When it comes to restaurants, we used to live in simpler times. Chefs might find financial backers, renovate or build a facility to match their vision, and then hope that they might find that magical combination of ingredients for success - a few parts hard work, a generous helping of good service and heaps of regular customers who simply love the food, coming back again and again.
It's a rough business that has given rise to no small number of cliches. Here's one, in the form of a joke: How do you make a million dollars in the restaurant business? Start with two. Here's another one that's true for many retail businesses: What are the three most important factors for a successful restaurant? Location, location and location.
But the business of putting food in front of hungry customers is changing. It's losing weight, going mobile and leaving some of those industry clichés in the dust. Your new favorite restaurant may well be packed inside a truck.
A NEW BREED OF FOOD TRUCKS
Although you may not have known it at the time, March 1 was National Pig Day. Started by two sisters in the south in 1972, this annual commemoration of a most useful domesticated animal gradually found its way to Boise, though not in any official capacity. Still, Jason Farber was feeding the holiday spirit.
Farber is the owner and operator of Archie's Place, a small former postal van converted into a mobile single-serving catering operation. But you can just call it a food truck, a name that has come to describe a growing scene of mobile culinary entrepreneurs.
For Pig Day, Farber was parked at the curb in front of Payette Brewing Co. in Garden City alongside another local food truck, St. Lawrence Gridiron. Both are serving pork specials, and in a small way, revolutionizing restaurants.
Consider the dynamics of this very event. Payette has a tasting room, but no restaurant kitchen, making it a kind of niche bar with a limited if unique selection of beers made on site. By inviting the food trucks to park outside, the brewery effectively becomes a nimble kind of brewpub, enabling it to attract more customers, keep them longer and even host large events on-site.
Conversely, the food truck operators know there will be a crowd of hungry potential customers with few alternatives for food. When the evening is over, the kitchen simply drives away.
Many Idahoans might confuse this with fair food - rows of catering trucks serving everything imaginable, so long as it's fried, grilled or doused with sugar.
But these folks aren't selling corn dogs and funnel cakes. A more accurate inspiration is the now familiar taco truck, a decades-old way of serving simple regional food to Mexican laborers by parking near job sites.
This new breed of trucks have restaurant-quality menus that evolve over time with seasonal specials you'd expect from a good sit-down restaurant. There's also a human-scale feeling to food trucks, and a general quirkiness that can make the connection with the customer even more endearing.
THE PARKING PROBLEM
When he's not parked outside an event or a business like Payette Brewing, Farber can frequently be found taking up a parking space near the corner of 10th & Grove downtown. "It isn't the busiest spot, but it kind of feels like my office," Farber says.
But again, there's more going on across the street from Hotel 43 than meets the eye. For starters, how do Farber's customers know where he is? With a do-it-yourself media savvy typical of modern food trucks, Farber constantly updates his location using social media and other Internet tools. His photos of weekly specials, or endorsements of events he's parked near, grow his exposure and lead hungry customers to his food.
Notice also that he's not parked at the curb. Not Downtown, he's not, thanks to the Business Improvement District, a kind of invisible halo of 60 square blocks managed by the Downtown Boise Association. The city of Boise's Cece Gassner - an assistant to the mayor for economic development - explains that on-street parking limitations for food trucks arose when Downtown's collection of hot dog carts and other street food vendors grew too large to avoid.
The problem was not, as it might seem, an issue with competition between Downtown restaurants and food trucks. The issue was parking meters.
Unregulated, a truck might park at a great Downtown location all day, accumulating parking tickets (either for failing to feed the meter, or because endlessly re-feeding parking meters is itself a ticketable offense). The tickets weren't the problem, Gassner explains. Parking meters are intended to get customers to shop and move on - to churn, in industry parlance - so that new customers can then park and do the same. Squatting food trucks present a problem.
Although you can't see the 60-block Business Improvement District, you can spot its border by watching where food trucks park. While Farber is on private property, the P. Ditty Wrap Wagon is often at the west border, on Main across from Idaho Mountain Touring, while Chilango's marks the northern edge on 6th Street, just north of State Street.
Otherwise, the city has preferred not to over-regulate the food trucks. "We like seeing the food trucks; it's such a fun addition," Gassner says. "We're pleased to see that it's a business model that so many entrepreneurs have taken up."
DOWNS - AND UPS
Curbside on Pig Day, Brian Garrett is shrugging off a slow, cold winter. Garrett owns St. Lawrence Gridiron, a large and artfully designed former Mac Tools truck that contrasts with Farber's relatively humble former postal van. (The St. Lawrence name is darkly humorous, coined for the patron saint of chefs who was legendarily burned to death slowly over a grill by Roman Emperor Valerian, during which Lawrence allegedly made a comment that he was already done on one side, and so should be flipped over by his tormentors.)
Though hardly torturous, last winter was tough on trucks. "January was rough," Garrett says, recalling a weeks-long January cold snap. "We tried to operate through January but had to shut down. We found out that you just can't operate the truck under 20 degrees."
Freedom has its price for food truck operators, and part of that is paid regularly according to the whims of nature. Truck interiors can become relentlessly hot during peak summer months, and even the longest line of customers can scatter when rain breaks out. During winter, sometimes it's simply impossible to cook. "It starts to affect cook times, whether you can get a brown on things, whether the fryer can keep up, and so on," he says.
But this crowd is nothing if not resourceful, so Garrett improvised. "When it's hard to get people to come to the truck, we just make our own events," he says. Last winter they created what he calls Pop-up Dinners - small, sit-down dinners, including one inside the relative warmth of Payette Brewery.
The flexibility to suddenly shift gears when conditions change connects to one of the things Garrett loves about the difficult business - a reflection of its personal scale. He looks his customers in the eye, for starters, so he knows exactly how his food is being received in real time. He finds the accountability comforting. "If there's something wrong with what we're doing, it's my fault," he explains.
There's another aspect to this food truck trend that becomes apparent when one spends time around its vendors. There's a positive congeniality among entrepreneurs, and often a willingness to collaborate in an effort to help everyone equally. A great example is the Food Truck Rally. Since the first event in June of 2011 on Grove Street, the rallies have become larger and more frequent, occasionally attracting crowds so large that trucks would run out of food.
Not coincidentally, a key backer of the rallies is Payette Brewing. Sheila Francis, who handles marketing for the brewery, also puts a lot of energy into organizing rallies and other collaborative events.
The food truck scene is growing in many directions, and the cooks have tried a wide variety of approaches. Indeed, the modern food truck craze may have taken hold when chefs in Los Angeles starting selling Korean tacos from a truck, and unique hybrid cuisine experiments have come to be expected (the St. Lawrence Gridiron pulled-pork poutine rivals any variants of fries-with-gravy found in area restaurants).
Similarly, the food truck spirit conjures up many forms. Burger- and sandwich-dispensing Huckleberry's is part trailer, part cart, and developing a cult following parked in front of the Home Depot on Milwaukee. Trailers dispensing BBQ pork, brisket and chicken along State Street are reliable enough to be considered take-out restaurants. Dustan Bristol of Brick 29 has used a truck to expand the reach of his popular Nampa restaurant, showing up at events like farmers markets with a menu inspired by the restaurant.
Some of these micro-businesses have even evolved to shed their wheels, and yet function like a food truck in every other way. One of the more unexpected paths to success is that taken by Lorena Jimenez, whose eponymous trailer sits permanently next to the Mister Car Wash on Fairview, just west of Cole Road. It's the embodiment of the taco truck coming full circle.
In Boise for 14 years after migrating from her native village in Hidalgo state, near Mexico City, Jimenez has been serving astoundingly original Mexican food outside in this most unlikely location for eight years. Jimenez's beaming friendliness inside her tiny operation is a kind of language all its own, but I was there with fellow foodie Lisa E. Sanchez, whose ability to translate opened up a much broader conversation.
"Even though she doesn't speak English very well, she finds a way to communicate with customers," Sanchez said, while listening to Jimenez explain her business. "She has a lot of friends who come and they chat. Americans will try to speak some words to her in Spanish because they want to learn more Spanish. They make attempts using each other's language, and somehow it works."
It's not just the obvious warmth of its owner that distinguishes Lorena's, but the unusual array of dishes on the menu, many of which Sanchez herself did not recognize. Growing up in Burley, Sanchez worked for many years in the family restaurant, and developed a lifelong obsession with her mother's chili colorado. But like me she had never encountered several dishes on the Jimenez menu, including the Aztec dish tlacoyol (la-COY-o), a torpedo-shaped cake of masa with beans, vegetables and crumbled white cheese.
Jimenez has three daughters, and one of them pulled up after driving by and noticing a crowd. Open every day, Jimenez was staying open later than usual simply because there were still hungry customers - very much in keeping with the food truck spirit of operating on a very human scale. Her daughter's English is sharp and clear, a mother-daughter language dynamic that has been true within immigrant families from around the world for generations. She's studying toward a career in law enforcement. But like my translator and dining partner, she'll probably carry fond memories for life of dishes nobody could make quite like her mother.
Owner Brian Garrett writes the menu on the St. Lawrence Gridiron food truck on Friday night of the Treefort Music Festival on Thursday March 21, 2013.
Rick Overton studied the social sciences at Boise State University and earned a master's in journalism from Northwestern University. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to magazines such as Wired and Outside. Rick recently took a new job in Seattle and will be leaving Boise in search of rainier sources of street food.