In its July issue, Food & Wine magazine named Roy Choi one of the country’s 10 best new chefs for 2010. Choi lives and works in Los Angeles, where he is famous for his Korean tacos. What distinguishes Choi from the other nine chefs on the illustrious list is that, until recently, none of Choi’s eateries had permanent addresses. The 39-year-old chef serves his 66,186 hungry Twitter followers from four Kogi Korean BBQ trucks that cruise the streets of L.A. To keep up with the demand, Choi opened Chego, a brick-and-mortar restaurant in West L.A.
Selling gourmet food from customized trucks is one of the hottest trends in the restaurant business. Mobile restaurants journey all over the cities of Los Angeles; Portland; Austin; New York; and Washington, D.C. I’m not talking roach coaches, those well-stocked catering trucks with pre-packaged food that pull up to construction sites. I’m talking about trucks shaped like pigs selling spicy pork sandwiches or a retrofitted purple double-decker bus (busteraunt) selling chicken curry from the bottom windows and offering table seating on top.
When I heard that several well-known restaurateurs and caterers were gearing up to go mobile in downtown Dallas, Uptown, and the Park Cities, I got excited. But the few I contacted would talk about their ventures only if I didn’t use their names. They were afraid that any progress they’d already made getting their businesses going would be halted if they spoke out about how complex and frustrating the process has been. Several had a difficult time “jumping through the hoops and roadblocks” and navigating the maze of bureaucracy that includes the Dallas’ Health Department, parking and code restrictions, and vendor registration requirements. One high-profile entrepreneur who has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the research and design of three truck concepts says, “How about you just write you can’t do them in Dallas? You can’t park a 14- to 17-foot truck at a metered parking spot or take up more than one parking space in downtown. And to make it even more complicated, there is not a law on the books in Dallas that says you cannot be in the Central Business District, but there is not one that says you can.”
Besides the meter restrictions, the zoning code prohibits mobile hot food trucks in the CBD. Noncooking food trucks must possess a written agreement from the property owner to sell, which isn’t hard if it’s a construction site filled with hungry workers. And the trucks can’t stay for more than an hour. (L.A. had a similar rule in 2008, forcing trucks to move every hour or face a $1,000 fine and jail time, but it was later rescinded.) The city of Dallas requires trucks to have a “fixed food products establishment” or commissary that is licensed and inspected by city inspectors. A truck owner must also obtain a mobile food permit, a fire inspection permit, and a registered food service manager.
According to Chauncy Williams, a supervisor in the Department of Code Compliance Services Restaurant and Bar Inspections Division of the city of Dallas, a food entrepreneur can’t use any type of converted vehicle. “We’ve had people come in with school buses that want to have that kind of operation,” Williams says. “But we don’t allow that. There are only certain manufacturers of that type of vehicle that are permitted.”
One would think that relaxing the codes in Dallas to encourage street vending would already be a priority. Currently 130,000 people work in the Central Business District and surrounding area, and a little more than 40,000 live there. Dallas has DART (ride and walk to work!) and the Arts District (stroll from dinner to a show!). Soon we’ll have The Park, a public green space over Woodall Rodgers Freeway to provide pedestrians a pleasant pathway from Uptown to downtown. Doesn’t it make sense to give them another reason—good street food—to hit the pavement?
“I’m not sure I want to see hot trucks parking on downtown streets blocking all of the storefronts and taking up parking spots for retail shoppers,” says Jim Wood, director of planning, transportation, and development for Downtown Dallas, an organization created to “stimulate a vibrant and sustainable downtown environment.” “If you are parking a vehicle that takes up two parking spaces, you are denying places for retail shoppers to go into a fixed business or restaurant. You are taking away a valuable asset downtown.”
It’s hard to imagine, say, a ceviche bus parked on Ross, ruining the business at Stephan Pyles. And Wood’s argument doesn’t seem to jibe with the hundreds of food trucks that roam larger cities such as Los Angeles and New York selling cupcakes, jerk chicken, crepes, barbecue, grass-fed beef burgers, escargot, and crème brûlée. So far, I’ve found only one “gourmet” food truck in Dallas that has successfully negotiated the bureaucratic maze and opened for business. The Green House Truck is owned by first-time restaurateur Michael Siegel and cheffed by long-time Food Company caterer Ben Hutchison. Siegel spent a lot of time in L.A. following various food trucks. He wanted to lead the way here, to enhance the experience of eating from a food truck in Dallas, so he hired a respected chef and developed a healthy, local, chef-driven menu designed to attract hungry foodies to follow him via Twitter.
The Green House Truck made its Dallas debut not in the downtown area but in University Park, where he got permission from the jeweler deBoulle to park in its lot. “Thanks for a great first day!” he tweeted on March 18. Then on April 26: “The truck’s been busy since the launch, thanks to all of our great fans. In for a tune-up/power upgrade.”
Since then, Siegel’s restaurant has been in the shop. “The biggest problem to date has been the actual engine and truck components,” Siegel says. “It’s a 1984 truck pulling the load around town.” However, Siegel has tweaked his original concept of swinging around town. “My goal is for anyone to know where we will be without having to consult a computer,” he says. “That means keeping a fixed schedule.”
Perhaps that’s a reasonable solution for Dallas. It has certainly worked for Roy Choi. His website lists specific days, times, and locations for each of his trucks. Of course, this can work only if the city of Dallas loosens up the parking and vending codes. Then it would be easier for spirited street vendors and innovative food trucks to enliven our urban environment and create sidewalks where people can bounce off of independent entrepreneurs along the way.
Is there hope for Dallas? “We’ve sent suggestions to the city staff and are working to get sufficient public input to get a Council committee to agree to changes,” says Wood, who thinks food trucks could work in parts of downtown, like the Arts District.
A funky busteraunt here and a gelato vendor there would increase revenue and business downtown, not take away from existing businesses. The laid-back attitudes in New York and Los Angeles have shown that a nationally recognized chef like Roy Choi can serve Korean tacos in a truck without leaving a trail of dead restaurants in his path. It’s time to get on the bus.
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