They have names like Mas Tacos Por Favor, Pizza Buds, Riffs, Labor of Love, Yayo's O.M.G., Jonbalaya, Bang Candy Co., Izzie's Ice, Tin Can Treats, The Latin Wagon, Like Nannie Fixed It, Barbie Burgers. They serve everything from authentic Philly cheesesteaks to Vietnamese banh mi, quinoa tacos to fruit-kissed Italian ice, biscuits and gravy to homemade marshmallows. They pull up at farmers' markets, outdoor concerts, parking lots, private parties and street corners — anywhere they can fit four wheels and, in some cases, a noisy outdoor generator.
A fleet of specialty food trucks has fanned out across Nashville, inspiring long lines, droves of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and even a blog solely dedicated to following new entries to the scene and tracking their various whereabouts (nashfoodtrucks.wordpress.com). The Nashville food truck craze shows no sign of slowing, with new models either rolling out of the garage or getting fitted with stoves seemingly every other day. Even Monell's, the storied Southern dining institution, has a mobile unit in the works. And judging by the crowds of enthusiastic street-food diners lining up at low-slung windows cut into the sides of customized step vans, salvaged campers and box-office-size trailers across the city — spilling across sidewalks and green spaces in the process — it's clear the food trucks are here to stay. But where they're allowed to stay — and what to do about the crowds, noise and other side effects that follow them — presents a new set of challenges as Nashville's street-food subculture shifts into overdrive.
The fact that there are food trucks at all in Nashville — much less a booming micro-economy of rolling rapid-dispatch kitchens — owes to a bit of legal happenstance. A Metro ordinance proposed in 2005 would have outlawed mobile food vendors, and Music City's food truck revolution was almost crushed before it even began. But cooler, or at least truck-friendlier, heads prevailed. (Some felt the ordinance not-so-subtly targeted immigrants, since at the time taco trucks — many based along Nolensville Road and in other immigrant-dense areas of the city — made up the vast majority of the city's mobile food vendors.) That was five years ago this week.
Mas Tacos Por Favor — the blue, lantern-festooned Winnebago long familiar to East Nashvillians — was the first truck to really bridge the gap between the utilitarian taco trailers that are still a staple on Nolensville Road and a new generation of artfully decked-out, chef-driven (so to speak) mobile eateries. (A still-functioning MySpace page certifies Mas Tacos' O.G. status.) Mas Tacos did a steady business of late nights, private lunches and special events, eventually establishing itself enough to open a brick-and-mortar outpost last year on McFerrin Street in East Nashville, while still continuing its neighborhood runs.
The first crest of the new truck-wave hit Music City when The Grilled Cheeserie debuted its gourmet comfort food on wheels last November, to immediate foodie swoons. Chef-owner Crystal De Luna-Bogan, whose uncle owns over 100 food trucks and a large commissary in Los Angeles, had worked in catering for years, and decided to start The Grilled Cheeserie as a way to have her own restaurant without, well, opening a restaurant. The financial barriers to starting a food truck are so much lower that it allows creative foodsmiths an outlet without the constraints and overhead of a traditional restaurant. (There's the rub — or at least part of it — for owners of traditional restaurants. But more on that in a bit.)
"I did the restaurant thing for quite a while, and it didn't work out," says Riffs truck co-owner B.J. Lofback. After reading an article on Los Angeles' sprawling food truck scene, "I literally started looking for a truck right away," he says. With the help of "friends more handy than me," he built a customized food cruiser out of a decommissioned delivery van. The resulting Riffs truck, with a fold-out awning and a window that spans almost the entire length of one side, caught the eye of the truck-centric Food Network Canada show Eat St., which came to Nashville in May to film an episode for its second season.
So why us?
"Nashville is a foodie town," Eat St. director Peter Waal tells the Scene, as the crew films in Five Points on a sweltering, cicada-loud afternoon. Over the din of Barbie Burgers' portable generator, Waal says that, in his experience, great music towns are often great food towns. On that score, he says, "Nashville reminds me of Austin." (We have a way to go before we approach Austin's level of food-truck ubiquity, though.)
Because so many food trucks use social media to keep their fans apprised of their location, Waal — who's based in Vancouver — says it was relatively easy to narrow down the show's choices in Nashville. "If you ask enough people, the same trucks come up," he says. Riffs, Barbie Burgers and The Grilled Cheeserie made the cut for the episode. (No air date has been set, but the show airs in the U.S. on The Cooking Channel.) Eat St. may have filmed only three trucks while they were here, but Waal says he thinks the numbers will only continue to grow.
"I don't think we've seen the top yet," he says.
Once a truck (or trailer, in some cases) has been tricked out with the griddles, charbroilers, ovens, heat lamps, refrigerators, exhaust fans, generators, stoves and other necessary equipment, it's ready to roll. But finding somewhere to roll to — a reliable, visible and legal location where it's both welcome and able to do a brisk business — can be a tricky undertaking.
"I love being inside of a truck," says Riffs' Lofback. "I love being in front of my customers — you can't get that in any other situation." But he admits, "Finding a place to put the truck is difficult."
Tom Perkins more than agrees. He owns and operates Taste of Belgium, a trailer that specializes in authentic Belgian waffles. He serves every weekend at the Farmers' Market, but would like to also find a regular location somewhere downtown. He says the process typically goes something like this: He finds a parking lot that isn't being used. He asks if he can park his trailer there. The person he talks to says they don't own the property, and can't authorize it. They refer him to someone else. Eventually the buck gets passed so many times that Perkins just gives up.
"It goes nowhere," he says. And so does his business.
So he's looking to create a new kind of partnership, unique to his business model and tailored to his products. In addition to eat-on-the-spot offerings, Taste of Belgium also sells four-packs of take-home waffles. A retailer or cafe would be able to purchase the four-packs at a wholesale price and sell them at the same price Perkins charges. Then, every few weeks, Taste of Belgium would show up and sell the made-to-order version. "It would be a promotion for them to sell four-packs," he says, while also providing his cart with a steady gig. "Everybody wins."
Some trucks have already achieved a kind of symbiosis with local businesses — often those that lack nearby food options and have jumped at the chance to have a parade of comestible wagons come to them. Nossi College of Art has no cafeteria, so food trucks have been a godsend.
"It is very convenient for the students because they don't have to leave campus," says Julie McReynolds, student activities and communications coordinator at the school, "and they are getting better food than what is supplied in the vending machines."
Likewise, Accredo Health Group Inc. has been hosting food trucks in their parking lot for about two months. Office manager Theresa Bowers, who has been coordinating the lunchtime schedule at the company's MetroCenter office, says she'd been trying for a long time to find a good variety of food for the roughly 200 employees there. "When the trucks came along, people were raving about them," she says. "My staff is just like, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' You can get up, walk two steps and get a hot meal." Hungry workers get a revolving cast of quality lunches, and food trucks, instead of scrambling for a parking spot, get a steady gig during the lucrative lunchtime rush. Again, everyone wins.