A July "food truck roundup" on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City was such a success that it's become a weekly event on the street. Last week, an expanded Thursday night edition featured music.
When Jason King and his wife moved to New Orleans a year and a half ago, they decided to start a new venture: Frencheeze Food Truck, a mobile sandwich shop that could channel their love for "cheese, bread and butter." It was a bumpy start, King says, because New Orleans' laws about food trucks were so complicated and archaic. But that had an upside as well, he discovered.
"Because the laws were so overly cumbersome," he says, "the market here wasn't oversaturated like the rest of the country."
King and his wife eventually navigated City Hall, and Frencheeze opened this summer, serving up its versions of grilled cheese sandwiches at festivals and outside drinking establishments like the Prytania Bar and the Rendezvous Tavern.
In the last few years, food trucks have gone from a welcome trend to a ridiculously overexposed and exploited trend (ubiquitous TV chef Rachael Ray is launching the "first food truck for dogs" in New York this weekend), but in cities like Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, New York and Washington, D.C., they've settled into their own niche on the culinary landscape.
New Orleans has been slower to embrace food trucks, but it's not for lack of vendor interest. A "street fare derby" at the New Orleans Fair Grounds last year drew crowds that jammed the concourse. In July, a Tuesday night "food truck roundup" in the 2000 block of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard turned out to be such a success, drawing hundreds of people with little or no advertising beyond social media, that it evolved into a weekly event. The website NOLAFoodTrucks.com has received more than 50 inquiries this year from people looking to start their own food trucks.
What has long been a battle between food truck vendors (and aspiring food truck vendors) and the city's outdated, 60-year-old municipal code — which caps active vendor permits to 100, limits operating time to 45 minutes, and prevents trucks from operating within 600 feet of restaurants and schools — may now have, at least temporarily, come to a halt. At New Orleans City Council's economic development and special projects committee meeting Oct. 9, council president Stacy Head led the first public discussions to "totally revamp" laws that affect food trucks.
Head said she hopes to draft new mobile vendor laws and get them in effect by the end of the year. The biggest hurdles she faces, she said, are complaints from brick-and-mortar restaurants for the "unfair competitive advantage" from food trucks, and concerns about litter.
"Both of those concerns can be addressed 100 percent," she told Gambit. "We've learned in post-Katrina New Orleans that restaurants do well when other restaurants do well."
The New Orleans Food Truck Coalition organized in May to simplify and make legislative changes to current mobile vendor laws. Rachel Billow, who also runs the Latin-American cuisine truck La Cocinita, addressed the council committee and proposed an overhaul, to no opposition from council.
The 100-permit cap includes existing mobile vendor permit holders, who are first on the list when reapplying for the next year. Unless a truck calls it quits, there aren't any openings, and the city's waiting list is a few pages long. (Mobile vending permits also include sno-ball and hot dog carts; the French Quarter, where food trucks are banned, makes an exception for Lucky Dog wiener carts, which have been grandfathered into mobile vending laws.)
The waiting period, Billow said, prevents trucks from getting started with other licenses, like health and safety, and purchasing equipment. Billow argued that trucks can provide additional tax revenue for the city, can employ from 40 to 60 people, and offers an opportunity to brighten blighted areas, or areas with little to no nightlife options — new laws could allow mobile vendors in areas where they're currently prohibited but needed.
"Food trucks will show parts of city areas without significant ... entertainment or restaurants that they're viable," Head said.
Vendors can expect to pay $305.25 for the initial vending permits, but not vendors selling ice cream, nuts, hot tamales and pies — the standard "truck" fare in current city code, obviously not in tune with the gourmet burgers, tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches and other dishes served from today's food trucks. For those smaller sales like peanuts, vendors pay between $25 and $50 for a permit. "We need to come up with a more rational set of fees," Head said.
That night, as La Cocinita served up spicy sliders to people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Friday Night Fights boxing gym, Billow pronounced herself pleased with the council's reaction. "I'm really optimistic," she said. "People brought up a couple of good points about trash and public health. We're all about no littering around our trucks, and food trucks are subject to the same health codes as restaurants."
As in the French Quarter, food trucks also are banned in the Central Business District. Councilmembers said they'd like to have more options near City Hall, or in nearby Lafayette Square, for a potential regular food truck rally. (In many cities, food trucks cluster in "pods" in downtown areas so they can serve lunch to office workers.) As the city revises drafts of its comprehensive zoning ordinance (CZO), Head said city planners need to incorporate food trucks.
"The concept of having permanent mobile vendors is one we have to incorporate into the upcoming CZO discussions ... so the same prohibitions don't come into play," Head said. "How do we work with this 600 feet ordinance, which will be changed, and how do you make the two work together?"
In drafting the new rules, Head's office is looking to cities like Los Angeles, which has no restrictions on mobile vending laws, and Chicago, which recently reformed its vending laws without community input and suffered serious backlash as a result. Danielle Viguerie, Head's chief of staff, said the new ordinance will likely fall somewhere near the former, though tailored to the city in a way that will be "unique to New Orleans. ... We'll approach this looking at other cities while thinking what's best in New Orleans."
Restaurants also are getting in the truck game: Dat Dog, Sucre and Drago's have mobile trucks, and Martinique Bistro is waiting for a permit to operate a truck in New Orleans. Uptown restaurant Boucherie opened its full-time restaurant after the success of its truck Que Crawl. Though the coalition has support from big-name restaurants like Brigtsen's, Galatoire's and Emeril's, vendors and the city are looking to the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) to also join the discussion in drafting the new laws.
"The Louisiana Restaurant Association does not currently have a position on food trucks or mobile vendors," LRA vice president of communications Wendy Waren wrote in an email to Gambit. "The LRA is a statewide trade association, therefore we are looking at this issue as a whole, not market by market." (In contrast to New Orleans, Baton Rouge has a well-established food truck scene. In January, when the Travel Channel's foodie host Andrew Zimmern visited Louisiana, he hung out at Baton Rouge's Wednesday Food Truck Wroundup.)
"This is a group of people who are young entrepreneurs — the threshold to get into business is pretty low. It's not a big capital outlay. It's the kind of business that can be open to all kinds of people," Head told Gambit. "It supports a sense of community without startup costs that are so challenging for many restaurants." (Food truck vendors can expect to pay $40,000 to $50,000 for startup costs, as opposed to a few hundred thousand dollars for a brick-and-mortar space.)
It was that low buy-in that enticed husband and wife Jarett and Rachel Eymard to buy an old bread truck and turn it into the Rue Chow food truck. Rachel had been a sous chef at Lilette, while Jarett was a butcher at the Besh Steakhouse inside Harrah's New Orleans. Their eclectic approach results in global fusion ideas like a Korean barbecue chicken pita sandwich, satsuma meringue pie and pumpkin cake with maple frosting.
Are the Eymards hopeful that the city council may finally break through the logjam of archaic vending laws? "Without a doubt," Rachel says.
Of course, the beneficiaries of all this will be food lovers, particularly those who enjoy drinking at bars and would appreciate a mobile food option parked outside. The food truck Taceaux Loceaux, for instance, is a familiar sight outside clubs like Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar and 45 Tchoup. And the New Orleans food truck scene also brings a new audience to the city's real mobile food pioneers: the vendors who have sold food for years at the city's second lines, people such as "Ms. Linda, the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady" and Darren West, who sells barbecue under the name "Bittles With the Vittles." Many of these trucks showed up on Oretha Castle Haley Oct. 11 for a special Thursday night "Central City Food Truck Fest," organized by Head and the Good Work Network.
The Tuesday before, grilled cheese vendor King was hanging out at the regular Tuesday night roundup with his French bulldog Bootz. His truck had mechanical problems, so he wasn't selling his signature sandwiches. But King, who had been a lawyer in Washington D.C. before moving to New Orleans, said that whatever challenges food truck vending presented, it was still preferable to working in a courtroom.
"It's hard, and it's a fight," King said. "But it's never as bad as that."