It's been years since food trucks exploded onto the mainstream dining scene. Three years ago they were all the rage, spawning television shows, cook books, and festivals all over the country. In 2011 the Phoenix Street Food Coalition counted less than ten members; today there are more than 60 trucks in the group. And new trucks are applying every week.
But is this trend doomed? Can it really last in a city where summers mean 104 degree heat outside and temperatures as high as 150 inside a food truck? I set out to get some answers and an idea of what the future of street food might look like in the Valley.
"The novelty has definitely worn off," says Luncha Libre owner Kim Cobb, referring to general interest in food truck dining.
Kim and husband/chef Tim have been running their truck since November 2011 so they've seen the craze peak and then peter out. But that doesn't mean they're thinking of cutting out -- or going brick and mortar -- any time soon. Though Kim says they're not interested in opening a traditional restaurant, she also says they see the truck as a sustainable business.
That's because they're starting to shift their focus. The Cobbs will be spending the summer focusing on the catering side of their business. They recently acquired a kitchen space that will allow them to prep food outside of their truck. Doing so will allow them to set up and pack up faster, making Luncha Libre more efficient.
Michael Brown of Jamburritos is taking a similar approach. About a month ago he got a commissary space where he can prep and cook food off his truck. He's purchased a second trailer and is investing in rewrapping the original Jamburritos truck. He'll also be looking to break into the catering scene this summer (he even hired a catering sales manager), but is also planning to start breakfast service and is looking to open his first brick and mortar restaurant.
"Having been out here for almost four years, there are still many challenges," Brown admits. "But we're kind of like a sleeping giant."
Cobb agrees, saying food trucks still face problems with legal regulations, which often vary from city to city and make it difficult to do business is more than one part of town. The result is a fragmented food truck community, where business owners generally stick to food truck gatherings in one or two communities.
These types of food truck courts, weekly lunch stops, and other regularly scheduled events have been where Valley trucks have seen the most consistent success. Food Truck Friday at the Phoenix Public Market, one of the first weekly food truck courts, now feeds some 1,000 people a week, according to Brown.
Sure, a handful of chefs who started on the street food side have made it to brick-and-mortar success -- Jeff Kraus at Crepe Bar, Brad and Kat Moore at Sit...Stay, and Tim and MaryBeth Scanlon at Pizza People Pub.
But they're definitely the minority.
Brown tried to do a semi-permanent space on Roosevelt Row, but quit after just four months.
"I found that people don't really realize you're there," Brown says. "It's when you travel in numbers that you actually get business."
And he's not the only one who seems to be struggling with the transition. I've tried to dine at J-Licious Tasty Teazy Taqueria (a brick-and-mortar version of the J-Licious food truck) on three occasions, I've yet to actually see the restaurant open. Once I even called the restaurant, only to be told they "weren't sure" if they'd be open for lunch later that day.
Both Brown and Cobb say a more feasible future may lie in the type of semi permanent food truck locations, something along the lines of the food carts that have been so popular and successful in Portland. I agree.
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I don't see why cities wouldn't embrace building infrastructure that makes a place for street food. Parks designed with space for food trucks to park don't seem like a crazy idea in a city where space isn't exactly a limited resource.
I also hope to see more indoor markets that will capitalize on the fact that food trucks find strength in numbers. Ideally we would have a place that offers space not only for food trucks, but also for local food artisans who might not otherwise be able to afford a traditional storefront. It's not an original idea, in fact food halls have been taking off in other major American cities including Denver, New York, and Chicago.
Ok, so Phoenix may not be able to support anything as extravagant as Eatly or the giant food hall Anthony Bourdain has planned for New York, but something small and locally focused doesn't seem like that much of a stretch. Something like Union at the Biltmore, but food-focused and probably in a more approachable neighborhood.