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Culinary Discovery & Misadventures in the Ice Cream Capital of the World (Columbus)

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Street Meat Myths: An Editorial

Posted by cmh gourmand on January 11, 2012

Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed in this work are my own and should not be construed as the views of my friends, family, anyone who employs me or uses me as a consultant, current or ex-girlfriends, definitely anyone that dislikes me or the citizens of Singapore. The opinions are probably shared by my dog. My opinions are clearly well-reasoned, insightful and may be a staggering work of genius.

As for you as a reader of this blog, I know I am preaching to the choir.

Recently there was an article in The Columbus Dispatch about placing Food Trucks in Franklinton as a means to help grow an area of town looking for a boost and to create a few jobs. Neat idea, everyone wins. Hooray!

Well…no. There is a vocal minority in our city who have a deep-seated hatred for mobile food. There is also a sizeable apathetic majority who don’t care one way or the other.

This is not a surprise to me. I have encountered these concerns since 2009 when Andy, Bethia and I started the Taco Trucks Columbus website. From our perspective we were sharing a hidden part of Columbus culinary culture with the world. The number and the quality of Taco Trucks in Columbus sets our city apart from any city in the Midwest and most in the country. It has drawn nationwide attention. It puts Columbus on a map. It proves our city has diversity. The food is VERY good.

But to some people, this does not matter. Many detractors have never eaten at a Taco Truck yet they are fast to make all types of allegations about the legitimacy of these businesses. In my experience these accusations were often just thin veils for racism. Harsh words but true.

The non Taco Truck scene of Street Food is on the upswing in Columbus. We are looking at the sophomore year of the new wave of Mobile Fooders this spring. Even with the additional diversity to our Street Meats, there is still some strong negative feedback. The best example from last year involved Yerba Buena. This trailer is the mobile expansion of a very popular Venezulan restaurant called El Arepazo. The trailer set up on a vacant property in the middle of Clintonville with the permission of the property owner. It was enjoyed by the community. And then reports of complaints were forwarded by a Clintonville Area Commissioner. This came as a surpise by many in the neighborhood since north Clintonville has limited restaurant options and the food served by Yerba Buena was considered very good. There is some speculation that the “many” complaints came from one person. Considering I had a conversation about mobile food with the person speculated as the one man army of complaint generation before Yerba Buena hit the scene in Clintonville, I am inclined to agree that the concerns were single-minded….from a single person. Yerba Buena had to move to a less customer friendly location and due to less foot traffic, they has to shut down early for the season. This was a loss for Clintonville which has developed an under the radar mobile food scene. As a very interesting aside, I would like to point out that there has been a mobile food operation located at Blenheim and Indianola (in Clintonville) for over a decade. This operation (less than a mile from the original location of Yerba Buena) received no reports of complaints. Was Yerba Buena targeted? Maybe. An additional note. I live in Clintonville. My neighbors want mobile food since there are limited locations and opportunities to open traditional brick and mortar restaurants in our neighborhood.

Am I biased about this topic, absolutely, however, that does not negate my ability to use reason and good sense. I have been deeply invested in the world of mobile food for over two years. I know it is not a fad. It is a resurging style of business that is trending more now to the mainsteam due to a limping economy. Is Mobile Food good for our communities and our local economies? Yes. I say this without reluctance or reservation.

I now make a living by helping people start a mobile or non mobile food business. I see people literally everyday who have a dream and a desire to build something of their own. I get to help most of them do that. For many going mobile is the only way that can realize that dream. The costs to start a new brick and mortar restaurant are beyond the budgets of most of the 99% and too risky for most banks. I am a board member of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, I am not going to support anything to break a brick and mortar restaurant business. Mobile food is not a threat to brick and mortar businesses, in fact it can be a boon. Many established restaurants are looking for ways to make mobile work for them by having their own mobile operations. Columbus is considered by many to have one of the hottest food truck scenes this side of the Mississipi. As a city, we have the opportunity to support this concept and add it to the identity of Columbus. Unfortunately, there is a vocal minority who are not on board and seem intent on derailing any efforts to make our city a mobile food destination.

Mobile Food also allows a business person to take a risk on a menu concept or a part of town that no one else is willing or able to do. New businesses mobile or brick and mortar bring new life and vibrancy to forgotten parts of town. This is currently going on in Old Town East.


OK. Take a break and a stretch then come back to keep reading because I am just getting started.


Now back to The Columbus Dispatch article.

There were some supportive comments, but most were, well. read for yourself. I am copying the less inflammatory comments in italics and responding to and debunking each.

This should be combined with Coleman’s gang-control xbox events at the community centers. Park ‘em outside the rec centers and let everyone experience the brilliance that is Columbus. Seriously though, taco and fancy desert trucks parked in front of an empty ghetto store front aren’t about to attract many into the hoods – where do these people get these ideas…. and why is the Dispatch dumb enough to print them? oh that’s right, Portland did it!

Hmm, a new food concept attracting people to the hoods (or anywhere)? Could it happen? Yes. Once upon a time there was a place in Columbus called the Short North. In the 1980’s, it was a seedy part of town. A couple of businesses took a chance and planted roots along High Street. One of these pioneers was Rigsbys Kitchen. People came. The area grew. How did they attract people to this area? One idea was to have a Gallery Hop once per month. Other examples where mobile food has helped grow an area down on its luck: South Congress neighborhood of Austin, Texas, Oakland, California and Cleveland.

Hmm. New, independent food business sets up in a part of town coming off the skids, add some art and…..the Short North has a rebirth. Wacky, crazy. How could FOOD+ART=Progress?

“Portland did it!”
Yes they did and minus a few speed bumps its has worked well and added to the identity of the city. You know what else I want Columbus to steal from Portland….more bike lanes and microbreweries.

This is another way to blight an area. Food trucks come in and take business from brick and mortar eating establishments and some will go out of business. This is another bone head move. Don’t let it happen.

The people I have spoken with in Franklinton don’t share this view. There are limited dining options in Franklinton, especially on the evening and weekends. There is a need for more food choices and a desire to grow, nurture and support new, small independent businesses. I know and have spoken with two Franklinton area restaurant owners. They are not concerned about losing business to a food truck, they want more people to come to Franklinton…because they care about the community and have a desire to attract new customers as well. Statements about food trucks killing a brick and mortar restaurant are frequently made, but to date, I have yet to have anyone give me a real life example where this happened….anywhere.

What a moron idea that is. Is it art or food or what? Anyway it cheapens an area to see skanky taco trucks parked. What about health concerns and are they paying taxes? This is unfair to restaurants who follow all of the rules.

Let’s start with health concerns.

Taco Trucks (an all mobile vendors) are inspected by the Columbus Board of Health. Each truck should display a green Columbus Health Department Color Coded Inspection Sign with the date of the last inspection. Inspections occur at least once per year, just like any restaurant or food supplier. Taco Truck owners must have a peddlers license as well.

Health Department Tested, CMH Gourmand Approved

Health Department Tested, CMH Gourmand Approved

A yellow health department tag means the truck has been warned about a health code issue and is on probation while they implement recommended changes – so menu items may be limited. A red sticker indicates a major health code violation and the business is closed.

Mobile food vendors, including taco trucks, can get a bad rap. Hot dog carts and hamburger stands fought these same stereotypes in the 20th century as they evolved into American icons. How many restaurant kitchens have you seen? This writer has seen some very scary kitchens behind closed doors. Mobile Food vendors operate open kitchens – customers can see every step in the preparation process for start to serving time. If you are wary of a truck – order the cheapest item – watch how it is prepared. If something gives you the creeps – pay, walk away and call the Health department, cut your losses and move on to the next truck. The owner of the truck is often the one cooking your food. He or she depends on repeat business to stay in business and cleanliness is the key to happy customers and health inspectors. The inspectors make regular spot checks on mobile food vendors just as they do for restaurants, grocery stores, fair food stands and elsewhere. So the answer is: mobile food operations are as clean as any other food you eat and in this case – at least you can see it before you eat it.

And….part two: are they paying taxes? This is unfair to restaurants who follow all of the rules.

Do mobile food vendors pay taxes. Yes. They also pay rent, buy liability insurance, fork over cash for a peddlers permit, sign on the dotted line for several licenses and inspections with the city Health and Public Safety Departments, buy gas at your local gas station, purchase food from local purveyors and follow the same guidelines and expectations as a restaurant. If mobile food operations don’t follow the rules, they get cited and go out of business quickly.

What a wonderful idea..to consider a bunch of itinerant “roach coaches” as art. Ptomaine Tomas never had it so good. Just not quite like the present day Hawker Centres in Singapore. But, then the economic vitality is not quite the same in Columbus, OH either. There is no way a service based economy that Columbus has descended into will ever achieve the greatness of it’s long lost industrial/manufacturing economic base.

I am going to be snarky here. Read the article again – the trucks are not the art component of these plans. As for the other comments, well, they reflect the writer.

Too many restaurants are at their margin between staying afloat or going under. Hoggy’s just closed all but one location and these typhoid trucks on wheels want to serve food on the fly. No thanks.

Why are these restaurants going under? Hoggys was not put into receivership by a food truck nor has any other restaurant in Columbus. To my knowledge, I can not recall any food truck that has ever been in a mile of any Hoggy’s location. One reason restaurants go under….they are expensive to run and difficult to staff. The money that it takes to open a new restaurant in this economy is just not viable or sustainable for most people. Competition is good for any business as long as the playing field is fair. Most mobile operators would say the deck is more stacked against them than a brick and mortar restaurant when current city regulations and weather are considered….I agree.

The food trucks explosion has boomed in both downtown Cleveland and Fountain Square in Cincy but of course this is Columbus where it won’t be done properly and will get no support. Soooooo Columbus……

There is support, we just need to grow it. We can do this properly in Columbus and we can do this better than Cleveland, Cincinnati and any other city in the country with some minor tweaks in city legislation, good menu concepts and a zero tolerance for inaccurate and misleading statements that are presented as fact.

Those in the (real) food business know that food trucks are an invitation to problems. The lack of adequate running water and sewer service is an issue. Also many food trucks use many ice chests instead of refrigerators. Ice cannot keep food at the required temperatures as set by the health department standards. It would be safe to say mobile food trucks are not healthy.

I have been in the (real) food business. I still work with and represent people who are in the REAL food business. It is not safe to say mobile food trucks are not healthy…it is outright incorrect. All mobile operations are required to have a three compartment sink and a hand washing sink and they do. As for sewer service….I’m not sure how that is supposed to apply to this situation. Mobile carts are required to (and do) operate from a licensed commissary for food storage, grease and cooking oil disposal and such so they can comply with health and safety guidelines.

Part two: Also many food trucks use many ice chests instead of refrigerators.

Really? Which ones? This not something I have encountered. If so, it what ways were the ice chests used illegally or not in compliance to health code regulations. Again, food carts, trucks and trailers are inspected by the Health Department to make sure they are in compliance with the law (as are restaurants). Operators have to take a food safety class (I took it, it is good and offered in several languages). There are some “bad” mobile operators out there but in my observations the percentage is no higher than the “bad” restaurants. Vote with your pocketbook and if you have a legitimate concern report it, but don’t feed ignorance with assumptions and inaccurate statements.

A final serving of food for thought. When White Castle started in the 1920’s they dealt with many of the same myths of health issues, taxes, etc. These negative comments are a product of fear of something new and ignorance, these are rarely based on a real expereince.

And so ends my editorial.

-soapbox scooted away,
–lights dimmed,
—throat cleared in a dignified manner,
—- exit stage left.

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13 Responses to “Street Meat Myths: An Editorial”

  1. Ed P. said

    *Applause!*

  2. justplainjim said

    A good read..

    Considering the capital investment and “no sales” fixed cost overhead of truck insurance, business insurance, licenses, fees, etc., I would think the owner and operator would be very careful with observing health laws.

  3. Mike G said

    We call them “Trolls” Do not confuse them with the facts.

  4. Jane said

    Nice!

  5. opatriotis said

    Very well said!

  6. Cynthia J. said

    Bravo to you!

  7. NC said

    I generally applaud your article and love for and defense of food trucks and street food. Anyone who has lived in or visited most countries outside of the U.S. understand the importance of such vendors to the culinary fabric of their countries. They are good,often cheap, fast and fun. Having that happen in the states can only be a blessing. Mostly. A couple of points, however:

    1) Food trucks are not necessarily cheap. I have bought a round of tacos for friends at one or two and had the bill be over $30 for five smallish tacos. No matter how good they were, and they were, that is high-end bar food prices for the size they were. They are not always a bargain.
    2) Limited offerings means you need to know what they have and what you want before taking the time to drive to one.
    3) Such limited offerings bought and taken away through a window, often with no place to sit and enjoy the fare while piping hot, means that you are many times left with soggy take home.
    4) Despite the licenses, etc. there is no guarantee on a day-to-day basis that the cleanliness of the truck would pass an inspection that day, with sometimes under-cooled product left out in warm trucks, backboards and cutting boards not sanitized continuously, etc. You bring up a valid point about many restaurants operating this way. Many fine ones included. Still, the haphazard training of some, not all, truck owners means that the possibility of unsanitary conditions may be heightened.
    5) I think that much of the hostility towards them stems from the type of food. On the streets of Mexico City or Tel-Aviv the food you find is native food, the food everyone there grew up with. Here it is “foreign”, even if something now so Americanized as tacos. Much of the resistance is to the nationality of the food and the vendors and not the idea of trucks in general.

    With all that said, I love them. Sometimes. And I like that you are championing them. Keep up the good work.

  8. Anand Saha said

    Well written

  9. MarketMary said

    Applause…standing ovation!

  10. Bear said

    Excellent piece. The only shortcoming to which I would point is taking the Dispatch comments section seriously. But to the extent that those sentiments are shared by actual humans, they’re worth airing and discussing.

  11. Dana said

    You lost me at the argument of whether food trucks “bring people into the hoods.”

    CMH G. Comment: The above comment and argument are not mine. Food Trucks and new food concepts do bring people to new areas of town they have not previously considered. Let’s look at the popularity of Dirty Franks and the business and attention it brought to a dead downtown. Yellow Brick Pizza lighting a spark in Old Town East. The Explorer’s Club energizing and employing people in Merion Village.

    Newsflash: THERE ARE PEOPLE LIVING IN THE HOODS.

    That was true even before most of the Short North got gentrified way beyond the ability of the lower 50 percent to afford. We can’t even open vending tables there anymore during Gallery Hop. Now it’s happening to Weinland Park right next door. “Oh, who cares what we do here, there’s nobody living here!” Racism or classism or both? I don’t care to dip into these “revitalizers'” filthy overprivileged psyches for long enough to guess.

    Food trucks probably aren’t much more expensive than McDonald’s. I just *bet* the people *already living* in the “hoods” are enjoying that food too. WHO WOULDA THUNK.

    You do not check your humanity at the door just because every other boarded-up house on your street is owned by some slumlord outfit in PA and you can’t get rid of the gangs because the police laugh you off every time you call. “Bring people into the hoods” is just code for “there need to be more white people there.” Quit it.

    CMH G. comment: This is not a black, white or brown issue, it is about creating opportunities for PEOPLE.

  12. Hurrah for Columbus Food Trucks, the thousands they feed, the families they keep afloat and the character they add to our fair city and hurrah for CMHGourmand!

  13. Fred Savage said

    There are a handful of haters in Clintonville, so there are no cool bars (there are divey-ass dives which are endearing though), horrible traffic at East N broadway and High (and a FAKE historic district), and 1/10th the cool restaurants required.

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