POSTED ON MAY 4, 2011:
Great use of space, for the Parking Lot Capitol of the World
According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people eat street food around the world every day.
And a large percentage of them are eating at food trucks.
All you have to do is turn on the Food Network and tune in to any number of different programs to know that food trucks and trailers are all the rage these days. Bobby Flay dishes it out in a taco truck on Throwdown!, Throwin' Down in a taco truck, The Best Thing I Ever Ate regularly features mobile eats, in The Next Food Network Star, contestants are challenged within vehicular kitchens and there's even a show called The Great Food Truck Race, which has proved popular enough to be renewed for a second season.
For a long time the image of a food truck, or "grease wagon" as they were referred to, represented cheap, greasy, unhealthy food -- the kind of dining that's likely fried and guaranteed to give one heartburn at best, and usually a lot worse.
In Tulsa there is an undeserved stigma that leads many locals to assume that food trucks are dirty or unsafe. All food trucks, trailers and stands in Tulsa County must be licensed and routinely inspected by the Tulsa City-County Health Department.
"All food trucks and trailers undergo the same rigorous inspections that local restaurants do," said Kendra Wise, a special events coordinator with the City-County Health Department and a certified sanitarian responsible for inspecting each and every one of the mobile dining operations. "Every employee must attend and successfully complete food handler's class and there must be at least one person with a manager's certification as well."
Additionally, each establishment with a full-time license is inspected a minimum of four times per year -- the same frequency as all brick and mortar foodservice establishments. Those with a seasonal license are inspected twice a year and are issued a 180-day operating limit per year. Often, local food trucks have all the same equipment that many restaurants do, including fryers, grills and refrigeration. All equipment must be working, in good repair and have cleanable surfaces. Food trucks and trailers must have hot and cold running water, too.
On January 1, 2011, the City of Tulsa partnered with the Health Department and imposed new requirements on all street food vendors.
Those applying for a mobile vendor's business license after the new year also have to fill out documentation verifying where they will dispose of their wastewater, which can't be dumped into the city's sewer system or down a residential drain. Every drop of such wastewater must be disposed of in an approved, enhanced drainage system like those installed in restaurants, which employ a grease-trapping system. All vendors licensed before January 1 will have until sometime later in the year to comply with the new requirement.
The bottom line: licensed food trucks and trailers are every bit as trustworthy as an established restaurant. Critical violations bring swift response from the Health Department and as with brick and mortar restaurants, shutdowns aren't conducive to public trust or successful business practices. Mobile chefs either comply or fail as a business.
Wise, who's responsible for all the local trucks, trailers and stands said there are more than 100 operating in Tulsa. The total represents several different types of mobile food vendors, from ice cream trucks, carts and stands at the fair, outdoor hot dog carts, beer vendors, produce stands and the very popular taco trucks.
The Health Department has also issued more than a dozen special "events only" licenses for businesses that only provide event catering.
Los Hermanos, a truck that has parked just south of 21st and Garnett Road for six months now, is one of five co-owned by Gilberto Montelongo. Between he, his brother and sister, the family owns two trucks in Tulsa and Georgia and one in California.
Los Hermanos operates out of an old Little Debbie delivery truck that has been retrofitted for taco truck use. The Debbie logo is still clearly visible under the Los Hermanos sign -- a strange culinary dichotomy to say the least. Montelongo is particularly proud of his tortas and tacos. In the short time I was there, he served up a steady, diverse stream of walk-up customers, including a group of young Hispanics, several older Asians and an Anglo gentleman as well.
"It's verrry slow, when it's cold," Montelongo said. "I hope business is good this summer, we need it."
As is the case with every full-time truck owners, Los Hermanos is open regardless of the weather. Hot, cold, rain and even snow, this is a livelihood independent of the elements.
Rafael Molina Rodriguez, owner of El Ranchero Tacos y Mariscos just east of U.S. 169 and 41st Street agrees.
"We are open every day, rain or shine."
Rodriguez owns one of the bigger trailers in town and is debuting a new truck in just a few weeks, which is about to be presented to the Health Department for its final inspection.
Rodriguez is helped by his wife Inez and his son and daughter. The truck is truly a family business, as most are. Rodriguez's truck has been in the same location for four years. As is the case with many of the truck and trailer owners, Rodriguez signed a lease with the owner of the parking lot. Beyond the financial agreement, food trucks and trailers have physical commitment to be on-site and open consistently.
Rodriguez said that business has been very good, much of which he attributes to his location. "I have Mexican, Anglo, African-American and Asian customers," he said.
Rodriguez picked his spot wisely. Since he is equidistant from Midtown and East Tulsa, as well as between far South and Downtown Tulsa, attracts customers from every direction. At this time, he is only open from 5pm to midnight, and 5pm to 3am on weekends, said he will soon be open for lunch, at the behest of many of his customers. His location is only feet away from an upscale chain hotel, which has perks, too, he said.
"I have a group of American Airlines pilots that come here every Tuesday night when they stop here overnight," he said, joking that the pilots tell him, "'Rafael, you are known from here all the way to San Diego, where we're from!'"
Rodriguez said his bestselling items all feature camarones (shrimp): shrimp tacos, shrimp cocktail, shrimp anything.
When quizzed on how much he sells per week, Rodriguez's answer was astounding: 50 pounds. I'll help you with the math on this one.
Rodriguez uses a 40/50 shrimp, which means there's roughly 45 shrimp per pound. Each shrimp is about the size of an average child's middle finger. According to him a shrimp cocktail ($7) has about 16 shrimp. That means in an average week he's cooking, peeling and de-veining about 2,200 shrimp. He's doing something right if he sells that much consistently.
As I stood at the window visiting with Rodriguez and his wife, a couple of guys pulled up. A young man stepped out of the passenger's side, walked up to the food truck's window and laid a $20 on the counter.
"I'd like as many tacos as this will buy," he said.
The customer -- Vincent -- said he and his cousin were just driving by when they noticed the aroma. The guys did a u-turn and came back to check it out.
"I never cook" Vincent said, "but I'm always hungry. This place smelled so good I just had to try it!"
A minute or two later, two huge bags of food appeared in the window. Vincent shook my hand, picked up his tacos and was on his way.
Many mobile food fans have a particular truck or trailer they frequent. While Vincent admitted that he had never been to this one, and pointed east in the general direction of his "usual" food truck. Vincent promised he'd return to Rodriguez's truck and said that as much as he eats out, he has plenty of room on his list of favorite spots.
Other customers weren't so cavalier.
As I sat in front of one of the seven trailers in the 21st and Garnett Road area, an outfit named Tacos el Chapulin owned by Zanaido Ramos and his wife, I struck up a conversation with a family of four sitting at the other end of the table -- Karen and Luis, their 4-year-old son and Luis' mother.
The family follows a very democratic routine. Luis' favorite was right there at Tacos el Chapulin, but Karen admitted that while the tacos were really good, "My favorite is Pollos," which turned out to be Pollos Asados a la Lena Numero Dos at 11th Street and U.S. 169, "and my mother-in-law likes the shrimp tacos at El Ranchero."
Another score for our friend Rodriguez.
On the go
The impermanent, exposed nature of food trucks and trailers makes them a bit more vulnerable than brick and mortar restaurants. Also, many food trucks are busiest late at night after the bars close. Most have security cameras and Montelongo said that while he was robbed about three months ago at 2am, such crime is a fluke. All the same, Montelongo started closing at midnight to avoid those leaving the bars late at night.
"I just don't want to deal with the drunks," he said.
The owner of Tacos el Chapulin (el chapulin means grasshopper, and there's a huge one painted on the side of the lime green trailer) at 21st and Garnett is open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to capitalize on those busy times.
Rodriguez has hired a security guard to patrol late at night, which helps him feel safe.
Montelongo also knows the owner of a truck who was shot in a robbery several weeks ago. "He's doing much better, but he is still in the hospital," he said.
Street vendors in larger cities are serving everything from ceviche, chimichurri burgers, jerk chicken, teriyaki, Korean bulkogi, gyros, donuts, ice cream and much more.
While Tulsa has yet to see this much diversity yet, the day could be getting closer. Recently, several catering companies have branched out into the food truck business. Catered events typically don't fare well in tough economic times, so caterers are eager to find other ways to generate business.
Angie Johnson, owner of Eats2U Catering and Teri Fermo, owner of Bohemia Catering, both in Tulsa, have recently opened upscale mobile food trucks to help their businesses branch out.
To the surprise of many, there are almost 60 full-time, year-round food vendors in Tulsa County. With the exception of a few barbecue, hamburger and hot dog carts, a new gyro truck and Johnson and Fermo's new ventures, the rest are primarily taco trucks and trailers.
From a typical entrepreneur's point of view, it's easy to see why mobile food is such a popular idea. Maintenance costs are less than a permanent, physical location. According to restaurantowner.com, the average start-up cost for a restaurant is $450,000-$500,000, whereas opening a food trailer or truck typically costs between $10,000-$15,000.
Generally, payroll is small, there is no décor to speak of and utilities and cleaning costs are minimal.
One of the biggest risks for any business is down time, be it an hour, a day or a month. The restaurant industry, like all others, is cyclical in nature. What if you could just pick up and move to another spot one day to start anew in an area that has just seen an up-tick in construction, or relocate to catch re-routed traffic, park outside a large sporting event or distance yourself from an area that becomes competition saturated?
What if you could take your business to a college campus at breakfast, a downtown location at lunch, and several neighborhoods at dinnertime? It's the epitome of chasing your market, on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
While the idea of cooking and serving food on the go sounds ideal, the reality is less practical if you have a trailer or stand as opposed to an actual truck, at least in Tulsa. Most of the 30 or so local vendors Urban Tulsa Weekly visited were actually trailers, which still affords the owners mobility, but it isn't as easy as just packing up and driving off.
For one, almost every location had electric hook-ups, water connections and large gas cylinders. Plus, as many owners reminded us, truck and trailer proprietors can't just pull away from the curb and slosh down the road. Food and kitchen equipment must be covered, stowed and secured before the trucks and trailers are truly mobile. Of course, trailer owners must also have access to a vehicle capable of towing, something not everyone has.
Additionally, the Health Department must be alerted to any re-location, Wise said.
"Essentially, I don't have any recourse if they don't, but they are all very good about keeping me informed," she said.
And in Tulsa, securing prime spot to park your food business usually means making a long-term commitment to parking lot owners and managers.
One argument against such food on the go is the benefit of having a consistent location. While it's nice to have the option to chase business, some owners said that a large portion of their trade comes from a repeat customer base. Being dependable and open every day in the same spot goes a long way toward running a successful street food business.
UTW spoke with several popular trailer owners whose growing success actually became their undoing in a way, albeit temporarily.
One couple who regularly set up in grocery store parking lots were the victims of "trailer envy" when the management asked them to leave because they had decided to start selling food in their brick and mortar establishments and didn't want the competition.
A worker at Pollos Asados a la Lena trailer -- which serves great carne asada burritos -- situated in a small back lot just south of Interstate 244 on Lewis Avenue, said the trailer's owner was asked to leave after the Las Americanas grocery store started serving food inside the store.
The owner of Tacos el Chapulin told us through her English-speaking 12 year old that they had been set up along 11th Street for years and were recently forced to relocate for a similar reason.
Every truck and trailer UTW visited had an obvious neighborhood feel, and many of the customers were walk or ride-your-bicycle-up clientele.
Eating at a food truck or street vendor is an inherently social experience, too, without the issue of a reservation or a babysitter.
It's also very affordable.
Of the sites UTW visited in Tulsa, almost all were taco trucks. The average price per taco? A whopping $1, and an order of three is a filling meal for the average diner.
Finding the food
The biggest downside to food trucks and trailers is often finding out where they are. Larger cities are known to organize food truck Saturdays, an open to all, pre-publicized location on a specific day where the public can taste and sample without having to drive all over a sprawling city like Denver or Los Angeles.
In Tulsa the street vendors are largely clustered by neighborhood, with the largest concentration in an area from 11th to 41st Streets, from Mingo to Garnett Roads. There are other pockets, including seven or eight that set up every Saturday at the flea market parking lot on Admiral Place and a few in the Lewis Avenue and Admiral area, too.
Most locations have a handful of tables setup in front and you'll often find yourself seated with folks you don't know. It's a very social, community atmosphere, and usually loaded with families, kids and grandparents waiting for their food. It's quite obvious that many customers are regulars and know the owners and other frequent customers as well.
The tacos at these venues typically feature a small flour tortilla that's about the diameter of an English muffin. The tacos are heated on a griddle, stacked two high to contain your choice of ingredients and garnished with a bit of onion and cilantro. Sometimes the table hosts a variety of sauces, pico de gallo, a fresh vegetable relish and Mexican lime wedges.
What this isn't is Tex-Mex tacos on a fried corn tortilla shell. Trucks and trailers don't mean fast food. Orders are prepared as they're placed, and everything is as fresh as food comes.
The more efficient trucks and trailers have three to four people working in the tiny kitchen. One person at the order window, another working the grill, someone at the fryer and one worker doing prep work.
Wise said many of the kitchens are so small that when the Health Department comes to inspect, the workers actually have to leave to make room for the inspector. Imagine a group of people working with all that equipment in a space the size of a large walk-in closet, and you can get an idea.
In today's economy, and with an increasingly casual, informal lifestyle taking the forefront in many of our lives, the food truck is here to stay. It's not just good, fresh food; it's a cultural experience as well.
You owe it to yourself and your family to get out and tour Tulsa's trucks and trailers.
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