What is the skinny on Street Food? Mobile food vending has exploded in Columbus over the last two years mirroring a national trend. I fell into the world of Taco Trucks on a whim with my good friends Bethia and Andy. We started a website called Taco Trucks Columbus and spent 2009 engrossed in all things Mexican street food. It was a great experience. I learned about parts of town I had never traveled and made very special friends among the owners and the enthusiasts I would not have met in my day-to-day life. This year Street Eats Columbus was created to track and promote the growing non-taco truck vendors that are popping up all over town.
Why has mobile vending gone vogue across the country and especially in Columbus? To quote the 1992 Clinton campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid”. A brick and mortar restaurant costs a lot of money to get going: rent, utilities, (in Columbus) a complicated and confusing series of building and business codes, long hours, etc. The failure rate for new restaurants for the first year is 25% or greater and cumulatively over three years 60% or more. (Other studies report a failure rate as great as 90%). The restaurant business is hard going in good times and perilous in a recession. If you pick a poor location – you are stuck with it.
For many people, getting a loan is the hard part. In a risk adverse economy, money for a new business can be in short supply. Start up costs for a food cart, Taco Truck or trailer kitchen can range from $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Finding used, serviceable equipment is easy so if you are a do it yourselfer and a good cook, you could have your own business for a fraction of what a restaurant would cost. Mobile food means mobility. If you have a bad location – you can move in an hour. If you know where a concentration of hungry people is – you can go there. Mobile operations have smaller menus and usually a quicker turn around for product. Most operations cook what they need for the day or week with little or no food going to rot. This is good for eliminating food waste but a bit frustrating for folks new to street food when they find an item is unavailable.
A food entrepreneur with a good idea can test it out with minimal risk when their cafe is on wheels. A strong concept can spawn additional food carts or a loyal following that will follow the owner to a brick and mortar location. In San Francisco, a good number of mobile food vendors are making six digit profit margins per year. Mobile food can work if you do it right. Another positive of going mobile is customer interaction and instant feedback – chefs love this and often feel disconnected from their customers in a larger operation.
Here are a few local examples. Super Torta II is one of the oldest Taco Trucks in the city. Last year they opened a restaurant near their location. Skillet, a darling of local food enthusiasts, started a mobile operation to spread the gospel of their food first, local, in season cuisine to other parts or town and untapped audiences. Ray Ray’s Hog Pit in Clintonville has grown a loyal following serving BBQ until in runs out (it often does before posted closing hours). Owner Jaime Anderson previously operated restaurants but has found mobile food to be more rewarding and less hassle.
There are some challenges to what I may have painted as a sure thing, slam-dunk profit magnet. Winter weather shuts many of the vendors down or reduces their hours. More than a few Columbusites have a fear and loathing of “street meat”. Some people believe that the food and workspaces are unsanitary. In my experience, I am happy to take chances with a kitchen and cook I can see in operation verses a hidden kitchen and preparers I cannot see. In the world of Taco Trucks, I would often tell people to order one taco and watch how it is prepared and if they see something that scares them – they are only out $1.25. I prefer my odds with a mobile vendor. There are other “perception” problems as well but these are slowly being addressed and acceptance is growing.
Mobile food is not new to Columbus or our country. It was a pathway to being a business owner for early 20th century immigrants selling sausages, hot dogs and more. This food fed factory workers throughout the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s spawning creations including Italian Beef sandwiches, Po Boy’s, hot dogs and more. Mobile food fueled a transition to fast food establishments and a new way of eating. Today, entrepreneurs are relearning and expanding on something old while adding new elements to street fare with vegetarian, locavore and new immigrant food options.
The culture of street food is growing in Columbus. In October, there were two well-attended mobile food events (Food Truck a Palooza at The Ohio Historical Society and Food Cart Food Court at Wonderland). The response to these food cart conglomerations and demand for more of them was overwhelming. Several of the vendors ran out of food. It can be a good thing when supply does not meet demand as long as people keep wanting more. This bodes well.
Now it is time to drive my subject matter home. Why does mobile food matter? The ability to go out and cook food one believes in promotes diversity and innovation in the food the rest of us eat. Entrepreneurs that would not have a chance with a brick and mortar location are getting the opportunity to follow their dreams while we benefit from new menus instead of safe stagnation. Columbus has long sought an opportunity to find an identity. With support and designating some permanent food court areas, our city can establish a niche on the culinary map. Food and food styles identify a city (Chicago: Hot dogs, Pizza, Italian Beef Sandwiches), New York (hot dogs, Reuben’s, bagels), Philadelphia (Philly cheesesteaks)….. You get my drift. We may not find our signature sandwich but we can blow away our old moniker of fast food capital of the world by becoming known as a progressive, innovative food town. Mobile food can be part of that movement. If we eat it, they will come.