indian food.”

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Other on-the-go food purveyors who’ve opened stationary sites include Chef ShackHola ArepaFoxy Falafel, Potters Pasties and PiesSmack Shack andWorld Street Kitchen.

Courtesy of Hola Arepa
Hola Arepa started as a truck but recently opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

The reverse is also true. Many brick-and-mortar restaurants have decided to jump on the food-truck bandwagon and have launched mobile versions of their brand. It’s a friendly, reach-out-and-touch approach that many restaurants feel ups their hipster cred, gets their name in front of the public, and allows chefs to test ideas before introducing them back at their brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Restaurants that have added food trucks include CupcakeFalafel KingRed River KitchenFirelake and Undead Frank’s Zombie Bites, a rolling version of Psycho Suzi’s that started operating this season. Even TGI Fridays has gotten into the game. The national chain restaurant debuted its food truck at Soundset Music Festival in May.

Beer and food trucks: ‘We were born together’

One factor behind the local food-truck boom stands a foamy head above the rest: beer. More than 30 microbrewery taprooms are currently open in the metro area, and they enjoy a unique relationship with food trucks.

Because taproom and food truck laws came into being at about the same time, “We were born together,” says Gaffney. “Our local taprooms usually don’t apply for a food license, because then they’ll have to adhere to a set of kitchen standards along with beer-making standards, and the regulations can overlap and get pretty complicated,” she explains.

Food trucks, she continues, “allow the taprooms to focus on brewing while fulfilling their need for a kitchen.” Conversely, microbreweries “provide us with ready access to hungry crowds. Best of all, the consumption of food and beer drive each other.”

Gaffney and her husband operate the MidNord Empanada Truck, which serves traditional Spanish empanadas, along with nontraditional choices like mac & cheese and a Juicy Lucita. Their truck is often found on Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis during weekday lunch hours. But the trucks spend evenings at such Minneapolis taprooms as 612 Brew, Fulton, Harriet Brewing, Indeed Brewing Company and Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis. The truck also travels to Surly Brewing Co. in Brooklyn Center and Summit Brewery in St. Paul.

“We go on different nights of the week, and rotate through the breweries throughout the month. The taprooms like different food trucks every night,” Gaffney says.

The pairing of food trucks and microbreweries, adds Dixit, “works well because the same type of customer enjoys both. We describe our Hot Indian Foods customer as an ‘urban millennial foodie.’ That’s not only true for a lot of food trucks, but it’s also the core customer for taprooms.” Fans of microbrews and food truck cuisine, he continues, “like artisanal craft stuff, and they get a chance to have both experiences in one place.”

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For local events, a food truck presence generates energy and attracts crowds. On June 22, First & First hosts the second annual NE Food Truck Jam at its Broadway and Central property in Minneapolis. The event, which showcases microbrews from various local startups as well as food trucks, is a fundraiser of the East Minneapolis Exchange Club to benefit youth programs in Northeast.

“We’re a shut-down city so many months of the year, so we need ways to tap into the kind of dynamic energy that food trucks provide,” says developer Peter Remes, founder of First & First. “They just seem to have a bigger bandwidth of creativity and fun.”

Food trucks are also banding together in mass congregations of giant mobile foodie gatherings, such as the Uptown Food Truck Festival on June 29 and the Summer Food Truck festival at Harriet Brewing on Aug. 9.

Expand or restrict?

While Cramer acknowledges a great deal of community benefit in the food truck phenomenon, he’s also charged with balancing that enthusiasm with the needs of downtown building owners, tenants and brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“They might say you can have too much of a good thing,” Cramer says. “There are areas, like Seventh Street to Ninth Street along Marquette Avenue, that are bumper-to-bumper food trucks. Building owners and restaurants in that area are concerned that the trucks are too concentrated, are negatively impacting storefront businesses, and make it hard for pedestrians to navigate sidewalks, especially at intersections.”

Cramer acknowledges that, “The food trucks don’t see it that way.” He hopes to find a middle ground. “City Hall has not yet shown interest in this, but we believe that a light regulatory touch could help.”

His initial suggestions for exploration include limiting the number of trucks per block, creating a location lottery system, or a requiring a higher fee for downtown-based operating licenses. “Our business owners pay property taxes, which food trucks do not, so there is not an even competitive playing field right now,” he says.

On the other hand, Gaffney believes expansion is a better solution. “We will push for expanding locations,” she says. “We would love more areas to park, such as around all the lakes, so that we can be more dispersed around the Twin Cities. Ultimately, limiting us restricts consumer choice.”

Dixit agrees: “I wish we could spread out more. It doesn’t all need to be concentrated on Marquette Avenue, and we need to create more pockets for food trucks around downtown.”  

However those issues get resolved, one thing is certain: The appetite for food truck cuisine is growing. Wood-fired pizza, grilled meat and barbeque will hit the streets soon, adding fuel to the competitive fire. New trucks this summer include Tru PizzaGrill Works Truck and Big Brother Almighty BBQ.

The boundaries of what constitutes a food truck will also begin to blur, starting with the launch of WildEarth WoodFired Mobile Pizza Bakery — not a food truck, but a pizza oven on wheels. As the options diversify, Twin Citians are sure to gobble them up.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Julie Kendrick is a freelance corporate, interactive and editorial writer, and a frequent contributor to The Line.