Editor’s note: The impact of food trucks on the Birmingham culinary scene, as well as on brick-and-mortar restaurants, is a story being written every day. Regulations are being drafted in city hall, festivals have been held to celebrate this addition to our food culture, and people are lining up on street corners for a chance to sample the wares of these enigmatic rolling eateries.
But what’s it like from the inside of the food truck scene? We sent our intrepid intern Matthew Mazer down to the Spoonfed Grill truck to find out. Michael Brandon, executive chef, owner of Spoonfed, and organizer of the Birmingham Street Food Coalition, decided to let Matt come aboard.
Matt’s Monday on a Food Truck
At 11 a.m., I met up with Brandon at the Spoonfed Grill food truck, which was parked for lunch hours in front of the Wells Fargo building (5th Avenue N and 20th Street). While he was greeting me, Brandon noticed a passer-by looking at the LCD menu displayed on the side of the truck. “You hungry today?” Brandon asked her. She walked away without ordering any food. Brandon shrugged.
“Customer interaction,” he told me, “ is important.”
By 11:30 a.m., Brandon’s customer interaction efforts seemed to be working. Four pedestrians—all seemingly lured by the glow of the LCD menu— gathered around the truck, and Brandon swiftly engaged them in conversation. “What are you listening to?” Brandon asked the nearest female bystander, who was sporting an iPod earbud in one ear. Not only did she tell him what she was listening to, she complimented his new haircut. She ordered peach salad (one of Spoonfed’s many unique salad options). Brandon leaned over and told me, “Most of the customers work around here, so I see them a lot and try to know them. Her name was Whitney.”
Fifteen minutes later, as I readied myself in truck, the customer trickle had become a flood. I strapped on my Jefferson County Health Department-mandated latex gloves and tried desperately to be an adequate helper.
From that point until the end of Spoonfed Grill’s lunch shift at 1:30 p.m., there were never less than five people—diverse, mostly professionally dressed—in line to order at any given time. And as orders began to flow in consistently, the very dynamics of the serving process became a testament to Brandon’s emphasis on customer interactivity.
From a table on the sidewalk, one Spoonfed employee (Brandon called him ‘The Expediter”) managed ticketing orders and handing them up through the window to the two cooks inside the truck. Through the same window, customers watched as these two cooks tossed around ingredients and supplies in the confined area inside the truck with impressive coordination, cutting down the time it took to prepare the orders.
The driving force was Brandon himself. When he was outside of the truck – about half the time – he was constantly turning around to supervise the two cooks through the window, while at the same time discussing his menu with customers. When Brandon was inside the truck, he was sticking his head outside the window to converse with customers on the sidewalk, all while helping his cooks prepare orders.
By 12:30 p.m. there was a definite scene, a definable atmosphere in evidence around the truck. As customers awaited their orders, ranging from turkey sandwiches to pork roll-ups to quesadillas, more and more casual conversations began to sprout up. Eventually, so many conversations were taking place at once around the truck that the former line of customers was sounding more and more like a congregation of Chatty Cathies. People appeared to be making friends, at least casually.
“It’s like there is a community around food trucks,” said a young, suit-wearing guy named John. “It’s fun. I think that’s why people come back so often. And because the food is fresh.”
An employee from the nearby Wells Fargo office agreed. Carol – she wouldn’t give her last name – said, “I try to come by the food truck as often as I can. The food here is so much better than fast food.”
Some combination of Spoonfed Grill’s food and atmosphere has inspired a strong sense of loyalty among its customers. Until the last minute of Spoonfed’s lunch shift, the regulars were still showing up to put in last-second orders. In fact, even as Brandon was shutting off the grill for the day, a middle-aged businessman ran up and frantically asked for Brandon by name. Brandon stepped out of the truck and responded, “Hey, Joel. What’s up?”
Joel responded, “My friend was telling me about your blackened fish sandwich this weekend. I’ve been waiting to try it.
“Oh, and nice haircut.”
Food Trucks and Birmingham City Council
Along with rapidly expanding bases of loyal customers, Birmingham food trucks have also caught the regulatory eye of the Birmingham City Council.
On September 18, the Council was scheduled to pass an ordinance to regulate the way food trucks operate in Birmingham. The ordinance was delayed, however, due to concerns from some Council members that, in its current form, it could create an unfair advantage for food trucks compared to brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The ordinance would have limited the possible locations and timeframe in which food trucks are currently allowed to operate. At the same time, the ordinance would have raised operational fees on food trucks by requiring $500 for an annual permit and an additional $300 for a license to operate in the Birmingham city center.
Prior to the introduction of the ordinance, Councilor Johnathan F. Austin, Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, issued a statement saying, “I think we should do our best to welcome the new businesses with open arms, knowing that we still need to protect existing businesses.”
For now, the few food trucks operating in Birmingham have done so with more legal freedom than those in larger cities, like Atlanta and Nashville, which already regulate their food trucks. In these other cities, ordinances require food trucks to keep set distances from restaurants, observe food truck business hours, and, in some cases, apply for location-specific parking permits. Meanwhile, food trucks in Birmingham remain free from any laws formulated specifically for food trucks.
That said, food trucks in Birmingham do not exist outside the law. Food truck operators must still abide by basic traffic laws as well as city business and health department licensing requirements. But along with licensing requirements come licensing fees, which, according to certain food truck operators, are extremely onerous.
In fact, the Jefferson County Health Department requires food trucks to obtain five different licenses: a health department permit, plan review fee, truck application, commissary permit, and grease permit for the commissary, which can total up to $2,200. The commissary is a requirement. Every food truck must have a place to park and store food overnight.
Brick-and-mortar restaurants, on the other hand, pay a maximum $1,150 for just two required licenses: the health department permit and a plan review fee.
Aside from the higher licensing fees, the average food truck in Birmingham earns an average of only $110,000-$155,000 in gross sales per year, according to a survey by Operation New Birmingham, compared to $420,000 per year for the average brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The Council will continue to discuss measures for developing fair rules for food trucks in the Public Safety Committee meeting next month.
Matthew Mazer is an intern at Weld. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org