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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

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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.

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