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Food Trucks Forage for a Place to Park

Boise street eateries make a BID to move downtown, open pods

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On a late summer evening, a glint of light shot through the parking lot across from the Modern Hotel. A tiny disco ball was dangling from Everett Beck and Brandon Alegria's miniature food truck, The Shack, scattering beams of light with each small sigh of wind. Alegria passed a duck confit taco--tender shreds of duck, paper thin radish coins, cilantro and crumbles of cotija all cradled in a corn tortilla--through the trailer's small window. At almost midnight, it was the best after-bar snack around. But The Shack was blocks away from any other bars.

Beck and Alegria built their trailer to meet city of Boise hot dog cart specifications, intending to park the tiny food truck on an authorized street vending medallion in the heart of downtown, where they would feed a bar crowd wary of wieners and greasy slices. But city regulations wouldn't allow it.

"So the box itself is 9-feet by 5-feet by 7-feet, but they don't allow anything to be on the ground--like your generator or your propane tanks--so we built a little hitch on the side of it to hold our generator and our gas tank," said Alegria. "Because it was 3 feet longer than 9 feet, it just wasn't allowed. ... They said, 'It's not the same as a hot dog stand, basically, something that you can push around by yourself.'"

Because the city has banned food trucks from parking within the Business Improvement District--an area that spans from Fifth to 13th streets and State to Myrtle streets--Beck and Alegria were relegated to serving their eclectic eats--like poutine with pepper gravy and risotto tots with a tomato ragu--on the edges of downtown. By late summer, after struggling to make ends meet, the duo sold the truck (somewhat ironically) to a hot dog vendor from Seattle and found jobs in the service industry.

"It's a bummer, but we just weren't making enough money supporting ourselves with the whole food truck thing, so we kind of needed to sell it to make some kind of profit. ... I'm not going to blame it on the whole 'we couldn't be downtown' thing, but certain areas just really weren't about our kind of food, so it was difficult to really find a secure location where we were making enough money," said Alegria.

Boise's Downtown Improvement District, from which food trucks are barred from parking--unless it's on private property. - DOWNTOWNBOISE.ORG
  • downtownboise.org
  • Boise's Downtown Improvement District, from which food trucks are barred from parking--unless it's on private property.

Beck and Alegria aren't the only ones lamenting these regulations.

"A lot of the customers that visit these food trucks, whether it's mine or someone else's, they complain that they ... go out on Saturday night, walk back out of the bars, and all they've got is hot dog carts," said Shane Anderson, owner of Cacicia's Cucinas Old World Sicilian Foods. "So it's very inconvenient for them to have to walk three blocks to hopefully find a truck. Most trucks don't waste our time because we figure three blocks away from it all, they're not going to get there. So that's very frustrating."

Brian Garrett, owner of Saint Lawrence Gridiron, agrees.

"I think it's silly; I think it's counterproductive," said Garrett. "Anything that works against pedestrian traffic in the downtown area works against the city as a whole."

According to Cece Gassner, assistant for economic development at the city of Boise, the ban on food trucks parking in the downtown BID was put into place in the early 2000s.

"It was sometime around 2002 or 2003 when the prohibition of food trucks in the BID came about. My understanding is that it came about from two things: One, some complaints from restaurants about having the food trucks parking in the BID in front of the restaurants or in places where they were taking up parking spots for patrons, but also because there were a couple of food trucks that were really flouting parking laws," said Gassner. "They would pull into some spaces at 9 a.m. and they wouldn't move until 1 or 2 p.m., and they figured it was worth the tickets. At some point, City Council just said, 'Enough is enough.'"

But during the past decade, the food truck climate has changed drastically. TV shows like The Great Food Truck Race and Eat St. have helped glamorize the humble roach coach, while food truck pioneers like Roy Choi of Los Angeles' Kogi BBQ Taco Truck have imbued street food with an epicurean flair. Today, food trucks are as integral a part of a city's thriving culinary culture as brick-and-mortar restaurants.

So in the spring of 2013, Gassner organized a meeting to discuss changing Boise's downtown food truck regulations.

"I did meet with food truck owners and I did meet with some private restaurant owners just to get a sense of what everybody was thinking about the issue," said Gassner. "One thing to note: Food trucks can be in the BID if they're on private property, so if someone owns a private lot and you get permission from that person, that's fine. We can't really prohibit that, so it's just parking on the street right now that's prohibited."

Gassner said the conversation focused on finding a way to allow food trucks downtown without offending nearby restaurants.

"It's trying to find that right balance between bringing in the food trucks and also recognizing that investment that a lot of restaurant owners have made in their brick-and-mortar shops. ... The food trucks very much tend to understand the whole issue of parking right in front of a restaurant, that it's sort of disrespectful and maybe against protocol in the restaurant world," said Gassner. "But then you get into, 'Well, how do we put that into the ordinance? And we're not trying to create an unwieldy ordinance to enforce."

Archie's Place owner Jason Farber has an agreement with Pre Funk Beer Bar to park in its lot--which hovers just inside the Business Improvement District at 11th and Front streets--a couple of days a week. But Farber doesn't think it would benefit downtown restaurants if the city just "opened the floodgates and let everyone in."

"Brick-and-mortar places, they pay for their spots and they can't move and we can, so I think that it would be rude of us to park in front of a restaurant," said Farber. "But I can't see that everyone would abide by just a commonsense idea."

However, Cameron Lumsden, owner of downtown restaurants Fork and Alavita, doesn't believe it would be a problem.

"We are an advocate of allowing the food trucks to park downtown," wrote Lumsden in an email. "We do think it would provide a vibrancy to downtown. We do not think the food trucks would negatively impact our restaurants as it is two completely different 'diners.' One is looking for more of 'sustenance on the go' and the other is looking for more of a full-service dining experience--with an adult libation, potentially."

But downtown isn't the be-all and end-all location for food trucks. To be successful, Farber said trucks also need to think outside the BID.

"I think that some of them hold that downtown area as kind of the Holy Grail of what you need to be in to make it in the business," said Farber. "But as some of the older ones have found out, you don't have to be downtown to do a good business. I think that you have to be willing to do some catering; I think you have to be willing to think outside the box and to fill up your calendar and be as busy as you need to be."

As some of Boise's more successful food trucks have discovered, events and caterings are often much more reliable--and much more lucrative--than the park-and-sell model.

Calle 75 Street Tacos, which is opening a brick-and-mortar outpost in the Village at Meridian, bases most of its business around events. For the past few years, the cart has slung its grass-fed carne asada tacos at the Capital City Public Market and the recently shuttered East End Market at Bown Crossing, as well as at farmers markets in Hailey and Ketchum.

"We probably do more events, as many or more, than any food truck in the area. ... March through November of last year we did 137 events," said Calle 75 co-owner Mike Weems.

But not all events are worth the effort. Anderson of Cacicia's Cucinas, which is also opening a space in the Village at Meridian, said he considers a number of factors before he agrees to do an event.

"When you plan an event, a truck owner is looking for a headcount. It has to be worth our time. ... We've got gas that has to be covered, so there's minimums," said Anderson. "Then when you do the multiple trucks, you want to plan your cuisine accurately. You don't want to see [the same] cuisine off of a couple of different trucks."

But there's one local event that most food trucks won't turn down: the Food Truck Rally. Started by Payette Brewing's Sheila Francis in 2011, the rally features a rotating assortment of trucks that gather in a different location each month. While the rally has earned a reputation for large crowds and long lines, Francis said it's difficult to strike the right balance between the number of trucks and the number of attendees.

"We get over 500 people consistently and it's between seven to nine trucks every time. ... It's one of the things I struggle with the most because I want people to have a big enough selection of food and the lines to be manageable, yet if I have too many trucks, each truck has to be able to cover their overhead as well as make a profit--they are a business," said Francis. "So I have a dual responsibility there, which can be very challenging."

The Food Truck Rally has become so popular, in fact, that there were two rallies in December: one at the Eagle Sports Complex on Dec. 14 and the other at the North End Organic Nursery on Dec. 15.

Francis hopes that the momentum from these events will spur the creation of a more permanent food truck gathering place--or pod.

"I think the Food Truck Rally is kind of a testament that there's power in numbers," said Francis. "I think it would be useful to have a pod and I think it would help all of the food trucks out a lot."

Food truck pods are already commonplace in cities like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. In addition to offering a centralized street eats space for consumers, pods also provide basic infrastructure like picnic tables, lighting, bathrooms and sometimes even stages for live entertainment.

Calle 75's Weems tried to spearhead the creation of a pod in the empty lot at 15th and Bannock streets last spring, but the idea was put on the back burner as he moved into his busy season.

"We had two or three meetings with basically a group of the food trucks that all started together. ... Everybody's on board and excited to do it, but nobody really has that time to organize it. ... It's not that we're letting that go, it's just that we're trying to figure out a foundation for it and probably somebody that would actually manage it. Everybody was kind of looking at me to figure a lot of stuff out."

Weems thinks some sort of overarching food truck organization--like a food truck alliance--would help bring the pod concept to fruition. It could also help the trucks band together and advocate for access to the downtown core.

"I do feel strongly about [food trucks] moving into the downtown core in some way, shape or form," said Saint Lawrence Gridiron's Garrett. "I feel like regulation can be a positive thing for that. I'm not saying it should be renegade, park-wherever-you-want, serve-whatever-you-want kind of thing. But I think Boise's ready for it, I think the food trucks are ready for it, and I think it would be wise for the city to kind of come on board with it and allow the trucks into the downtown area."

According to Gassner, the city is on board.

"We have been taking a look at, and are still considering, a potential pilot program that could allow us to have certain zones where we say, 'In this block or half block, for these food trucks to be able to come in, you still have to pay attention to the parking laws, but it might be allowed here.'"

But when Gassner didn't hear back from the food trucks after their meeting last spring, she tabled the discussion.

"I hadn't heard from them in a while and I just thought, 'Well, maybe they aren't interested,'" said Gassner. "But if they are saying that they're interested in potentially examining that, then it's really just a matter of my taking a look at it again and bringing it back to mayor and Council to say, 'Is this something that you may be interested in discussing further?'"

Garrett, who's closing his truck to open a full-fledged restaurant in the former Redheaded Finn space this March, thinks allowing food trucks downtown will lead to a more lively city center.

"Urban cores live and die with pedestrian traffic so anything that draws people to the streets is good for the city," said Garrett. "And I think I'll stand by that, even as a brick-and-mortar restaurant operation."

Gassner is also eager to see the effect food trucks might have on the vibrancy of downtown.

"I personally don't see where it would detract from downtown. It will just be interesting to watch to see exactly how it might change things," said Gassner. "I always think having different kinds of competition and different options makes for a better downtown, so I guess we'll see what the effect might be."