Food Cart-ography: Boise's Street Food Business 

What's all the foodie rage across the nation is a near no-show in Boise but that might be changing

Two months ago, a few paces north of the intersection where Franklin and Curtis roads meet, an abandoned white truck was parked on a sliver of asphalt between the back of a gas station and railroad tracks overgrown with weeds. The vehicle looked like a cross between an old moving van and an old pickup hauling an oversized camper, but it was obvious from the signage that the truck had one very specific purpose: It was a food truck. Large, black lettering arching over a small red and green flag read "Portuguese BBQ Sandwiches" and around back were a couple of old, green vinyl bus seats and a glass-covered patio table.

At first glance, it wasn't clear whether the truck had been there an afternoon or the better part of a year. Nor was it clear, whether the truck was open for business. Though a bright red sign under the windows identified the truck as for sale by owner, a dim porch light glowed in mid-afternoon. The Portuguese Lunch Wagon was once the joint venture of Craig Row and John Lopes. After a six-month run selling sandwiches, Row and Lopes said the economy and the cold Boise winter weather got the best of them. It took them almost as long to sell the truck as they were in business.

Food trucks and carts, especially those with a narrow culinary focus like that of Portuguese Lunch Wagon, are the foodie world's hottest potatoes these days. From the cart-based Belgian waffle makers on the streets of Brussels to the propane tank and card table set ups on the streets of Bangkok to the artisan ice cream and taco trucks jostling for space in Brooklyn, street food--any food that's not prepared or served from a brick and mortar establishment--is globally ubiquitous. And food trucks and carts in the United States, with their fancy-food meets throwback approach to delivery, are suddenly pop culture's biggest food thing.

Blogs, television shows and books now dish on food truck and food cart culture all over the country. In August, Food Network launched its first season of the Great Food Truck Race, an elimination-style reality show in which seven food truck teams competed in six cities across the country. In an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen last season, chefs competed against one another in a food truck challenge. After a revolution of sorts in street food culture in Portland, Ore., residents Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy recently published Cartopia: Portland's Foodcart Revolution, detailing the city's robust street-food culture. And if you find yourself in Los Angeles on a Sunday with a hankering for Filipino breakfast with a twist or red velvet and chocolate chip pancake bites, you can log onto a half-dozen websites like foodtrucksmap.com, where you'll find an interactive map plotted with daily updates on food truck hours and whereabouts for not only Los Angeles but also Portland, Ore., New York City, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Having definitively usurped both bacon and cupcakes in the limelight, suddenly it seems like food trucks are everywhere where food matters.

Think food cart in Boise and one raucous scene comes immediately to mind: the young and inebriated who gather on weekend nights a week at Sixth and Main streets for hot dogs and Philly sandwiches after a night of partying. In years past, the food cart choices were more varied, the crowds far thicker and the tendency for booze-fueled fights too tough for many to resist. In an effort to thin crowds, prevent fights and free up sidewalks choked with 2 a.m. revelers, the City of Boise reworked the street vendor code, cutting down the number of carts in the area by requiring vendors to be located at "identified vending locations" demarcated by small sidewalk medallions. A limited number of medallions meant a limited number of vendors, all of whom were spaced out to prevent crowding.

Judging solely by the popularity of late-night street food downtown, it seems as though demand exists in Boise for food carts, trucks and trailers. Online discussions about Boise's food scene often lament the lack of street food options, and in some circles, pining for Portland's food truck revolution to spread to Boise is as common as it is to pine for Boise's local music scene to take a cue from Portland. Despite all that, Boise seems to be sitting this food fad out. City ordinances and state codes are easy scapegoats, but as some suggest, the trend is a perfect-storm result of economic, cultural and lifestyle factors--factors that haven't congealed in the same way in Boise as they have in cities where street food is more popular.

For Row and Lopes, the economy wasn't the only killer for business. The pair also cite Boise's winter climate and concede that perhaps, too, it was their choice of location. Maybe somebody else can do it there and have a good business, they said.

True enough, their small lot alongside congested Curtis Road likely didn't draw many pedestrian visitors. However, 500 yards away, just south of Franklin Road on the same side of Curtis as the lunch wagon is another food truck, Tacos Mobile Primo. In the vast, mostly vacant lot of a run-down shopping center, Tacos Mobile Primo might be that corner's biggest draw.

Tacos Mobile Primo is Jonathan Sadler's favorite taco truck. Sadler blogs about taco trucks at Taco Trucks Idaho. A photographer and photography teacher at Boise State, Sadler's blog gained popularity almost as much for its "in-the-know" content as it did for the simple photos Sadler posted--like the hunger-inducing shot of bright red hot sauce splattered over the creamy green avocado slices of a tostada or the forlorn and distant picture of a long, white passenger bus parked among dead brush and painted with the word "Tacos."

Sadler, who's originally from northern California and moved to Boise from Chicago four years ago, began blogging about Idaho's taco trucks in 2008.

"To me, it's some of the best food you can get in the Boise area," said Sadler about taco trucks.

At first, Sadler kept things local on his blog. As his options grew slimmer, he ventured beyond the Treasure Valley, most recently to Portland and New York City. It's a change brought about by the fact that Sadler has documented nearly all of the area's taco trucks but also because that he no longer eats meat and has never been able to eat beans. A recent post was a note to entrepreneurs, urging someone to explore vegetarian fare at taco trucks. In another recent post, spurred by our conversation, Sadler deviated from taco trucks to revive the idea of a truck serving wood-fired pizzas or handmade donuts.

Though he's but one voice, Sadler's blog sums up mobile food options in Boise: Taco trucks--good taco trucks--abound; anything more creative might be wishful thinking.

One name Sadler does drop, whom he says he has not tried but whom he has heard good things about, is "the Saladman."

Chris the Saladman, aka Chris Olson, is a new food option on a mid-section of State Street. He's also one of the longest-running street food vendors in Boise.

Olson, a veteran of the Boise food business, has long been a fan of the mobile restaurant. In 1975, he ran one of several TJ's Yankee Dog carts--the same TJ's that still sells hot dogs in downtown Boise during lunch. When he lived in Los Angeles, he ate at the same taco truck nearly every day. In the mid-80s, Olson started selling restaurant food equipment and in 1999 opened Chris the Saladman.

After more than a decade building his popular salads out of a food truck, Olson finally made the decision to sell his truck and move his Chris the Saladman gig permanently and entirely into a trailer. The truck, which was usually parked at 12th and Bannock streets downtown, or sometimes on 13th Street where the road bends near the Boise River, was Olson's day-to-day kitchen. The trailer, which he pulled behind a truck, was his kitchen for special events like the Western Idaho Fair, Art in the Park and Hyde Park Street Fair. Recently, Olson accepted the fact that the truck had never equaled the success of the trailer, so he sold it and turned his trailer into his everyday workspace.

Now, his trailer's semi-permanent home is a rented space in an unpaved parking lot on State Street, and it hasn't moved since Olson parked it there last November. He erected a large, heated event tent with tables to serve as a makeshift dining room well-equipped for Idaho's winter weather. He also posted large signs advertising his business to the traffic moving swiftly past. According to Olson, the move has been good--business is booming.

"I'm doing at least 25 to 40 percent more a day here than any of my days downtown," said Olson.

Ask him what accounts for that increase in business and he has some very definite opinions. Though he's quick to admit that location is everything in his business, he doesn't endorse his new State Street location as being somehow superior to his various downtown locations. At first glance, a high-traffic area difficult for both pedestrians and cars to access doesn't have many advantages over an area rife with pedestrians, most of whom are in search of lunch fare and many of whom want something healthy to take back to their offices. According to Olson, the difference isn't necessarily the location. It's the wheels--or the lack of wheels, in the case of his trailer.

One of Olson's regular downtown locations when he was in his truck was outside of the Supreme Court building on the eastern end of State Street.

"I sat by the Supreme Court everyday for a year and a half, and the same lady walked by everyday and wouldn't even talk to me. She'd walk back by with a salad everyday," said Olson.

The problem, said Olson: the fact that he was in a truck.

"Some people just will not eat out of those trucks," he said frankly. And yet, according to Olson, those same people are the first to line up in front of his trailer at events like Art in the Park or the Western Idaho Fair because his is one of the few healthy options.

Truck, trailer, tomato, tomahto, some might say. In fact, in a business in which so much is dependent on location, it's almost counterintuitive to think of wheels as a disadvantage. If one location doesn't work, simply pick up and test out another.

But if location is so important and the structure from which food is served is a deciding factor for many consumers, clearly success is dependent on more than finding the right corner or concealing a trailer's wheels.

Food Network star Tyler Florence, host of the network's Great Food Truck Race, cites the economy as the reason street food is booming in many cities. In August he told Entertainment Weekly that chefs who were finding it difficult to finance start-up costs for a brick-and-mortar restaurant due to the economic downturn began to see the low financial barrier to food trucks as an easily accessible way to enter the market.

At the same time, consumers wanted well-priced food, and while they were willing to sacrifice a dining room, they weren't willing to sacrifice quality.

Where they exist in large numbers, food trucks offer widely varying fare and have become an economical way for chefs--and in particular young chefs--to show off their skills without having to work under a more established chef in a traditional restaurant. And as much as they have opened doors for chefs, so, too, have they opened doors for diners, who might not otherwise be able to patronize a restaurant with menu items like escargot, pork belly or beef cheeks.

Furthering the idea of a revolution born of circumstance--one that naturally lends itself to exciting culinary interactions with fewer barriers--was yet one more necessary factor in the perfect-storm set: the rise of social media. While adventurous food at the right price put together by Le Cordon Bleu trained chefs is tempting in itself, success still rests upon customers actually finding a street truck or trailer, particularly in car-dependent towns like Los Angeles--which is among the cities leading the food truck craze in America. Social media gives street food vendors without physical addresses an avenue to directly and cheaply reach a market without having to rely on pedestrian happenstance or traditional advertising.

Back in the spring of 2009, just as the economy was really taking a turn south and Twitter was making its initial push into every aspect of modern life, one Los Angeles food truck was making headlines for its success thanks to social media. Kogi BBQ, a Korean-Mexican food truck, was drawing so many customers through Twitter, the line was often more than an hour long. Just last summer, Kogi's chef, Roy Choi, who trained at New York's Culinary Institute of America, became the first chef ever without a brick-and-mortar restaurant to make Food and Wine Magazine's coveted Best New Chefs list.

Today, Twitter has become such a driving force in the street food business that one need only search #foodtruck on the social media site to instantly access any serious street food scene in major American cities.

Search #foodtruck in Boise, and the results are bleak. Bleaker still is the absence of a Roy Choi figure in Boise's street food scene. But without serious interest from Boise diners, local chefs aren't racing to get into the street food biz. And without pro-chefs behind street food menus, Boise diners may never get that push to take a serious interest in what people like Olson have to offer.

However, all that may be about to change. On March 14, chef/owner Dustan Bristol at Brick 29 in Nampa confirmed that he and sous chef Greg Lamm were within days of purchasing a food truck. The pair hope to open B29 in Boise in the coming weeks.

"It's totally hot, and it makes total sense," said Bristol about the food truck business. "It's low build-out, low staff, it's genius. It can be anywhere where the masses are."

B29's menu will be reminiscent of Brick 29's hyper-local, "comfort food reinvented" approach but will have truck-specific items that play on the B29 bomber association.

"I can't wait to get into it," Bristol said of the street food business. "I can't wait to do kick-ass pulled pork sliders, chicken confit, pumpkin bisque."

Based on the menu alone, it's clear that Bristol and Lamm get the reasons why food trucks have taken off in other cities. They're taking fine comfort food, created by trained chefs, to the streets at a price few could scoff at--Bristol's chicken confit will be a mere $6.

What's more is they get the buzz. Though Bristol has a late-night location in mind, he says he's more interested in switching it up, forcing diners to be in the know to find B29. They'll rely on Twitter and that always-trending hashtag #foodtrucks to get the word out about their whereabouts.

Just as Bristol and Lamm seal the deal and prepare to launch B29, Bristol and his wife will head to San Francisco to make the rounds of food trucks. As for why they're not already more popular in Boise, Bristol doesn't know.

"I don't know why. The risk is less. It's a lot less start-up cost. It takes a lot less employees. It's a cash-only business. It doesn't make any sense why there aren't more," said Bristol.

But perhaps, with Bristol and Lamm blazing a trail for "the new food truck"--one that embraces culinary excellence on a budget and relies heavily on technology for marketing--the trend will start to take hold in Boise.

However, if Tyler Florence is right about economic factors being a primary driving force in the rise of food trucks, it may be that street food never really takes off here like it has elsewhere. Perhaps the cost of doing business in Boise is simply too cheap, relatively speaking, to make the investment in a truck worthwhile compared to a restaurant.

Michael Mohica, owner of Ono Hawaiian Cafe and Kanak Attack Catering, has been one of the only chefs so far to straddle both the brick-and-mortar and street-food sides of the restaurant business. Mohica, a Boise State culinary school graduate, started his career in catering. When people asked where they could get his Hawaiian food outside of catered events, Mohica purchased a trailer and, like Olson, started serving at park fairs. Eventually demand dictated he grow larger.

"We were open every weekend for different summer events, and people kept asking where to get our food, so we thought it was time to open a restaurant," said Mohica.

Comparing his brick-and-mortar business to his mobile business, Mohica said he loves the mobile business and even wishes Boise had a more robust food truck scene, but, he said, certain aspects are more difficult. For example, he pointed out, kitchen equipment is meant to be stable and traveling creates movement that's rough on equipment. Weather is always a factor. And after seven years in the mobile food business, Mohica has learned that grilling is a far better option than pan searing, for example, which he does much of in his restaurant.

Boise's weather is the first thing Sami Lauritsen talks about when asked about her years in the street food business. Lauritsen owns and operates Native Taters, a food trailer at the corner of Protest and Boise avenues. She's been serving comfort food--sandwiches, soups and salads--out of her trailer for the last four years.

"Business depends on the weather. If it's really cold or really hot or there's a change in the weather, it gets quiet," she said. And independent of the weather, said Lauritsen, business is just completely unpredictable--even on days when the weather isn't severe.

Aside from the weather, one thing she can't do much about is perception, particularly negative perception about food trailers.

"When we first started, I never saw a woman. A woman will not stop at a place like this," said Lauritsen. Before getting into the street food business, Lauritsen said her husband stopped at any food trailer he found, whereas she hadn't been likely to. After four years in business, she said only about a quarter of her customers are women. It's a perception that blogger Sadler touched on briefly as well, saying some people will not eat from a street food vendor because they're scared.

"My close friends and family realize it's good food, but I do have some friends who think, 'I don't know if I want to eat from a truck,'" he said. "But the great thing about a taco truck is that you can look inside and see how clean it is. There's more disclosure at a taco truck than at a real restaurant."

In Idaho, health regulations hold mobile food units to the same food storage and cleanliness standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Beyond state health statutes, city ordinances dictate where trucks and trailers, like carts, can park. In downtown, they cannot park within the core bordered by State and Myrtle streets between 11th and Fourth streets. Cities around the country are facing similar challenges with the rise in street food popularity. In Los Angeles, food trucks have drawn fire for disregarding parking laws. Chicago has yet to craft legislation that will allow food truck and trailer operators to actually cook food onsite. In Santa Rosa food trucks have been facing a ban after outcry from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners. Miami just instituted new rules on food truck permits. Seattle, which has few food trucks due to city restrictions, is looking to Portland--where city planners have embraced the street food scene as a means to achieving the city's livability goals--and may consider loosening restrictions to encourage business.

Here in Boise, the opening of B29 could signal the start of something new in the street food scene. In the meantime, business is running again in the old Portuguese Lunch Wagon, but this time the red and green lettering reads: "Maria's Mexican Food."

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