Going Mobile

By David Ansel

Illustration by Matt Lynaugh

The summer sun had not yet shone its first rays into the third-story windows along Congress Avenue, but Delphino Martinez had already worked up a sweat. As he struggled to pull his tamale cart onto the sidewalk, the hot water in the steamer sloshed back and forth. His six-year-old son, Matt, keeping him company, helped by fanning the brazier of coals. The year was 1923, and though the work was hard and the pay meager, the seed Delphino planted in the dusty ground of itinerant commerce eventually took hold, sent down roots and grew a strong tree.

You can still see it on South Lamar: the restaurant his little boy started called Matt’s El Rancho.

Just next door, a woman who owned a failing gift shop spent her 1996 income-tax return on a taco trailer and equipped it with Tupperware and cheap plates from her house. She worked 16 hours a day to get the business off the ground. These days, you can see an oversized papier-mâché bust of her—arms outstretched—reigning over her own little taco kingdom. Her restaurant, perhaps the epicenter of the nascent global breakfast taco revolution, is Maria’s Taco X-Press.

If this established style of restaurant incubation is nothing new, why are food trailers popping up all over Austin like hackberries along a fence line? Let’s begin the answer with a popular riddle among restaurateurs: What’s the best way to make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.

It’s well known that the restaurant business is a risky one, but even more so among bankers who are, hopefully, polite enough not to laugh out loud in the presence of loan applicants. The infrastructure costs are staggering and generally require a gaggle of risk-seeking investors sewn together in a high-return partnership. Additionally, there are several forbidding operational line items in the restaurant business model: high rents, high maintenance and labor costs and a wildly variable cost of goods. Every restaurant needs to combat the gravity of these costs with the lift generated by a yield on square footage. When your square footage is taken up by people, the only workable strategy is to turn and burn—get those diners to chew and swallow faster because they're taking up valuable real estate.

So what’s an eager, doe-eyed foodie dreamer to do? Hit craigslist and plunk down a few grand for a kitchen trailer. All the cool kids are doing it.

Inspired by a crêpe trailer in Galway, Ireland, Andrea Day-Boykin and Nessa Higgins of Flip Happy Crepes knew that delicacies other than tacos and sno-cones could be successfully discharged from a trailer window. They thought it would be a smart way to move forward. “We bought the trailer for about three grand,” says Higgins, “then put eleven or twelve into the kitchen.”

As with any cultural shift, the idea had already been percolating in the minds of many. But there are only so many people willing to be the first to dive off the cliff and test for rocks—and the rocks are many and varied. Would Austin support such an endeavor? Would people be reluctant to take trailer food seriously? Would they be willing to share their dinner with the mosquitoes at picnic tables on a 100-degree evening?

Those murky depths have been plumbed, and the floodgates have opened, of course. It seems every foodie with a strong back and a smidgen of savings has made the now-much-smaller leap into mobile culinary entrepreneurship, and the game is on to see who will last and whether the public will support the movement.

Popularity aside, some issues remain, like the public perception of street food safety. “If you've got a conscientious operator who’s following all the rules and doing everything like they’re supposed to,” says Mark Parsons of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, “there’s absolutely no difference in food safety between a restaurant and a mobile vendor.” Arguably, due to their visibility, street food kitchens are under greater public scrutiny than the mysterious backroom workings and unwitnessed scalp rubbings of your favorite brick-and-mortar restaurant.

And there’s something different, amusing—even romantic about eating at a cart. Diners are participating in a public space—allowing people of all stripes to rub elbows and create a vibrant, diverse tapestry of culture. The late urbanist, writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, wrote that as “lowly, unpurposeful [sic] and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

This reporter recalls the coffee vendors of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Every morning they roamed the streets with pots of coffee on burning embers and trays full of porcelain cups and simple candies. When they stopped at a corner, an impromptu coffee shop convened, with several businessmen in conversation sipping their coffee through the sweets. Just as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone.

“Urban streets at their best are celebrations of public life in all its forms,” notes Austin City Council Member Chris Riley. “When there’s a constant ongoing explosion of human activity on the street, you always see people enjoying food.” But does that mean street food is the proverbial chicken or the egg? “I’m honestly not certain whether [street food is] a cause or a symptom of an active setting,” continues Riley. “If you go to Sixth Street on a weekend night, you’ll see all these vendors on the street because it’s such a busy place—there’s a natural client-base. I would love to see more active street experiences like that, but how you get there is a complicated thing. I'm not sure you could just take street vendors and put them on Burnet Road and expect to see it create that setting.”

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, acclaimed sociologist William H. Whyte writes, “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. Food attracts people, who attract more people. Vendors have a good nose for spaces that work. Very quickly, the space can become a great social interchange for pedestrians.”

Austin lies somewhere in the middle in terms of its welcome to street food operators. While there have been difficult chapters—like the so-called East Riverside Taco Wars in 2006 which pitted taco stands against the city’s Planning Department—city code has caught up, and Parsons notes that it’s actually easier to get a permit here than in many other cities. Austin has a much more liberal policy as far as where a vendor can set up, as well. When compared with Los Angeles’s Draconian regulation requiring mobile food vendors to relocate every hour, Austin’s rules seem quite laissez-faire. But when compared with the cart-culture Promised Land of Portland, Oregon, we’re wandering barefoot on the Sinai. Portland’s “food cart pods”—semi-permanent gatherings of three to twenty food trailers—are springing up throughout the area.

Lizzy Caston—the force behind the foodcartsportland.com blog—has cataloged and reviewed Portland’s burgeoning scene for years. “We have lots of creative types that live here and want to stay here. They say, ‘I’m tired of working for someone else, but I don’t have the capital to open a restaurant.’” And while the city is concerned with food safety, the food and zoning restrictions offer a little wiggle room. Many municipalities require vendors to visit their commissaries daily, and even GPS-tag their carts, but Caston notes that most of Portland’s carts never move—remaining in one place sometimes for years. The county health inspector and the city administrators have been very supportive of the carts as well.

Portland’s Bureau of Planning recently commissioned a study entitled Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places which reported that “food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life and advance public values, including community connectedness and distinctiveness, equity and access, and sustainability.” And with a lively cart culture in place, formerly weed-choked lots morph into destinations and owners of unimproved lands are able to collect at least nominal rents with nearly zero investment in improvements.

For a city in search of workforce development strategies, the food cart concept couldn’t come at a better time. As Austin’s community development corporations struggle to find ways to promote individual wealth creation without incurring the high risks associated with microlending, a vibrant food cart culture in Austin could provide an answer. As Taco X-Press’s Maria Corbalan notes, “you can spend a few thousand dollars and if it doesn’t work out, you can sell it. It’s the safest way into the food biz.”

In Austin, some are dubious about the viability of the cart model. “A food trailer is like my ex-girlfriend,” says Bob Gentry of Torchy’s Tacos. “It’s really high maintenance.” And while his South First Street trailer holds its own compared with his two traditional restaurants, Gentry says that as much as they love the trailer park concept, they feel pretty strongly that trailers are not the direction they want to go. Flip Happy Crepes, though, has matured to become a sustainable model for Higgins and Day-Boykin.

“We’re both moms, we haven't given up our lives—it’s worked out well,” says Higgins.

There’s been much ado about restaurants vs. carts in the media lately. Restaurateurs feel they’ve made great investments in infrastructure, and times are tough for many segments in the sector, forcing many to tighten their belts—the L.A. regulations were set in motion by restaurateurs, in fact. But, as with many things, it might be a little different here in Austin.

“I think the more the merrier,” says Corbalan. “I wish that everyone is successful, then the world will be a happier place.”

Undoubtedly, the world is a happier place when people are able to combine their passions and their vocation—the goodness ripples. Local filmmaker Nils Juul-Hansen says of El Primo taco trailer owner Humberto Reyes: “I was having a rough day. I was really questioning myself, my career. So I went to get a taco. The way he made the taco, every movement so precise, his concentration so exact, his aura so confident, so placid—it blew me away. I said, ‘Wow. If he can create an artist’s haven in ten square feet, I can do my work, too.’”