Thursday, April 22, 2010

putting the brakes on food trucks

Last Saturday marked the return of Fenton Street Market, a flea market that opened on an underused parking lot in Silver Spring's Fenton Village. It proves that you don't need much to create a place that people like to visit and spend time in. With so many other empty parking lots in Silver Spring and throughout the region, it seems like we should find more ways to reuse the space. For instance, putting food trucks on them.

Fenton Street Market, October 3 (2)
Fenton Street Market uses an empty parking lot in Silver Spring.

Food trucks have been around for a while, whether as the humble workplace "roach coach" or selling pupusas and tacos in immigrant enclaves like Langley Park. But there's also a growing "gourmet street food" across the country, in which cooks use trucks as a way to experiment with investing in a full kitchen.

Here in the District, you've probably seen eaten the Fojol Bros.' "Merlindian" cuisine. Meanwhile, Los Angelenos are chasing after Korean-Mexican fusion dishes served by Koji BBQ. These trucks are mobile, forbidden by law to stay in one place for too long - and that's fine when you're in a city with lots of dense, busy neighborhoods to hop between.

In small towns, on college campuses, and in suburban areas, trucks don't have the luxury of moving. That's when food truck courts make sense: instead of going to the hungry, the hungry come to you.

Portland Food Carts (2)
Food carts on an empty parking lot in downtown Portland.

My first encounter with a food truck court was at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey following an a cappella competition last spring. Amidst the bars and frat houses of Rutgers' student ghetto was a faculty parking lot given over to the Grease Trucks, a cluster of food carts that's become a school institution. Here's what I wrote about them in the U-Md. Diamondback:

The place was mobbed by students at 1 a.m., drunk and hungry for sandwiches with names such as "Fat Bitch." Picnic tables were set up for eating, and an adjacent bus stop brought in a constant stream of kids going to and from the fraternity parties a block away . . .

It wasn't just the food they serve - so-called "fat" sandwiches containing various combinations of chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries and sauces - or the fact that all this can be had (with a drink) for roughly $6 . . . The grease trucks were Rutgers' town square, a marketplace for midnight munchies, a very simple measure that turns an otherwise unassuming parking lot into a makeshift gathering place for college students.

Food Carts Outside Penn Hospital
Food trucks arranged in a cart at the University of Pennsylvania.

You'll find food truck courts in Philadelphia's University City, clustered around the campuses of Penn and Drexel. Empty parking lots in Downtown Los Angeles recently gave way to the city's first street food fair, managed by the nascent SoCal Mobile Food Vendors' Association. And even in rainy Portland, multiple food truck courts have appeared on parking lots throughout the city - so many that there's even a blog documenting them.

Food trucks are rarely pretty, relying on cheap, portable materials like folding chairs and collapsible awnings to do their business. But they provide a number of important functions. They give entrepreneurs a way to open shop with little overhead. That keeps prices low, encouraging experimentation while making the food more accessible to customers. (In Portland, you can get a five-course Indian meal from a truck for $6.)

Portland Food Carts
Gathering on the sidewalk outside Portland food carts.

In a court, food trucks become a social space, not just a quick lunch. Combine them with other uses, like the bus stop adjacent to Rutgers' Grease Trucks, and you have a community center.

This may not work everywhere. Food truck courts need at least some foot traffic - after all, if you're using a parking lot, where would customers put their cars? - so they should be in fairly dense places that people are going to anyway, and hopefully those place will have their own parking. Fenton Street Market is adjacent to dozens of established stores and restaurants all of which provide customers for each other and share public parking lots that have their own share of empty spaces.

We devote a surprising amount of land in East County, and across the region as a whole, to parking lots that are never fully used. We also have a dearth of places to hang out and, despite the economic recession, a dearth of affordable retail space for people with goods to sell. Food trucks seem like a way to kill two birds with one stone. They don't always move, but they're a great way to export different cultures, drive new ideas, and bring people together.


Critically Urban said...

I went to Penn for undergrad, and food trucks are a staple on campus, though oddly not as much in Center City where most are simply glorified hot dog stands as they used to be in DC. There's only one food truck "court" at Penn and it has just 2 or 3 trucks. It's located between Pottruck Fitness Center (the gym) and a parking garage on Walnut Street. The rest of the trucks are scattered along 38th and Spruce Streets.

Unknown said...

Temple Had better food coming out of panal vans than it did brick and mortar joints. Just visit the Creperie truck and you will know what I mean. They have cafe seating too.