Food trucks have become a fixture of local festivals and special events, some function as adjuncts to bars and nightspots and others court quick al fresco lunch breaks in downtown New Orleans.
As part of a new food happening that begins this week, however, some trucks are changing their game a bit. They’re banding together in one central spot for an extended engagement intended to gauge the public appetite for a different sort of food truck experience and give a boost to a commercial stretch that is emerging as a new destination for casual dining concepts.
For the next six weeks, on each Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening an otherwise vacant lot on St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward will become the St. Claude Food Truck Park.
Conceived as an outdoor eating arcade, this park will spotlight three different food trucks at a time, with their lineup changing each night, and they’ll be joined by three more grassroots food ventures cooked up by neighborhood residents. Strings of lights will decorate and illuminate the lot, vendors will sell beer and other drinks and local bands and youth music programs will provide the tunes. Restrooms, security and bicycle parking round out the amenities.
“It’s about creating a destination along St. Claude Avenue that didn’t exist here before,” said Dawne Massey, executive director of St. Claude Main Street, the nonprofit development group hosting the events. “Art and food seem to jumpstart everything in this town. First there are galleries and restaurants, then shops come in and other services come in. It snowballs, but something has to get that ball rolling and I think this can help.”
The idea for a food truck lot grew out of the group’s pop-up retail initiative, which is giving local entrepreneurs in fashion, crafts and other fields a temporary retail presence inside the Bywater Art Gallery at 3700 St. Claude Ave. this fall. Massey said her group heard from others who wanted a similar opportunity for their budding food businesses and started working with the local food event production company My House NOLA on a plan.
Since forming My House NOLA in 2012, Barrie Schwartz has been organizing food truck events across town, often gathering several trucks at a time and partnering with community groups. For instance, her Eatmoor in Broadmoor food truck series is held outside the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center with the Broadmoor Improvement Association one night each month (the next edition is scheduled for Oct. 28). The St. Claude Food Truck Park is a more ambitious undertaking, given the frequency and duration of its schedule.
“We’ll be watching to see how it works here, if it’s feasible, if people want to come back out and how they respond to it,” Schwartz said. “We’d love to do a permanent food lot somewhere, so this is a chance to test the waters.”
A growing eat fleet
Food trucks have been appearing in greater numbers and diversity around New Orleans lately, aided in part by last year’s loosening of some city regulations concerning where and how they can do business.
To congregate and operate together for events like the St. Claude Food Truck Park, however, requires a special events permit. Schwartz said she was able to plan the six-week schedule for the St. Claude site by packaging a string of one-off event permits together.
The draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance now under review by city hall would allow the creation of food truck parks, though food truck advocates have petitioned for changes to the limited hours, density and other provisions spelled out in the current proposal.
Permanent food truck lots are popular attractions in some cities. The best-documented examples are Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, where lots are sometimes developed specifically to accommodate groups of vendors operating from trucks, trailers and carts. One urban planning study of food vendors in Portland praised such lots for their potential to increase activity and vitality in transitional neighborhoods.
St. Claude Avenue has long presented a gritty urban visage, but the pace of redevelopment has accelerated lately and food ventures are in the forefront. A string of small casual eateries have opened in the past few years and more are on the way. Later this month Tobias Womack and Amy Mosberger plan to open their new contemporary Chinese restaurant, Red’s Chinese, in a one-time storefront less than a block away from the St. Claude Food Truck Park. Another example is Junction, a tavern with a burger menu and extensive draft beer selection being developed by the owners and managers of Molly’s at the Market that is slated to open this fall. A few blocks up St. Claude Avenue, the historic St. Roch Market is scheduled to reopen with an array of fresh, prepared and retail food vendors early in 2015.
For at least the next few weeks, the local food options should surge with the St. Claude Food Truck Park. Tomorrow’s debut, for instance, includes the food trucks Dirty Dishes, serving Southern comfort food, and Burgers Ya Heard, serving specialty hamburgers — one is modeled on Vietnamese pho, another on jambalaya — and a third truck from Theo’s Neighborhood Pizza, which has three brick-and-mortar locations around the area.
The rest of the series is peppered with a mix of very new trucks — like St. Clair Pizza, which hit the streets this summer with a wood-burning pizza oven mounted in a vintage bus — to some veterans of the local food truck circuit — like La Cocinita, which serves Latin American street food.
And as part of the St. Claude Main Street group’s effort to build local businesses, the event will include booths from start-up food vendors EmpanadaNOLA, Laurel’s Licks Ice Cream and Koreole, a Korean-Creole mash-up.
“I think the lot idea is completely awesome,” said Lesley Turner, who started the Dirty Dishes truck this summer with her husband, Artis. “The biggest problem with running a truck is finding the right spot where you know you can operate and where people can find you. That’s why this feels like a perfect fit. It gives us an opportunity to network with other trucks and it puts us all in one place.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.