If it began anywhere — if it could be said to have begun at all — it was a few years ago in Los Angeles, with the Kogi Korean BBQ truck. Any time its location got tweeted, hordes of hungry hipsters lined up, eager to down the truck's Korean-Mexican tacos.
With both Twitter and food news blowing up at the time, it drew all the right kind of attention. NPR, the Times — both New York and Los Angeles — the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and even that most influential voice of the amateur eater, Zagat, documented Kogi. The last of that list even asked co-founder Caroline Shin-Manguera if a sit-down spinoff wouldn't be "kind of bourgeois?"
A few years later, it's safe to say that food trucks — loosely defined as any mobile venues selling food — have arrived. Kogi's Roy Choi was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2010; Boston, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and other big cities are awash in meals on wheels; and the Food Network is shooting the second season of The Great Food Truck Race, which is rolling through another burgeoning scene: Denver.
"The trucks are everywhere, and their ranks are rapidly expanding," says Denver Post food editor Tucker Shaw. "There are a couple of street-food trade organizations up here, like the Justice League of Street Food and Food Truck Warriors, that are based in Denver and throw parties and stuff."
And though local governments salivate at the thought of regulating and licensing anything, very little city code exists to shape the best way multiple mobile food vendors can get together in a parking lot and, you know, vend. Even thornier is the question of where the carts can park, an issue the Denver Cupcake Truck — which seeks to plunk down in the heart of downtown Denver, where it's mostly illegal to do so due to zoning requirements — recently brought to City Council seeking change.
In response, the Council formed a task force, headed by Councilor Carla Madison, to review, and possibly rewrite, city code. Unfortunately, Madison died on April 5, leaving the task force, and the downtown fate of entities like the Denver Cupcake Truck, in limbo.
Blowing up ...
The truck scene in Colorado Springs has not yet emerged as a hot-button issue: Most of the 90 local outfits listed by the El Paso County Health Department are pretty small-time affairs that rarely come out to play.
But the number of legitimate entrepreneurs is growing. On the Web and in social media, you can follow the travels of players such as Linda Keller's Crepe Crusaders (crepecrusaders.com), Liz Rosenbaum's comfort-food-laden Her Story Cafe (herstorycafe.com) and Robert Montoya's Fill Ur Belly Korean barbecue truck (twitter.com/fillurbelly5). Or you can keep your eyes open at festivals and large, park-based events, or even just scan parking lots — especially in the southeast part of town, where a lot of the city's mobile Mexican outfits hang out (see "Taco Supreme," May 6, 2010).
To operate here, they have to follow a number of regulations, including paying for a $100 peddler's license, refraining from vending in residential areas before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., and announcing wares no "louder than a natural tone or in any manner which creates a nuisance."
"There's a lot of hoops to jump through," says Crepe Crusaders owner Linda Keller, adding that she generally likes the tight regulations, because it keeps a few bad apples from ruining the scene for the rest.
But one that's caused some consternation here is similar to the most controversial of Denver's rules. No vendor can sell in "any loading zone, fire lane, alley or metered parking space (regardless of hours of meter operation and enforcement)."
"And where are the meters?" asks Mike Bergman, co-owner of the Springs Cupcake Truck (thespringscupcaketruck.com). "They're at the core."
Bergman's closer to this issue than most, because his mobile (nickname: Coco), has family ties to the Denver Cupcake Truck. Denver's Cake Crumbs bakery bakes the cupcakes for both trucks, and is owned by his niece.
A longtime restaurateur, Bergman says Colorado Springs government has actually been great at helping get the truck set up and licensed. But having to steer Coco away from meters has been a bit of a hassle. And there are other restrictions that code enforcement officers can't really follow, like things related to wastewater disposal, or whether a truck has been in a single location for longer than 30 minutes.
"It would take inspectors running around trying to find everybody," Bergman says. "So, that's not happening."
For what it's worth, Bergman says he typically follows the rules. And the business is doing fine: Its Facebook page is liked by more than 2,000 people, and it sells some thousand cupcakes every four days, at $2.75 each.
... and pop!
Another wild card in the food-truck game, of course, is competition. Twice, Bergman has been asked to leave an area by local businesses, a sentiment he understands ... sort of.
"Well, you know, I own Mediterranean Café," he says. "I was the first Mediterranean place downtown, and then there were five. I didn't tell anybody, 'You can't open stuff, or do anything.' It's just kind of funny."
As of now, however, at least the trucks themselves aren't actually fighting each other for business. That kind of situation — which has played out somewhat within the Springs' fast-growing community of medical marijuana centers — has actually evolved already in big-city truck scenes. An owner in Los Angeles recently told the L.A. Times that the city has "ended up with 15 so-so trucks parked on Mid-Wilshire [Boulevard], the city unhappy, a mediocre food product and all the truck owners cannibalizing each other's business."
Unsurprisingly, a bit of a backlash has ensued. Bon Appétit recently asked, "Isn't it time to send these gastronomic nomads back to the garage?"
"I think that the truck scene will eventually edit itself a bit," the Post's Shaw assures. "[Denver's] in danger of a food-truck bubble, [though] not as nuts as Portland: trucks all over the place, changing hands by the days, huge blogs devoted to them, et cetera."
It is, indeed, "nuts." Willamette Week reports that more than 600 carts make up Portland's scene, and that they often cluster in pods to rent spaces together by the month.
Now, if that's what a bubble looks like, more than a few of us might be willing to risk the "pop." Even Ron Butlin, head of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership and a guy the local mobile owners wouldn't mind in their corner, can envision at least one such pod — if only to draw people downtown, where they'll also presumably support the brick-and-mortar establishments that pay city, and district improvement, taxes.
"I just don't yet know, or understand, how it might work in our town," Butlin says. "I'm looking at the idea of maybe a food truck area; maybe there's an area around Acacia Park where the trucks can park, and that's the approved location, and I think that'd be awesome.
"We just need it to be balanced and fair."