Street Eats

by Chad Calder, The Advocate 8/22/2010

Mobile food vendors cropping up around town

Street vendors. Mobile kitchens. Food trucks.

Whatever you want to call them, they’re starting to arrive in Baton Rouge.

What was once a rare sighting or isolated instance is now becoming more common, as barbecue carts, tamale and hot dog vendors, taco trucks and even a crepe wagon have begun selling their wares, typically — but not always — downtown.

At a recent meeting of the Downtown Development District, Executive Director Davis Rhorer ticked off a list of vendors who’ve sprung up downtown, including Go Ya Ya’s Gourmet Food Truck, Ninja Snowballs, Taco de Paco, Southern Dawgs and Kickers BBQ.

Several of the entrepreneurs interviewed said they noticed the trend in other cities and decided that Baton Rouge would be receptive to the new format.

Kevin Black, who started Go Ya Ya’s Gourmet Food Truck to sell sweet and savory crepes about a month ago, said he saw no reason why the idea that had popped up in cities like Austin, Houston, Portland and Los Angeles and on the Food Network couldn’t fly here.

“I started noticing the trend of street vendors and mobile kitchens across the country, but not really here,” he said. “I thought it would be a perfect fit since people like to eat here.”

Jared Loftus came to a similar conclusion when he started Ninja Snowballs with business partners Josh Ford and Emily Bergeron last year. He wheeled out Taco de Paco a few weeks ago with business partners John Snow, Jonathan Courtney and Michael Benton.

Loftus said he’s been pleasantly surprised at the response to Taco de Paco since it hit the streets.

“A majority are just food truck fans,” he said. “They’ve seen it in other cities, they’re fans and they wanted to see it in Baton Rouge.”

Tony Idank, who has operated Kickers BBQ with Nani Dye for a little under three months, said that he could tell that some people were standoffish for the first couple weeks.

Now he gets about 50 customers a day at his spot in front of the Main Street Market.

Other than it being “9,000 degrees” on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Idank said, “It’s worth it. It’s so much fun to be out here.”

Black said he thought there was some credence to the idea that the acceptance of mobile kitchens was a generational thing — most of the negative associations with street vendors he had heard came from older folks.

But he said he was surprised to find that many of Go Ya Ya’s first customers were in their 50s.

Black, who lived in Taichung, Taiwan, for two years noted that anyone who’s traveled has learned that great food can come from street-side vendors.

“There’s a lot of people looking for something new,” Loftus said. “They’re tired of the same old, same old.”

Dye and Idank said they have an occupational license from the city-parish and a license from the Department of Health and Hospitals. Their cart has the three-bay sink and other necessary features.

Serving brisket sandwiches with gloved hands, Idank said he has a state-inspected commissary where the food is prepared.

Lofton said that because food trucks don’t have the ambiance of a restaurant, “it’s got to be put together as much as possible” with strong brand recognition, consistent service and a close bond with customers.

Taco de Paco only started serving earlier this month and is running a limited menu of tacos for now. Longer-term plans call for additional trucks, expanding the menu and being active during breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night

“We definitely see this as a long-term play,” Loftus said, noting boudin and blackened alligator tacos are a possibility.

Loftus said Taco de Paco has gotten requests for burritos and nachos, even Indian- and Korean-inspired tacos.

The point, Loftus said, will be to keep things fresh and fast so “people can just walk up and order and know that you’re going to get really good tacos and be able to go on with your life.”

Another unique aspect among the vendors interviewed is their use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

While Black said he uses a widget on his website to cater to those who aren’t social-media savvy, Loftus and Ninja Snowballs went all in with the format when they started with just a cart last year.

The idea, as implied by the stealthy connotation of the snowball cart’s name, was that customers would have to find it, not the other way around.

“People were just … ‘I don’t understand it. How is anybody going know where you are? How are you going to build up a customer base?’

“But we knew people weren’t going to understand, they were going … say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ We just kinda had to pick that line and say, ‘This is what we’re going after. We may miss out on some people who aren’t using social media but this is what we’re going to do.’”

But the novel concept worked and soon enough Facebook and Twitter began attracting not just young adults but those from 35-55.

“Not only did social media not go away, the whole trend of food trucks didn’t go away either,” he said.

Loftus said social media allows Ninja Snowballs and Taco de Paco to be more responsive to their customers. An obvious advantage for food trucks is that they can go to where the action is.

Dye and Idank, for example, feed people at corporate functions and just got back from the Island Aid event in Grand Isle that substituted for the Tarpon Rodeo. Black and Loftus will set up near business parks. Ninja Snowballs has gone to office parks and schools upon request.

“If you can get us permission to park in that spot, we’ll be there,” he said.

For now, much of the action is downtown because of the high density of office workers and public parking spaces.

But because food trucks are relatively new, there can be friction with the establishment and incongruities with laws that weren’t designed with food trucks in mind.

Idank said not all the merchants at the Main Street Market, where he originally wanted to rent a booth, are happy he’s there. One coffee shop began sporting a handmade sign in the window advertising “delicious barbeque.”

Some food trucks also continually feed a parking meter without moving from that spot, which is against the law, and can run afoul of laws banning corporate advertising in public parking spaces.

Assistant Parish Attorney Joseph K. Scott said there have been some complaints about food carts and noted that the existing law governing “itinerant vendors” isn’t exactly a perfect fit, since it’s designed for vendors who set up for festivals.

Lofton said he tends to find places to stop that don’t compete with other merchants and prefers to use spaces where he can get the blessing from the owner.

He said there is room enough for street vendors and traditional restaurants in a modern downtown.

“Food trucks can add as much to the downtown scene and just the general scene around Baton Rouge as brick-and-mortar (restaurants) can,” Lofton said.

Rhorer, the Downtown Development District director, said Baton Rouge should have a conversation about food trucks to avoid conflict, but said they should be encouraged because they are a growing trend that adds “a cool factor” to downtown.

“Downtown continues to change and this is happening in larger cities and you have a few people who want to bring that experience here,” he said.

He said that as downtown continues to improve its public spaces, most notably with the planned 2012 completion of the Town Square at North Boulevard, mobile restaurants can be a welcome addition.

“I think we can have some programming activities that help create an experience in the evenings,” he said.

Kelly Spell, communications coordinator for the Louisiana Art and Science Museum, said LASM started asking food vendors, including Ninja Snowballs, Kickers and Eileenie’s Weenies, to come to the museum for Sunday functions late last year.

She said the museum has no food to serve on a day that has fewer dining options downtown.

“It seemed like a natural partnership that would benefit both parties and benefit people who visit downtown,” she said.

“With the food truck revolution taking hold in Baton Rouge,” Spell agreed, “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone.”

Businesses are joining in too.

Redstar had an art show last month and had Black and his crepes out front to supplement the event.

“It just adds to the festive mood to have a guy out there flipping crepes and have an art show inside,” he said. “They go hand-in-hand.”

Loftus said BREC, for a monthly fee, will allow vendors to roll up at some local parks, though he noted Baton Rouge Beach and City Park are already served by a snowball vendor.

“I think you’re going to see more of that,” he said. “Developments are going to have space for food trucks. They’re seeing this and preparing to account for that.

“We’re doing our best to bring it a little faster.”