What the truck?!!
City laws force Sacramento’s food trucks to move every 30 minutes and shut down at sunset. Local food bloggers aim to change the rules—and are taking this food fight to the streets.
It’s Monday lunch hour. The intoxicating aroma of meat searing on a hot grill overtakes a Midtown street corner. But there are no barbecues, or fast-food joints nuking hockey pucks. Instead, that eye-widening burger perfume originates from open skylights atop a food truck parked on 21st Street. Called the Mini Burger Truck, its promise of wee cheeseburgers and sweet-potato tots has seduced a dozens-strong lunchtime rush of customers ordering curbside, then waiting, the gentlest of April showers spraying the crowd.
Local chef Davin Vculek co-owns Mini Burger. He once cooked for Food Network star Guy Fieri’s restaurants, but today powers away inside a 15-by-10-foot metal box on wheels with just a grill cook and counter girl. The trio knocks out a good 20 or so orders in what seems like 10 minutes. And customers keep showing up.
So it’s too bad Mini Burger suddenly must close shop. Cool the grill, lower the awning, hit the road.
What the truck?!
You might call it the Gone in 30 Minutes rule: In 2008, the city of Sacramento revised its laws that regulate mobile-food trucks. Now, owners must move to a different location every half-hour, in addition to obeying a slew of other new rules.
As executive chef and owner of local Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen food truck Andrew “Drewski” Blaskovich puts it: “The rule makes making a living with a food truck pretty challenging.
“I mean, the hardest part is finding places to park.”
Owners and their most loyal customers say the law creates an unfair marketplace. They have a key ally, Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has gone on the record stating that the mobile-food laws should be revisited.
But local restaurateurs counter that easing regulations would mean the end for a whole fleet of brick-and-mortar cafes, delis, coffeehouses and snack shops.
Still, the idea of a Sacramento street-food scene—carts offering warm samosas as the bars let out, Korean taco trucks dotting Fulton Avenue, maybe even a vendor roasting chestnuts on J Street during winter—at least smells good.
And so-called gourmet food trucks like Drewski’s and Mini Burger, which belie the typical stereotype of “roach coach” microwaves on wheels, are multiplying by the hundreds in cities such as Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Even Joe and Gavin Maloof’s favorite burger joint, Carl’s Jr., has a truck.
Sacramento didn’t get its first gourmet food truck until this past January, but already a contingent of local activists are organizing. This Saturday is their big party: the Sacramento Mobile Food Festival, or SactoMoFo, which will showcase Northern California trucks and vendors all parked together in Midtown’s Fremont Park.
These trucks often serve a cultural mishmash of international eats, such as South African “bunny chow” stew or escargot lollipops, plus fetishized American fare, like hot dogs wrapped in bacon. And, yes, little teeny hamburgers.
One Mini Burger loyalist, Kaiser employee Melba Carter, says she got hooked on the fare when she discovered it outside her workplace last month. “The smell just drew me to the truck,” she laughs. Now, she follows the Mini Burger on Twitter—location updates throughout the day—and even drives all the way into Midtown from Arden Arcade to enjoy a bite with her husband, Ernest.
“That’s one thing about the recession,” Carter says. “You still have to spend money on food.”
City Hall cracks down
Tak, tak, tak, tak, tak.
A butcher’s knife bears down relentlessly on helpless carne asada, pollo, lengua. The whacks can be heard outside La Mex, a food truck strategically parked in this north Sacramento parking lot’s only shady spot, just past the Northgate and El Camino boulevards intersection. Tacos set you back a dollar. Cilantro, onions and tangy green or piquant red salsas are on the house.
La Mex leases a space from a nearby liquor store. It’s the same location of yet another local taco truck, La Piedad. Both La Mex and Piedad sell upward of 500 tacos a day, according to employees. And before the city laws pertaining to mobile-food trucks changed in 2008, there were some two dozen other trucks just like them.
Today, only 10 remain.
The city allows these older trucks to operate in the same place without relocating every 30 minutes. At least until 2013, when the 10 must abide the new rules just like Drewski’s and Mini Burger.
Local food enthusiast and blogger Joshua Lurie-Terrell, who’s garnered attention from the likes of National Public Radio for his taco-truck coverage on YumTacos.com, was first drawn to street food a decade ago on his honeymoon in Thailand, where he and his wife ate most of their meals from street vendors.
“I love the fact that it’s cooking right in front of you,” he marvels. “And they don’t need to advertise, because you can smell it for a block.”
He says these local taco trucks in north Sac weren’t nuisances. Just businessmen serving working-class neighbors, including cops. “They were never really a threat to restaurants in the first place,” he says, “because there weren’t really that many.”
Yet in 2008, city council voted unanimously 8-0 (Councilman Rob Fong recused himself) to clamp down on the trucks.
City revenue manager Brad Wasson remembers working on the ordinance for five years, beginning in 2003. He says that mobile-food vending is an issue that comes up regularly at City Hall—“It probably recycles about five to seven years,” Wasson told SN&R—and that this time he’d been tasked to look at trucks operating on private property.
There had been complaints, specifically from Councilwomen Bonnie Pannell and Sandy Sheedy’s districts: trucks blocking pedestrians and causing traffic, driving through neighborhoods late at night, parking in front of restaurants, littering, even allegedly selling plastic toy guns and cigarettes.
As one council staffer put it, street vendors and food trucks were “turning the neighborhoods into Denio’s.”
But at an April 2006 law and legislation committee meeting, two local food-truck operators turned the process on its head, a Rastafarian ruckus.
Kimba Kabaka and James “Roots” Ortiz, who operated Roots-N-Kulchah vegan Caribbean truck out of a lot on the corner of K and 24th streets next to neighborhood bar The Golden Bear, had heard the city was considering banning food trucks from private property. They showed up at the meeting to be heard, which Wasson says was “quite the debate.”
Kabaka and Ortiz argued exhaustively that food trucks had a place in Sacramento’s communities. Intrigued, the committee, led by Councilwoman Sheedy, asked staff to go back to the drawing board with the proposed ordinance. “That probably added another year to the process,” Wasson recalls.
In the end the city decided to not allow food trucks to drop anchor for longer than a half-hour. A February 26, 2008, staff report argued that the “unregulated operation of food vending vehicles can result in threats to the health, safety and welfare of the city of Sacramento.” And so, the 30-minute rule was born.
“I was kind of surprised when it happened,” Lurie-Terrell says of the ordinance revision.
The new rules were many. Trucks must move 400 feet every 30 minutes. They can never park in the vicinity of other trucks, or where a truck has previously parked during a business day. All food serving must stop by 6 or 8 p.m., depending on the time of year. No parking within 100 feet of a lighted intersection. And it’s basically illegal to park and sell food on private property.
Meanwhile, other cities were embracing food trucks.
In Portland, the mayor personally championed street food so as to achieve his goal of a more “walkable city.” He eased regulations, created mobile-food districts in the city’s industrial outer reaches and let vendors operate in the same spot for hours—and watched as more than 400 trucks, carts and pods registered for business permits with City Hall between 2008 and 2010. More than in New York City, the mayor brags.
During this same period, Sacramento’s mobile-food pulse was in the red. Endangered species. Flattened like a tortilla.
Exterminating the roach coach
At noon on a breezy summer Friday, state workers and downtown dwellers converge on Capitol Park—only to discover a fleet of ramshackle food trucks spewing exhaust and schilling dollar coffees and microwave burritos has overtaken the park.
Local restaurateurs—such as Randy Paragary, who employs hundreds of Sacramentans—have reservations about what a mobile- and street-food culture would look like if the city were to amend its ordinance.
Paragary told SN&R last week that his restaurants aren’t “threatened” by trucks, but that changing the ordinance would imperil certain non-“dinner-house” businesses, such as downtown and Midtown coffeehouses, delis, cafes and snack shops. Trucks will “cherry-pick” prime locations, he argues, and “park there all day.”
He says if you change the rules, it will “open the floodgates” for the “hundreds of trucks” who until the past couple years used to cater to the region’s construction sites. But area construction is at a standstill. And if you give them an opportunity to go downtown, they will.
“I’m literally talking about a roach coach parking in front of the Capitol building.”
So, “How do you legislate who can be out on the streets and who can’t? Who’s the gourmet police?” he asks. “Who’s going to discriminate?”
Truck advocates such as Lurie-Terrell say that the current laws already favor these so-called roach coaches—a term he calls “crypto-fascist”—arguing that the “30-minute rule gives an enormous advantage to these trucks at the expense of trucks making fresh-to-order food.”
And Mini Burger chef Vculek thinks you shouldn’t have to discriminate. “Gourmet or not, a food truck’s a food truck,” he says. “The customers are going to dictate if the truck is going to stay open based on [the quality of] its food.”
Davin launched his Mini Burger truck in late January and says, because of the ordinance and having to move every 30 minutes, he leaves a lot of sales behind. Not to mention that customers, who track the truck’s location on Facebook and Twitter, “are not always confident that we are always going to be there” since they’re constantly on the go. (City officials have issued Mini Burger a warning only once for remaining in the same place too long.)
His truck attracts a good 50 to 100 people at each stop, he says, and he targets areas where there are not a lot of food options. “We’re not asking to park in front of restaurants,” he reminds.
Ideally, he’d like to be able to remain in one location at least for three hours.
Paragary allows for little wiggle room: “It’s supposed to be temporary. A mobile-food truck. You honk your horn. Construction workers come running out on their break and you move on.
“If you don’t limit it, they won’t move on.”
Paul Somerhausen, social food and dining group Sacramento Epicureans director going on eight years and one of SactoMoFo’ organizers, describes himself as a “food enthusiast,” regardless of whether it’s sold out of a restaurant or a truck. He’s helping fellow food enthusiasts Lurie-Terrell and local blogger Catherine Enfield put on this weekend’s SactoMoFo festival.
“Any time a business gets bullied, I don’t think that’s right,” he says of the city ordinance.
He also reminds that the roach-coach stigma still impacts trucks, even though there’s no such thing as a roach coach. At least in Sacramento.
Supervisor of environmental health Mark Barcellos issues food-vending permits for Sacramento County. “In my 15 years, we’ve only closed one truck for actually having roaches on the truck,” he says. “So either the roaches don’t like it on there, or [owners] keep them clean.”
Barcellos says last year the county inspected 151 food trucks, 350 produce and ice-cream trucks and 156 hot-dog or coffee carts. Inspections are conducted at the beginning of the year at the county headquarters. And only 28 food trucks needed reinspection, typically for not having a sink, hot water or not storing food at correct temperatures.
At the festival, Somerhausen says that truck operators will leave kitchen doors open so that people can “look inside and get past the prejudice of the roach-coach stereotype.”
Chef Vculek thinks people will embrace the trucks, both for the quality and cleanliness of the food and also the convivial and communal nature of dining at them. “When you go to McDonald’s, you’re just rushing through.” he says. “We see people all the time who are meeting at the truck, strangers talking with each other.”
A big step for today’s diners, who appear to spend many a meal toying with the latest iPhone app.
Speaking of trends: Is this food-truck movement here to say, or just another fad?
“It is easy to see it as fashionable,” Lurie-Terrell admits. “But it’s not just a type of food. I think the more the community has their eyes open to food from other parts of the world, the more audience there will be for these trucks.”
Perhaps even Randy Paragary?
“I don’t really know that much about it,” the restaurateur concedes.
“I haven’t had a chance to buy a burger from the Mini Burger guy.”
Drive-through gourmand’s dream
Drewski’s flashy tangerine food truck idles in the shade out front of a neighborhood dive just a block away from downtown’s popular R Street Corridor restaurants and bars. An equally vivid orange sunset blasts through the city’s tree canopy. It’s Saturday night, 7:45 p.m. In precisely 15 minutes, Drewski will have to cease taking orders, chill the grill and call it a night. As per the city ordinance: Trucks cannot operate past 8 p.m., remember?
So “Drewski”—whose truck logo features his likeness holding a giant sandwich and a butcher’s knife—too often drives away from business. Like the women who just barely ordered two of his sandwiches this evening: They were heading to Target when they saw his fiery kitchen on wheels. “That was the shortest visit to Target ever,” one of the women jokes.
Another couple in their early 30s also says they were on their way to meet friends for dinner—but stopped at the truck and ordered a sandwich anyway.
In between rushes, Drewski, who learned to cook by “stretching three ingredients into five meals” as a kid making dinner for his siblings and single mom, laments that he can’t operate his Hot Rod until Sacramento’s clubs empty into the night. “I want to be parked nearby when the bars get out,” he explains. “Help people sober up.”
Vculek at Mini Burger, the only other gourmet truck operating in the city at this time, agrees.
“We want to be able to be out there with the clubs, serve food at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he says, “because there aren’t really a lot of options.
“And we all know downtown Sacramento night life needs a shot in the arm.”
This week, the last of April, marks Drewski’s first as a chef on wheels. He explains that he’d hoped to get the Hot Rod Kitchen started sooner, but that it took longer than anticipated to have the vibrant truck art wrapped around his metal “guzzler.” His first night actually cooking and selling was last Second Saturday; he parked in an alley in Midtown and served mostly friends and acquaintances next to salon Spanish Fly.
This Saturday, he’s sold “about 60 orders”; his goal is 100 per day.
The fare at both trucks emphasizes locally sourced produce, meats and breads and reinvents traditional American fast food. Drewski’s Hot Rod serves what has been described as “pumped-up” grilled-cheese sandwiches. For instance, the braised Korean short rib on the “Mustang” is rich with a nice spice from house-made kimchi and sriracha-wasabi aioli spread. Plus it’s got all the food groups, including crunchy and cheesy: crispy daikon strings, grilled sourdough bread and melted havarti.
And while it’s not microgastronomy, the mac ’n’ cheese balls—made with four types of fromage and compound black truffle butter—crack upon biting, then melt in your mouth, a veritable drive-through gourmand’s dream.
At Mini, you’ll find Vculek and Co. grilling slightly larger than fist-sized burgers, made of natural, hormone and antibiotic-free beef, including one made with Asian slaw, lotus chips and pea shoots; and his best seller, the Cowbell: bacon, pepper jack, grilled onions, barbecue sauce. The fries are hand-cut. And you’ll wish you’d had his sweet-potato tater tots while snacking late night during your college years.
Sacramento food blogger Enfield, of www.munchiemusings.net, is a major champion of these guys’ trucks, in addition to co-organizing this weekend’s SactoMoFo. “This is gourmet-level food,” she praises. And the chefs listen: Drewski recently tweaked his kimchi recipe so as to give it a bit more bite after Enfield wrote that it had “no kick.”
So far, Drewski and Vculek say hot spots include downtown’s CalPERS building, the California Lottery headquarters on N. 10th Street and the Department of Motor Vehicles on Broadway. “We’re targeting areas that don’t have any food options,” Vculek explains. Those who try the trucks remain loyal.
“Once the people see it in its full glory,” Enfield says, “they’re going to support [food trucks] and say, ‘We want this in Sacramento.’
“‘Why are we one of the last cities in the country to get it?’”
Here come the trucks
Sacramento’s only two gourmet food trucks crossed paths in the night.
Actually, it was a late Tuesday afternoon. Mini Burger heading one way on R Street, Drewski’s the other. And, like that scene in Heat when Robert De Niro finally sits down for coffee with Al Pacino, Drewski and Davin stopped and pulled over for a chat.
“We’re very friendly to each other,” says Vculek. “[Drewski] came to me for advice before opening, since day one. Whereas the restaurants are traditionally very competitive and don’t share best practices.”
Drewski praises Mini Burger. He wrote on Facebook after their chance encounter last week: “As the kids say, it was off the chain (really good).”
Both drivers hope a new city ordinance will allow them to sometimes park at the same spot, even during the evening, creating a sort-of food-truck destination in the central city where people can go and sample a few eats. Kind of like the California State Fair’s food vendors.
For now, however, they plan to soon unite once a week in a lot out in the county, somewhere along Arden Way or Fulton Avenue.
Munchie Musings’ Enfield thinks this would work. “The economy has changed,” she observes. “What the public wants has changed.” She notes that even admired brick-and-mortar spots with loyal clientele keep disappearing, such as downtown’s Fog Mountain Café, distinguished by its house-made soups, which went out of business a few weeks back.
Meanwhile, popular restaurants, including roadside stand Chando’s Tacos on Arden Way near Del Paso Boulevard, plan to soon launch food-truck versions of their brick-and-mortar eateries.
More soon may come. Enfield and festival co-organizers Lurie-Terrell and Somerhausen anticipate a wildly favorable reaction to this weekend’s SactoMoFo, which already boasts nearly 1,500 RSVPs on Facebook.
But their work will continue after the festival: The next step will be to coordinate a round-table discussion including both local food-truck and restaurant owners, city officials, the California Restaurant Association—whose members include food trucks and which has largely remained on the sidelines—and local chefs, including possibly Randall Selland and Patrick Mulvaney, who they say have expressed interest in the mobile-food movement.
“I personally feel we’ll be able to get [the ordinance] changed within the next year,” Enfield predicts, “maybe even by the end of the year.”
Somerhausen is more cautiously optimistic. “I don’t want to take it by storm and change it just because,” he says. “I want everyone to have a say.”
Today, even council members, for instance, Councilman Steve Cohn, have gone on the record stating that they regret the ordinance vote and would like to see the laws change.
“I would not be surprised at all if were asked again to look at it,” says city revenue manager Wasson.
Chef Vculek, who plans on launching three more trucks in June—two of them serving different, as-yet-undisclosed fare, he shares—agrees: “I’ve very optimistic. The mayor’s office has actually reached out to us, which is very exciting.”
This past month, both Chicago and Minneapolis revisited their mobile-food vendor laws so as to foster a thriving food-truck culture, an industry they think can serve food in underserved areas and revitalize neighborhoods.
And it seems many Sacramentans share this vision. And hold out hope that brick-and-mortar restaurants will embrace the role gourmet food trucks could play in upping the dining and culinary-arts ante in Sacramento. Which in turn will up everyone’s game. Diners will be newly seduced by the smells of culinary spirit—the tang of simmering Carolina pulled pork, that magnetism of fried potatoes—and spend more hard-earned cash eating out.
Drewski thinks everyone will eventually see eye to eye.
“I’m not going to go park in front of a grilled-cheese house,” he assures, if tongue-in-cheek. “It’s just respect.
“I want everyone to be successful.”