Curbside Cuisine Goes Big in Austin
Due to an unforgiving economy, the food trailer scene in Austin has exploded (in a good way)
During the past year, Austin has witnessed a huge explosion in not only the number of food trailers but also the diversity of the foods they serve. Where in 2006 there were 648 mobile food vendor permits, there are an amazing 1,600 projected for the end of 2011. Austin tracks along with the mobile cuisine trends being set in New York City, San Francisco, L.A., Portland, and every other food-centric city around the country, and it just makes good sense. The unforgiving economy has a lot to do with it; if you cannot afford to open a small restaurant for $250,000 (or much, much more), perhaps you can open a small food trailer for the affordable price of $25,000 (or much less). If you can't produce a two-page menu of culinary delights, perhaps you can put out two, three, or four perfect dishes that will get the public lined up and clamoring for more. For some, the food trailer may be a means of breaking into the restaurant world, maybe expanding once you're successful, opening other locations, a real restaurant, or even a chain of restaurants (for those bold dreamers).
Mobile food vendors are not new to Austin. We've always had versions of the conventional "roach coach"-style food vendor truck that cruises construction sites. But unless you were in the building trade or ventured over to the Eastside or frequented the Mexican flea markets, you'd rarely see any mobile food. We've always had the irregular street festival food booth gigs as well, and Kiwanis or Lions Club food and drink operations at ballparks. Sno-cone and shaved-ice stands made a big impact on the city street food scene, especially during our brutal summers. Church events with food vendors and neighborhood mobile food stands were common in the Latino and African-American neighborhoods, with Eastside barbecue and taco trailers being an Austin fixture for years. But Sixth Street is where this latest trend began.
Since 1993, Jon Notarthomas' the Best Wurst has dominated the sidewalk cuisine scene on Sixth Street. Along with several pizza outlets also on Sixth, Notarthomas is the one that really opened up the street food scene in the Entertainment District. Along came Flip Happy Crepes, and the expansion had officially begun spreading to new food types and other parts of town. Now there are food court trailer parks, where several complementary vendors cluster in one spot to share infrastructure costs. Most cuisine types and hybrids of types and even hybrids of hybrids are represented, save one: Asian (with apologies to Lulu B's ... you represent!). It's ironic considering there are so many Asian restaurants in town, and when you go anywhere in Asia, street food vendors usually outnumber conventional restaurants by a large margin.
Austin's curbside cuisine has been hugely popular and successful, and the genre has spawned several local vendor-centric blogs (www.austinfoodcarts.com, www.tastytouring.com, www.tacojournalism.com, etc.), and the national food trailer blog scene has gone equally crazy. But lurking on the horizon is the threat of a crackdown from the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department and City Council, spurred on by the dogged efforts of Snappy Snacks' Tom Ramsey – threatening much more restrictive controls on trailers and food courts, increased permits and fees, and more strenuous inspections. Reaction among vendors is negative, warning that it will put them out of business and greatly stifle the growth trend. If this happens, the real losers will be Austin's street scene diners, and another unique Austin trend will suffer from excess bureaucratic control.
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