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Keep on food truckin' in DFW

What do you think of the food truck trend?
Posted 8:17am on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

The gringo at the window of the Salsa Limón Taco trailer on Berry Street knew a lot of words in Spanish. He did not, as it turns out, know how to string them into a sentence, or, for that matter, form a cogent thought in any language. The young man, who was in his early 20s and who asked that his name not be used for this story, rattled off word after word in Spanish, much to the glee of this two companions, who laughed like dopey jackals.

"What is he saying?" I asked Yolanda Murguia, the amiable, if not shy 20-year-old cashier at the food trailer. She shrugged her shoulders and feigned laughter.

What I imagined might be demonic possession, or some sort of "twin language" that the young man had devised with his two cohorts (all three were wearing almost identical pastel polo shirts and baseball caps) was in fact booze-inspired gibberish. The trio eventually ordered and disappeared into the makeshift dining room on the patio of the Cellar Bar, just behind the trailer. When called to the pickup window, all three gave a gracious "gracias" to Yolanda, ate and walked away -- their staggering less pronounced for having just piled taco meat onto the alcohol stewing in their bellies.

Similar scenes played out throughout the evening on a recent Saturday at the Salsa Limón trailer, which has been open about a year. It stays open until 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday to cater to the bar crowds on Berry Street. I never got to ask the young man if he'd ever behave that way in a restaurant, but I think I know the answer.

"We're used to it," said Murguia, with a look of pleasant resignation.

It wasn't all a drunken peep show the evening I was allowed to step inside the trailer to work a shift. It was, however, a lot of work -- though not necessarily for me, since my co-workers for the evening politely took the reins when I found myself out of my depth -- which was pretty much every time more than two people came up to the window at the same time. My night in the taco truck also gave me a peek behind the curtain of the growing food-truck/trailer trend in Fort Worth.

It wasn't that long ago that most food trailers were dismissed as roach coaches by the general public, and that they only thrived on construction sites and in poorer neighborhoods. Nowadays, trucks and trailers are producing upscale fare that many restaurants would be proud to feature on their menus. And they are popping up all over the place, like a gourmand's whack-a-mole fantasy.

In just the last year, a handful of trucks have emerged on the forefront of the trend in Cowtown: Salsa Limón on Berry, The Weiner Man and Taco Heads in the West Seventh Street corridor, the two Yum-Yum! trucks stationed downtown, the Yes! Taco truck in the near south side, and the Trough Burger Wagon in the West Seventh area, just to name a few, have all staked out semi-permanent turf.

Others, such as Chef Point on Wheels, Il Cane Rosso, Sassy Hot Dogs, Holy Smoke BBQ have a more nomadic existence. There are plenty other trucks on the horizon, including Red Jett Sweets, which will serve cupcakes, So Cal Tacos and more.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the city's board of adjustments granted a special exception to the mobile vending ordinance to create a Food Truck Park, just north of Montgomery Plaza on Weisenberger Street. The park will be ready to go by this fall, and many observers believe it will create a convoy of new food trucks rolling into the city.

I sought to understand what a typical day in the life of one of these mobile kitchens is like. How do they prepare for service? How can the staff withstand the heat? Where do they go the bathroom? What would inspire someone to open a trailer/truck? How do they deal with all of those drunks?

Ramiro Ramirez, owner of Salsa Limón, put it best: "It's a little like working inside a cage at the zoo," he said, "but the animals are on the outside."

From the inside out

From the outside, the Salsa Limón taco trailer looks a bit like a UFO, or a really fancy toaster that lights up. Two people fit inside comfortably, but a third who has no idea what he's doing, or where to stand, was a little much.

There's an air conditioning vent in the middle of the ceiling, so it isn't as hot on the inside as it looks from the outside, but not surprisingly, the side that houses the flat grill and stove is significantly warmer.

After awkwardly introducing myself to Murguia and cook Ezequiel Piña (who didn't speak English), I was ready to jump into the fray.

More than a few times, after a night of bar-hopping, I've been the guy staring into a food-truck window like I was looking into the eyes of God. Now, I get to see the operation from the other side of Saint Peter's gate. I strapped on a pair of latex gloves, put on my Salsa Limón hat and was ready to go wrist-deep into pig parts.

Both my co-workers (or baby sitters, as they no doubt saw it) and I arrived at 4 p.m. to open at 7 p.m. Piña cleaned and chopped vegetables and meat, while I filled the plastic "to go" containers with three salsas: habanero, green and red. Ramirez came by with supplies from the "mother ship," his restaurant in La Gran Plaza.

Many trailer/trucks don't have the luxury of a storefront and must shop for supplies. Bryce Tomberlin, owner of the Weiner Man hot dog stand, for example, goes to the farmers market every day for vegetables. Sarah Castillo, owner/manager of Taco Heads, said she constantly makes runs to Fiesta Mart and Target for supplies. Ramirez has a mailing address, so he is able to order from distributors, who won't deliver to food trailers.

Though the trailers don't have addresses, all seven of the trailers/trucks visited for this story have hitched their wagon (so to speak) to a nearby business. Salsa Limón is parked in front of the Cellar, Yes! Taco in front of SiNaCa Studios, Taco Heads is stationed behind 7th Haven Bar. In some cases, the trailer will leach electricity from its host building -- like a gastro remora. In other cases, like the Weiner Man, the truck is powered by a generator.

After the prep work, I was ready for my training. I expected it to be something like the movie Training Day, but with less PCP, and almost no gun violence. It was clear that the staff didn't entirely trust me to cook the food, but Piña was a good sport and showed me the ropes, while Murguia interpreted. Piña spoke to her for what seemed like a full minute, and Murguia turned to me and said, "You have to clean the grill a lot."

That can't possibly be all he said, I thought. I imagined the actual translation was more like: "Why is this idiot standing in our way while we're trying to work? Does he think this is some kind of game or a joke? Just tell him to clean the grill, and to try not to burn himself."

After spending a few minutes with him, I realized he was actually very nurturing and nice. He showed me where everything was, and between my broken Spanish and some wild hand gesturing, I had a vague idea of how to make a taco.

Murguia taught me how to take orders, but since she writes everything in Spanish for Piña, I couldn't really do that. What I could do was greet customers. My first was a young guy wearing a red "McStud" shirt, who ordered a lengua (tongue) burrito. After a short game of telephone, Piña got the order and placed the meat on the grill I had recently cleaned. At that point, I actually felt like I had contributed.

McStud, you'll always be my first.

It was kind of a slow night, with a few pockets of excitement. I occasionally stationed myself outside of the trailer and tried to drum up business -- like a carnival barker or a barbacoa pimp. The real fun started when the drunks emerged from the nearby bars. I got out of the way at that point. I knew better than to come between a hungry drunk and his or her food.

Rise of the truck

Though there have been food trucks in Fort Worth for years, the recent gourmet truck trend started on the coasts, and made its way to Austin, before trickling into DFW.

Tomberlin speculated that one of the reasons the DFW area is seeing so many food trucks is because of the down economy. It would cost him several hundred thousand dollars or more to open a restaurant, whereas a food truck -- in his case, a converted UPS delivery truck -- only cost him several thousand dollars.

"It's hard to finance a restaurant in this economy," he said. "It's much easier to finance a food truck." And food trucks, he added, have the advantage of being mobile, so they can go and find customers.

Tomberlin decided to create Weiner Man while researching a sandwich shop that he wanted to open. He realized that opening a restaurant might be too costly, and he was keenly aware of the food-truck trend. He now views his truck as a testing ground for a potential restaurant idea -- a culinary dress rehearsal.

When Wiener Man opened, it was in the Avoca Coffee parking lot on Magnolia Avenue, and served lunch and dinner. Now, because of the summer heat, it doesn't open until 8 p.m. Tomberlin moved his Weiner mobile to the West Seventh corner, just behind Poag Mahone's Irish Pub -- a stone's throw away from Taco Heads.

Sarah Castillo said that she opened Taco Heads because she recognized that there was a late-night dining void in Fort Worth. Having gone to school in Austin, a city that seems to boast as many food trucks as Seattle does coffee shops, she was comfortable with the concept.

"There was no late-night food whatsoever," she said of Fort Worth, "Just Ol' South or Whataburger." (That has since changed, with the recent arrivals of Café Brazil and In-N-Out.)

Someday, she said, she would like to open a restaurant; and though she loves the food-trailer game, "It's a tough business."

Ramirez, who has a background in marketing, had a different trajectory than Castillo and Tomberlin. He already had a restaurant when he decided to open the trailer. He decided to jump on the trend for several reasons, he said. From a marketing standpoint, it serves as a billboard for the brand and appeals to social media-savvy millennials. It also helps him to reach a broader audience. At La Gran Plaza, he's a borderline celebrity. The taco trailer is a way to reach middle-class white consumers.

"Traditionally, taco trucks targeted working-class Hispanics," he said. "But like many trends, the food trucks worked from the bottom up, and now they've been embraced by everyone. You'd be surprised at the variety of people who come by."

Power of electricity

Though inexpensive and trendy, the taco trailer is not without its challenges. When Salsa Limón opened, it had electrical problems -- the trailer lost power several times during its infancy.

"We had four electricians come out to fix the problem," Ramirez said. "Each one said the previous one didn't know what he was doing. I would get calls at 1 a.m. from staff telling me that there is no power."

Ramirez and his crew had to take all of the perishables out of the refrigerators, put them in coolers and transport them back to the mother ship four times during that first week.

Castillo also had electrical problems. Before Taco Heads hooked up to 7th Haven, it was powered by a generator. One night, she said, an old man ran off with her gas tank. She also ran into a problem with the city's code-compliance department. She was forced to delay her opening until she moved a sink 3 inches.

Tomberlin says he believes that his biggest challenge is still the stigma attached to food trucks. He points out that he uses bakery-fresh bread and gets his produce from a farmers market, but some customers think that any food from a truck should be priced like a vending machine.

"People are still getting used to the idea of food from a truck," he said. "We're still battling the mentality that [truck food] is supposed to be really cheap. When they think of hot dogs, they still imagine Sonic or 7-Eleven hot dogs. Once people try it, they'll realize that they are getting a good deal."

Most food trucks cater to the late-night crowd, and everyone who's ever worked in one, to paraphrase Tomberlin, has seen more than a few people stagger up to the window. He once had to rescue a box fan that an over-served bar patron tried to steal. The young man, he said, just slung it over his back and walked around with it.

Castillo tries to have fun with her customers, often imitating a beauty pageant host when she calls for someone to pick up their order, "Eric is a 33-year-old Virgo, who likes long walks on the beach and slow dances to R. Kelly," she announced over the loudspeaker.

She also told a story about a love connection made at Taco Heads. A young man and woman met while standing in line and decided to go on a date. The two, who are in a relationship, come back once a month to the cradle of their love.

Some of the trucks are in close proximity to other restaurants. Salsa Limón is across the street from Fuzzy's Taco Shop. Ramirez wouldn't comment on whether he has had run-ins with Fuzzy's. He said that the reason that he chose his location was because of foot traffic. There are six bars and several restaurants within stumbling distance of his trailer.

Tomberlin says he doesn't believe that food trucks are necessarily competition for restaurants.

"I think we complement restaurants," he said. "A lot of people come here after they've eaten at restaurant earlier in the night and just want a good late-night option."

Here to stay?

The future for food trucks in Fort Worth looks bright. Everyone interviewed for this story said they believed that the creation of the food-truck (don't call it a trailer) park will be a good way to attract a broader range of people to the concept. There are still some zoning issues to work out in Fort Worth. For example, a truck can't park in a single spot for more than an hour without a special permit. The restriction makes it impossible to operate without a semi-permanent location in town, and negates the advantages of being mobile. In Dallas, where the food-truck trend has exploded as well, food trucks/trailers can rotate in and out of a single location, giving area diners more variety. That not withstanding, the food-truck owners all said the city has been very supportive.

The Fort Worth Music Festival, formerly Jazz By the Boulevard, will be crawling with trucks, including Salsa Limón and Taco Heads. The event, which to be held Sept. 30-Oct. 1, will feature other food vendors, but the organizers made a point to reach out to some Fort Worth food trucks.

A new trend is emerging for the existing food trucks. Both Taco Heads and Salsa Limón are launching breakfast menus -- though neither will serve lunch until the sun relents a little. Yes! Tacos already serves breakfast and lunch every day on Magnolia Avenue.

Tomberlin is planning a food-truck festival in the fall. Though he doesn't have a date yet, he said that he plans on featuring several food trucks and live music.

Castillo believes that the food-cart trend will end someday.

"It's a trend," she said. "I love it, but all trends go out of style."

Ramirez, however, thinks the rules of business apply to food trucks: The operations that have a good product, a well-run business and, of course, the locations with the most foot traffic, will survive.

"It's a bubble," he said, "and with time, the strong players will have staying power. But it takes a lot of work, and unless you realize that, then the quality will start dropping."

But, he warned, "There is such a thing as market saturation."

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