Restaurants Strike Back
But they can't deny that food trucks bring business downtown
By Tiffany Poe
In a little under two years, the food truck culture in Tulsa has grown dramatically.
"In the last several years, I've seen a huge increase in mobile food unit permits," said Kendra Wise of the Tulsa Health Department. In the six years she has been inspecting mobile food units, it's only been in the last 12 months that she's seen daily activity.
"I get calls every day now with questions for inspection guidelines and procedures," said Wise. "I am always pleasantly surprised at the creativity and new ideas that are coming out. We now have 123 units licensed in Tulsa County to date."
What was once a floundering food service option in our city is now a unique niche in the growing food culture. With concepts like Vietnamese/French fusion banh mi sandwiches along with traditional taco style trucks, the mobile food scene in Tulsa has changed its image.
Not everyone though is ready to buy t-shirts and get their food truck tattoo. It's competition for the local brick and mortar restaurants, with truck operators able to do business at a far lower cost than someone opening a new restaurant.
Tuck Curren of Biga and Local Table knows firsthand what it takes to be successful on both sides of the fence. A long time restaurateur and cornerstone Tulsa chef, Curren has quite a following of his own. He launched his mobile food operation after purchasing a catering trailer to supplement his off-site catering for the restaurant. After doing a few events downtown, he decided it was worth the effort to come back.
"I love being out with the people," Tuck said. "I never intended to be a part of the food truck scene, but it just made sense after seeing how people got excited about my street food. And I'm having a great time."
Others remain indifferent or say the trucks actually do improve the overall food culture and diversity of downtown. Regardless of the perspective, food trucks are giving this town a run for their money -- and it's easy to see why they are an attractive option for many.
Curren praised the diversity and unique cuisines that he can offer.
"I like to see what I can really do in a small space," he said. "It's a challenge to see how fast and organized I can be."
Driving toward popularity
Like any trend, the current food truck craze started on the streets of New York and LA back in the early 2000s and has now spread across the interior. The old days of roach coaches, lunch wagons, and state fair cantinas are a far cry from the modern slick engine mobile food units you see combing the streets today.
It's safe to say that the phrase "food truck" is certainly part of the current pop culture vernacular. In cities like Austin and Los Angeles, food trucks are a consistent fixture on the dining scene. There are specific parks and festivals to highlight the portable restaurants daily. These cities have had their fair share of sorting out the territory between food trucks and established restaurants. But, due to the demand from the public to allow more food trucks in their cities, they have found a way to bring balance to their streets.
Even the Food Network airs The Great Food Truck Race, a show that features the best food trucks in the country. Still, for Tulsa foodies, the idea of seeing food trucks roam through their city is something we've had to warm up to.
A little trip down food truck history lane may shed some insight on the progression of food trucks here in Tulsa. In the pioneer days when the first brave food trucks started hitting Tulsa's streets, there were very few places they could set up and do business. If they did make the mistake and get to close to an established restaurant, they were quickly told to leave for obvious reasons. This sparked the development of a specific city code for food trucks. Other than the occasional festival or event, the trucks were not a welcomed downtown. Up until this year, there have been very few organized places food trucks could park around town and do consistent business.
Josh Lynch, owner of the Dog House Food Truck and president of the Tulsa Food Truck Association, said that before 2010, it was almost impossible to do weekly business downtown because trucks have to park 150 feet away from any restaurant, school or city park.
"It's not like we can just roll up to any street corner and start selling," Lynch said. "We have to be in a city parking space and follow the rules."
In many ways, Food Truck Wednesdays have changed the way Tulsans look at food trucks.
This weekly festival at the downtown Guthrie Green has helped in establishing a place where people can come and sample the food trucks every week. It's also provided consistent income to trucks that participate every week.
"Food trucks are a great asset to the park and the activities we host here," said the Guthrie Green facility administrator Meg Webb. "The events we have here bring a ton of people to the downtown area, and both restaurants and food trucks benefit from the crowd. When you go to other cities you see the idea of a food truck park working really well for them and that was our inspiration for creating a space that could host food trucks weekly."
She also mentioned the food trucks are not confined to the Green.
"Tulsa has really embraced the food trucks not only at Guthrie Green, but at the farmers' markets, Boston Avenue, across from the BOK Center, at American Airlines, and everywhere in between," she said. "I think the lunch crowds like that it's fast and convenient and that there is a wide variety to choose from."
Some of the trucks are doing some really inventive and creative things with their menus, and even the trucks themselves are like rolling Americana.
Lick Your Lips Donuts, for instance, has converted a tear-drop trailer into a retro, '50s-style kitchen where the owner wears pearls and girlie aprons while serving up deep-fried deliciousness. Lone Wolf has a zombie-like following and sells out almost every time it opens for business.
"People will wait an hour to get kimchi fries and banh-mi," Webb said. "I've had both, and they are worth waiting for."
She explained that so many of these food trucks are the livelihood of the people who own and operate them, and they are thrilled to have places to showcase their talents and amazing food to the people of Tulsa -- and not just those in the IDL.
"We get a lot of folks at lunch who don't live or work down here," Webb said. "Moms bring their kids in from the 'burbs to do something different for lunch, and then they look over and see Mocha Butterfly or Colors of Etnika and see that there are cute places to shop as well."
As a result, restaurants, galleries, and museums also get free advertising because these guests will later bring their spouses and friends back to the area on a weekend -- most likely a First Friday -- to enjoy the other options. Webb said that when they have events in the district, everyone is downtown to eat and drink, which pumps lots of money into the area. Everyone therefore is winning.
The restaurant owner's view
Matt Kelly owns and operates Lucky's Restaurant on Cherry Street and the new Lucky's on the Green. While he doesn't run a food truck of his own, he is always pleasantly surprised at how many people are attracted to the district for events going on at Guthrie Green, though he admitted that maybe food trucks aren't his very favorite things in the world.
"Wednesdays are not exactly my favorite day of the week," he said with a smile. "I mean, look at all the competition parked outside of my front door."
But he said that he has no problems with the food trucks being there, feeling that the excitement created by people coming to the park on food truck Wednesday helps his business concept be even more successful all week long. "Look at all the people here today. This is good for me, and it's good for the area."
Miranda Kaiser, owner of Cosmos Cafe on Brookside and the new Laffa Restaurant in the Brady District, is all for the food truck culture.
"I think the downtown food truck scene is really great," she said. "The Brady District is becoming a destination for food and events, and the presence of food trucks has really contributed to that effort."
That said, she does have an idea that, on some level, might seem geared to getting the food trucks away from her restaurants.
"I'd love to see several places each week that I can go and sample food truck options," she said. "There should even be a separate food truck park at the fair."
Kaiser is glad that trucks are monitored and held to the same sanitation and food safety standards as restaurants.
Food trucks have to go through the same types of permit and inspection processes as a restaurant
Hand- and dishwashing sinks are also required for all mobile units, and the fine for running out of water during operation is a steep $1,000. This type of violation also shuts down the operation until Tulsa Health Department allows the truck to reopen.
Wise -- of the health department -- noted that these trucks are subject to inspection at anytime, just like a restaurant. On any given day, she may inspect as many as 20 different trucks, and it's a no-appointment-necessary kind of visit.
Truck owners know that keeping on point with their permits, running a clean truck, and staying out of areas that are established restaurant territory are all important pieces to being successful downtown.
But they aren't subject to the steep city taxes required by downtown establishments. This subject could be looked at as an area of frustration for some downtown business owners, and rightly so. They assume an incredible amount of liability and are ultimately the lifeblood of the district. In fairness, the truck owners do have to register for permits and pay event fees at almost event venue they participate in. These permits can be anywhere from $25-$500 dollars per event depending on the type and length of the activity.
The trucks also have to abide by city parking rules and regulations and be outfitted with proper hot-holding, refrigeration components, and ventilation options in their truck.
"One of the appealing sides of launching and owning a food truck rather than brick-and-mortar-style establishments as a new chef is the branding and low over-head perks," Kaiser said. "A chef can start a food truck concept for a fraction of the start-up of a restaurant and then develop clientele and a following before tying to venture into the risky business of restaurant creation."
The differences in opening and brick-and-mortar restaurant and opening a food truck are night and day. Restaurants not only have the building structure, the equipment, permits, structural licenses, numerous fees and taxes, but have to follow strict codes in setting up their flow, food safety and dining room plans. According to the National Restaurant Association, that is why 50 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year of business. Of that 50 percent that survive, 30 percent are closed within five years. How does that compare to a food truck? Basically cut every cost by one third or one quarter.
To join or not to join
Local Table isn't the only restaurant with a street presence.
Wise explained that of licensed units, 20 percent are from restaurants that opened a food truck to complement their business.
Andolini's Pizza is a main player in the weekly food truck route and In The Raw trots out its mobile sushi bar with a truck it calls On the Roll.
In the same district where food trucks are going wild, there are also restaurant owners who aren't jumping on the bandwagon to get into the food truck business. The ability to change and adapt is part of any great city in the same way it's a critical component to any good business plan or restaurant portfolio. Amanda Williams of the McNellie's Group shared the organization's take on the expansion of downtown and the new influx of people and options in this area.
"We've seen an increase in the diversity of people that area eating downtown," Williams said. "They want to walk around and enjoy the city and maybe dining with friends and want options."
She said that the McNellie's Group hasn't been affected by the food truck surplus, and if anything, it's created a way for them to cater to a new type of diner.
"Because people want to be out and not in a restaurant, especially during the nice weather and music season, we've created options for them to take with them," she said, explaining the Tavern now offers a picnic-style basket diners can grab and take to the park. It has seasonal menu items and two bottles of water for guests to enjoy.
Not exactly if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em, but close.
Another McNellie's Group restaurant -- Fassler Hall -- has started a new lunch menu to cater to the more diverse crowd frequenting their establishments.
"We are now offering new items like salads and lighter fare to contrast our sausage and meat loving crowd," Williams said. "We are also doing special events like movie night and capturing those unique visitors who came to check out the downtown landscape."
Another downtown restaurateur and city council member Blake Ewing of the Blue Ox Dining Group shared his take on the downtown diversity and food truck follies.
"Food trucks make our city cooler," he said. "It's another way Tulsa is showing how much she has grown and diversified in the last several years."
He admitted that having the trucks in the downtown area definitely cuts into potential customer share, but also ultimately positively contributes to the effort to get people to come downtown and spend money.
"We are all trying to get more people downtown and build that framework to keep dollars and customers coming back," Ewing said. "If we are going to create two hundred new jobs in the area, I want them to be downtown."
He also said that he appreciates the refining factor that food trucks create in the hospitality mix.
"You can go and order the best hotdog or sandwich consistently from the trucks, because that is their main focus all day every day," he said. "Consistency is something restaurateurs are always focused on, and it's the one key factor to having return customers to your establishment."
It's that diversity and flexibility that has created some of the best dining and gathering places in the country. It's also that mix of hospitality and community working together that gives a city its character and distinction. Hopefully, this food truck revolution won't be too short lived. Tulsa seems to have sorted out how she feels about food trucks living on her streets, and most restaurants seem to like the extra attention and free advertisements they receive from events and added downtown business.
Only time will tell if the phenomenon continues to grow or if it's reached its capacity. Either way, food trucks are here to do business with Tulsa foodies and create an outdoor food culture like we have never experienced before. It's an interesting way to experience food, fellowship and downtown Tulsa. Our children will never know a world without touch-screen technology. Likewise hopefully they will never remember a downtown were you can't buy banh mi sandwiches, street tacos, and eclectic global street foods anytime of the day and year around.
Share this article: