LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Local breweries and the food truck phenomenon
http://www.encorepub.com/live-local-...ck-phenomenon/
By GWENYFAR ROHLER

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“Oh! Wow! That’s Jock Brandis!” the man in line behind me exclaimed. He turned to his friends and pointed across the field to where Jock was sitting at a picnic table.
“He’s an engineer and he invented this machine that …”

I smiled to myself and transferred my attention back to a friend whom we were with at Waterline Brewing. I continued eavesdropping just enough to know the gentleman had his facts pretty much correct. We got to the front of the line for the taco truck and ordered.

We combined a couple of priorities to make this trip possible: Our friend just graduated from nursing school and we wanted to celebrate. In addition, we have followed the saga of getting Waterline open through Marcus Rich of The Art Factory, which shares the space with Waterline. Over the last few years, as we have run into Marcus, he and I would compare notes on our respective entrepreneurial activities (his art gallery and my bookstore), and the trials and tribulations of securing a location, renovating, and navigating the endlessly confusing world of the New Hanover County Planning and Zoning Department. About the time Marcus was facing a massive plumbing and sewer expansion for the brewery to come into the building, I was knee-deep into work on the bookstore’s second-floor renovation. I remember commiserating about asking the planning department a direct question, getting an answer and doing it as instructed, only to have the next person void the entire process and send me back to where I started.

Sigh.

Jock and I are pretty much creatures of habit: We work constantly. Therefore, it usually takes a friend to persuade us to set aside a few hours and do something unproductive but fun; we are not really good at that. However, we do have a long list of things we have been meaning to do. Among them: finish visiting the craft breweries in the area.

Last year Jock (my official taste-tester) and I took a look at the brewery scene downtown. We assumed (rightly) there would be vast amounts of alcohol consumed and therefore we’d be within walking distance to home. We planned to drop by Waterline to continue the craft-brewery exploration and give our congrats to Marcus for surviving renovations, and getting the doors open on the joint. So when our friends wanted to celebrate graduation there—and pointed out the food truck’s inclusion—it looked like a good way to tick three items off the to-do list at once.

I am chronically unhip and about as late to the party as it gets. Excitement about the latest fad, especially in the land of food, is usually so far off my radar I can’t even follow conversations with people. The food-truck phenomenon has eluded me. Though I have friends who act like groupies at the sighting of their favorite trucks, I really don’t get it. (Not to say I haven’t day-dreamed of the possibility of turning a VW bus into a food truck.) Though, again, I don’t get out much.

Finally, at Waterline, it clicked. Not so much from a consumer’s standpoint but rather from a business owner’s view. The infrastructure and space required to open a commercial kitchen is extensive. Navigating the endlessly confusing world of the health department requires a translator—at best. So, with a bar owner who wants to offer some sort of food to customers (so that they think of it as not just for booze), but also when they are peckish, rather than leaving after one drink, they stick around for two more because they can get dinner. When bar owners do not have the space to add a commercial kitchen (like Flytrap Brewing, which also frequently hosts food trucks), or have the upfront capital to build out a commercial kitchen and staff it, they invite a food truck to park in their lots. Bar clientele sticks around to buy more drinks, and another local business benefits from their dining needs. It is a winning combination.

Certainly a food truck can provide an opportunity to test out a food business and grow it without the immediate capital infusion that a brick-and-mortar can cost (bathrooms, furniture, electricity, staffing, commercial kitchen, licensing, signage, etc.). For example, the Fork n’ Cork on Market Street grew from the highly successful Patty Wagon food truck. Owner James Smith basically was able to earn his clientele with his gourmet burgers for a few years and simultaneously earn the capital to open shop. Folks who don’t own or operate a food truck might not be aware of the rules they have to follow regarding where they can park and for how long. It can be a bit confusing but encore’s sister magazine, Devour, published a succinct explanation:

“Food trucks are not allowed to park within 75 feet of any open restaurant or 25 feet from food carts less than 5 feet long. The trucks must serve on private property with permission from the property owner in any nonresidential district between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 a.m. In the CBD they can operate five consecutive hours at any one spot, with a limit of two sites daily. Trucks cannot be located within 5 feet of fire hydrants, sidewalks, utility boxes, handicap ramps, and building entrances.”

The option of serving on private property with permission of the owner seems to be the saving grace here. For owners of a food truck, having a space to occupy (at the owner’s invitation) with a built in clientele has to be a God-send. They can plan for inventory, staffing, stocking the change drawer, fuel consumption, and hours of operation. It’s a win-win situation without a long-term investment on either side, which makes for friction in partnerships.

“In Detroit we don’t have things like this: where you walk in and there’s music, the drum circle,” said our friends, who relocated last year.

Perry Smith unloaded his drums from the car for the drum circle that was getting ready to begin. Kids ran and played in the tress surrounding the property. Inside, two men were strumming guitar and singing. The sun started to turn the sky orange to gear up for its final performance of the day.

“So how’s the beer?” I asked Jock. He gave me a long beer lover’s dissertation about hints and notes that can be summed up as: “It is great.” The gentleman from earlier wandered over to introduce himself to Jock. While they chatted business, the rest of our party compared notes on the taco situation: Since all tacos had disappeared, they were declared a success.

Now my entrepreneurial mind is tripping through food-truck possibilities: Besides a VW van, we also know where to find a London double-decker bus, which could really turn the food truck idea on its head with upstairs seating.