Despite the odds, the St. Louis food-truck scene continues to grow
Jason Siebert, co-owner of the Sweet Divine, takes orders Nov. 22, 2013, at the Festival of Lights holiday celebration at Kiener Plaza. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, email@example.com
December 05, 2013 11:30 pm • By Ian Froeb firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll admit it. I was wrong about food trucks.
When the first of the new generation of food trucks rolled onto the streets of St. Louis a few years ago, I was curious — even excited. Not because we were embracing a trend that had already spread through “hipper” cities. Rather, I liked that several of these trucks were experimenting with concepts worth seeking out on their own merits: the pan-Latin flavors of Cha Cha Chow; the Korean-Mexican fusion of Seoul Taco; the creative Filipino fare of Guerrilla Street Food.
Yet as the number of food trucks proliferated in 2011 and 2012, from the teens into the 20s and then into the 30s, I was certain the bubble was about to burst.
The city itself has precious few public spaces where food trucks can operate legally. Newly licensed truck operators receive a map of the approved downtown vending zone. A shaded circle denotes the no-go zone, which extends in a 200-foot radius from each brick-and-mortar restaurant. The circles cover most of the vending zone.
“Every time a new restaurant opens,” says Guerrilla Street Food owner Joel Crespo, “they draw a new circle.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis County presented a hodge-podge of rules. Some municipalities welcomed food trucks. Others — Clayton, most notably, given its bustling lunch crowd — did not (and do not) allow them.
Which is to say nothing of how many of those 30-something food trucks were actually any good. Surely, I thought, once the novelty has worn off, once the trucks must face a prolonged spell of bitter winter weather, the Great Food Truck Reckoning would be upon us, and only a few hardy souls would survive.
Instead, as 2013 draws to a close, I count more than 40 food trucks operating in the St. Louis area. Though the number of public spaces in the city remains small, Cha Cha Chow co-owner Kandace Davis says the atmosphere of conflict that had prompted restaurant owners to call the police on trucks infringing the no-go zones has largely passed. “That’s much better,” she says. “We’ve hopped over most of the hurdles.”
Still, the crush of trucks in the city vying for both the approved public spaces and such popular gathering spots as the Wells Fargo campus in midtown and Barnes-Jewish Hospital has forced food-truck operators to look to new markets.
“The city is inundated,” Davis says. “But there are places in the county where you go to find people who’ve never had a single food truck.”
“A lot of people are going into the county more,” says Crespo. “We survive a lot because of the county.”
Rather than deal with the regulations of a specific county municipality, truck operators rely on being invited onto the private property of a specific office building or a business park that is home to several different companies.
Josh Lemmon has operated his Burger Ink. truck solely in St. Louis County and St. Charles County. The appeal is obvious, he says. At a business where he has been invited or has requested permission to serve, “I’m guaranteed to be the only truck.”
Crespo says even at business parks, Guerrilla Street Food can attract new customers from the general public. At one of the truck’s favorite spots, Corporate Hill near Manchester Road and Interstate 270, he figures the truck draws as many drive-up customers as it does from the business park itself.
The drivers, he says, “don’t work near where the trucks usually go.”
A few trucks have expanded into brick-and-mortar operations: the Sweet Divine in Soulard; Seoul Taco in the Delmar Loop; and Hot Aztec in Fenton. For Burger Ink.’s Lemmon, an actual restaurant was the goal all along.
“I’ve been wanting to do a restaurant since I was 8 years old,” he says. His chefs at culinary school “came to me and said I should start out smaller.”
Finally, Lemmon will open his restaurant early next year in Wentzville. He isn’t ready to reveal the exact location yet.
Crespo and his business partner, Brian Hardesty, have been eyeing a brick-and-mortar location for some time. (A recent crowdfunding effort to raise money toward a storefront fell short of its goal.)
The appeal of a restaurant is financial and logistical. The truck currently rents commissary space from a local restaurant, and while the relationship is a good one, Crespo says, “You don’t want to be in the way. You don’t want to impose.”
What’s more, he says, “We want to start a second food truck, and it doesn’t make sense to rent [commissary space] from two different kitchens.”
And, of course, a brick-and-mortar operation would address one of the main challenges every food truck must face: how to deal with the inevitable downturn in business when winter arrives.
A Guerrilla Street Food restaurant “just seems like the next step,” Crespo says. With the truck, “we could skate along and just get by, but obviously no one wants to just get by.”
NOW SERVING IN STL
More than 40 food trucks now operate in the St. Louis area. Here’s a rundown of what’s served, along with the trucks’ Twitter handles, where you can find their locations: 2 Girls 4 Wheels (@2Girls4Wheels):
A St. Louis spin on lunchtime favorites, including a cheesesteak with Provel and brats braised in Budweiser. Andrew’s Bayou Ribs (@bayouribs):
An assortment of barbecue, including ribs, rib tips, hot links and pork steaks. Baked & Loaded (@BakedLoaded):
A refurbished school bus with a unique specialty: “wraps” made of baked shredded potato topped with various meats, vegetables and sauces. Bombay Food Junkies (@bombayfoodtruck):
The vegetarian street fare of the truck’s namesake city. Vada pav, a deep-fried patty of spicy mashed potatoes in chickpea flour, is a signature dish. Brazil Express by Yemanja (@YemanjaBrazil):
Kebabs, empanadas and more Brazilian fare from the Benton Park restaurant Yemanja Brasil. Burger Ink. (@BurgerInk):
Burgers with various toppings. The truck operates mostly in St. Louis County. A brick-and-mortar location is in the works. Cha Cha Chow (@whereschacha):
Latin American-influenced tacos, including curried sweet potato, pulled pork and beef short rib with red cabbage-lime slaw. The Cheese Shack (@cheeseshack_stl):
A rotating menu of such grilled-cheese sandwiches as the Big Pig (pulled pork, mac and cheese, and slices of cheddar cheese). Chop Shop (@ChopShopSTL):
Burrito-size sushi rolls from Eliott Harris, who won acclaim as sushi chef at Miso on Meramec. Completely Sauced (@saucedonwheels):
A variety of Cajun and Creole dishes, including po’ boys, jambalaya, crab cakes, gumbo and beignets. Curbside Cookery (@CurbsideCookery):
Grilled sandwiches and burritos. Mac and cheese is and available with bacon in a waffle cone or as “nachos” with Doritos and beef or chicken. Deli on a Roll (@DELIonaROLL):
Hot and cold deli sandwiches, including cheesesteaks, kosher hot dogs and a reuben with either pastrami or corned beef. Destination Desserts (@DessertTruckSTL):
Baked goods including cupcakes and cookies. All proceeds benefit the Center for Head Injury Services. The Fire & Ice Cream Truck (@FireandIceCream):
A seasonal truck — a vintage 1946 Ford firetruck, in fact — serving ice cream. Go! Gyro! Go! (@GoGyroGo):
Traditional beef and lamb gyros as well as chicken souvlaki, chicken tahini and vegetables served gyro-style. Guerrilla Street Food (@GuerrillaStreet):
Inspired riffs on Filipino cuisine. Signature dishes include chicken adobo and the Flying Pig, spicy slow-roasted pork and an egg over rice. Holy Crepe! (@HolyCrepeSTL):
Savory and sweet crepes as well as soup. Holy Crepe! actually predates the food-truck boom of 2011. Hot Aztec (@HotAztec):
Tacos, tortas and Oaxacan-style bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Hot Aztec opened a storefront at 1914 Bowles Avenue in Fenton this summer. La Tejana Taqueria (@lttonwheels):
Tacos, tortas, tamales and more from the owners of the Bridgeton taqueria of the same name. L’Ecole Culinaire (@LeFoodTruck):
A frequently changing menu from the students of the local culinary school. Legghorn & Shakes (@Legghorns):
Chicken sandwiches and wraps. Also serves milkshakes. Closed for winter. Lulu’s Local Eatery (@LulusFoodTruck):
A frequently changing menu that uses local and organic ingredients as often as possible. Known for the plant beds on top of the truck itself. Man That's Good
): Burgers, fries, wings and more classic American food. The Meltdown (@TheMeltdownSTL):
Grilled-cheese sandwiches both classic (nothing but American cheese) and loaded with bacon and other additions. Quesadillas and soup are also available. My Big Fat Greek Truck (@GreekTruckSTL):
Gyros — the traditional beef and lamb as well as vegetable — souvlaki and other Greek fare. Sarah’s Cake Stop (@SarahsCakeStop):
A rotating selection of cupcakes from the West County bakery Sarah’s Cake Shop. Seoul Taco (@SeoulTaco):
Spicy pork tacos and more Korean-Mexican mashup cuisine. The wildly popular truck also runs a storefront at 571 Melville Avenue in the Delmar Loop. Shell’s Coastal Cuisine (@ShellsCoastal):
Fish tacos, conch fritters, Cuban sandwiches and more Caribbean-influenced dishes. Sia’s Italian Ice (@SiasItalianIce):
Various flavors of Italian ice. Slice of the Hill (@SliceoftheHill):
Individually portioned flatbread pizzas featuring ingredients from Hill businesses. Smoke N Motion (@SmokeNMotion):
A new truck from the local barbecue competition and catering outfit Que in the Lou. Smokin’ Monkey (@SmokinMonkeySTL):
Smoked and grilled dishes including jerk chicken, duck tacos, pulled pork and shrimp “lollipops.” Speedway Eatery (@SpeedwayEatery):
Burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, shrimp po’ boys and more classic American fare. St. Louisiana Q (@StLouisianaQ):
Hot dogs and Louisiana-influenced dishes like red beans and rice and Gator Red Bean Pie (red beans and sausage on a bed of Fritos with nacho cheese). Stely Belly (@StelyBelly):
Eclectic menu including a burger, chicken gyro and German-style currywurst. Among other payment methods, Stely Belly accepts Bitcoins, a virtual currency. Steamroller (@steamrollerstl):
A variety of meat and vegetable sandwiches served on steamed bagels. Street Life (@StreetLifeFood):
Burgers, steak sandwiches, catfish and shrimp po’ boys, and more. The Sweet Divine (@TheSweetDivine):
Its cupcakes have won on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” Sweet Divine also owns a shop at 1801 South Ninth Street in Soulard. Taco Truck STL (@TacoTruckSTL):
Tacos (both traditional Mexican and Americanized), burritos, nachos and quesadillas. Taste-D-Burger (@TasteDBurger):
Burgers of the smashed-thin variety served on buttered, toasted buns. Vincent Van Doughnut (@VinVanDoughnut):
Classic American yeast doughnuts with such toppings as salted caramel, candied maple bacon and orange glaze with cranberries and white chocolate. Walk Away Waffles (@walkawaywaffles):
Belgian-style waffles from the owners of the popular Kirkwood snow-cone stand Tropical Moose. Yo! Salsa (@JohnYolos):
Fish and chicken tacos and more Mexican-inspired cuisine. Often operates in Lake Saint Louis and other exurbs. Zia’s on the Hill (@Ziasonthehill):
Sandwiches, pasta, soup and more Italian-American fare from the popular Hill restaurant Zia’s. Ian Froeb (@ianfroeb) is the Post-Dispatch restaurant critic and Hip Hops beer columnist.
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