By Bill Chaisson
The Claremont City Council is currently developing a policy for allowing food trucks to do business hereabouts. Springfield, Vermont seems to have already, figured this out, as there numerous Yelp reviews of food trucks in that town. Other municipalities with mobile purveyors of comestibles include Hanover, Keene, and Lebanon.
Food trucks are a form of commerce that I associate with Millennials and hipsters. In fact, though, they have been around for much longer than that. The classic food truck in my memory was the one that circulated through parking lots next to factories and government buildings, or really anywhere there was a large number of working people who wanted to go outside and get something to eat at breakfast or lunch without wasting time traveling to a restaurant.
But the food trucks of today don’t tend to sell hamburgers, chicken salad sandwiches, and cake donuts. Instead, they tend to have some sort of culinary theme, be it ethnic, regional, subcultural, or some sort of food-philosophy trope like locavore or “slow food” or whatever.
I was introduced to the modern food truck at the Rochester (N.Y.) Public Market back in the 1990s. A family who had recently emigrated from Ecuador set up a truck every Saturday at the market and sold empanadas that were to die for. When I moved to Ithaca, New York in the early 2000s, I encountered the hipster approach. Your iconic story is that a couple of local folks have taken some sort of exotic vacation, experienced a transcendent cuisine, and come home thinking their mission in life was to bring that food to their culinarily-deprived American neighbors. “This, my friends,” they will say, “is a real taco/falafel/kabob/pho/curry/barbecue etc. … with my own personal twist ... and you must try it.” These folks may have only gotten as far away as Hickory, North Carolina, or they may have gone to Bali. In either case, they have returned to liberate our palates from grilled cheese and hot dogs.
Then there are the food trucks who are going to serve you grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs, but the cheese will have been made within 25 miles of where the truck is parked (and cured in a natural limestone cavern) and the hot dog will have been made from pasture-fed heritage-breed pigs or cows. The locavore approach is easier with a food truck than a brick-and-mortar restaurant because the overhead is less and you can therefore keep the price down. A cheese sandwich made from Windsor County cheddar that has been aged three years on artisan bread made from Vermont spelt and grilled over a fire fueled by wood pruned from regional apple orchards might cost twice as much, but it will taste a lot better and every time you buy one you are making a contribution to the regional economy.
When I lived in Ithaca in the 2000s and 2010s, the local food truck fleet was burgeoning. It is a college town and rents are high. Many food truck owners were using the mobile venue as a way to test drive a menu, as it were, build up a clientele and a reputation, and put aside money so that they could start their own brick-and-mortar establishment. This meant that the food truck contingent was perceived by the brick-and-mortar restaurants as direct competition. The brick-and-mortar folks claimed the food trucks were outright stealing their customers and they insisted that clauses be added to local laws to keep food trucks from doing business with some (large) prescribed radius around concentrations of restaurants.
But it can also work the other way. Sometimes brick-and-mortar restaurants see food trucks as a way of “going mobile,” and serving as a virtual rolling commercial for the menu of the mother ship. They want to show up at a baseball game, hoist the flag, start cooking for a captive audience, and then some of those happy customers will swing by the dining room downtown nourished by fond memories of an outdoor meal eaten in the bleachers.
Food trucks enrich the public space because they are a reason for people to show up at public markets, parks, ball games, and parades and eat with their neighbors al fresco. The more time people spend standing around in public, eating, and talking, the better. Food trucks are strongly associated with the public space. While the existence of private clubs and their associated private spaces are an important ingredient in many lives, they are not a substitute for a genuinely public space where the community is milling around together regardless of affiliation.
I look forward to Claremont’s rollout of a food truck policy. Food trucks can add variety to our local culinary offerings because the lower overhead allows for experimentation. Food trucks will sometimes compete with brick-and-mortar restaurants for your dollar, but their lower overhead shouldn’t be used as an unfair advantage. But this is an example of the local government having a legitimate role in regulating business. Well thought-out local laws can make sure that one sector of the community does not square off against another. We all want new businesses to complement the existing ones, not cause them to close.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times.