On April 9, the second annual Birmingham Food Truck Rally took place at Avondale Brewing with over 20 food trucks in operation and with approximately 6,000 guests in attendance. The event, which raised money for Pathways, a local home for women and children, is one of many events feeding the fire that is Birmingham’s food truck population.
Currently, there are over 50 registered food trucks in the greater Birmingham area, offering fare that ranges from homemade ice cream sandwiches to Vietnamese pho dishes. Each one has developed its own niche in the community. Patrons can even download mobile apps, such as On The Corner or Roaming Hunger, to help them track down their favorite vendors.
Some trucks have gained such a strong following that they have expanded their business to brick-and-mortar locations. One of those, Eugene’s Hot Chicken, opened its store location in the Uptown district on April 6.
For people like Brock Biersdoerfer, the owner of The Heavenly Donut Company, the increasing popularity of food trucks is a sign that the city is moving towards bigger things. “Birmingham is becoming a foodie place which it never was before, so it’s exciting,” he said.
While there are numerous published accounts and a couple of acclaimed chefs who disagree on how long Birmingham’s been a “foodie place,” there’s also no question that much of the Magic City has fallen in love with the idea of the food truck.
The lack of “fatigue” is the main reason people love food trucks so much, Biersdoerfer said. “At first when you open a store, for the first three months people come in all the time,” he said. “But then they start to get fatigued, and they just come in every once in awhile. … But with food trucks you don’t really get that, because you don’t hit the same location so often.”
Behind The Wheel
Biersdoerfer and his wife always knew they wanted a food truck as part of their business. When they opened their brick-and-mortar location of Heavenly Donut Co. in 2013, they couldn’t wait to load their food truck and drive it around town. The response towards their two trucks in the past four years, said Biersdoerfer, has been very positive.
“We went to Ross Bridge, and we were there from 7 to 10 [a.m.], and this mother ran up with her two kids and she went, ‘I’m sorry! I slept in — do you have any sprinkles left?’ And we were almost completely sold out, so they got in their car and followed us to the store to get sprinkles in their pajamas,” Biersdoerfer laughed.
While operating a food truck may have its positive sides, there is a sobering side behind the scenes, said Biersdoerfer — for example, finances. The average cost for a used truck in fairly good condition can range from $40,000 to $50,000, while a brand-new truck can reach up to $200,000, according to Forbes.com. Maintenance also figures into a food truck’s annual costs.
Biersdoerfer said that every truck is different, so annual cost varies based on equipment and labor involved. Heavenly Donut Co. is different from other food trucks, he said, because they don’t cook their product in the truck. All of the donuts served from the truck are first made in the brick-and-mortar store, so the cost of their truck per year is less than one that does all of the “prep work” in the actual vehicle.
While trucks like Heavenly Donuts may not have a long list of equipment, other trucks have more to worry about, including cooking equipment and propane supplies. The annual operating cost of a food truck depends on several variables (the age of the truck and the cost of the ingredients used to make the food, etc.) but the average, according to foodtruckempire.com, ranges between $2,000 and $2,500 a year.
“Expense-wise, you have maintenance on the truck, making sure you have enough people, gas money — all those things you have to think about,” said Biersdoerfer.
Food truck operators also have to worry about annual fees. The city of Birmingham’s food truck ordinances make the annual fee for a mobile food vendor in a “general area” of the city $300 for a truck and $80 for a pushcart. However, if the business owner wishes to operate their truck in the “premier area of the city center” in addition to the general area, the annual fee for a truck is raised to $500 and to $100 for a pushcart. If there is a desire to add a new “food zone” or area of operation to the mobile food vehicle’s business plan, there will be a one-time charge of $250 ($60 for pushcarts) to cover administration costs for preparing the designated area.
The requirement to have a license for each city the truck operates in also adds to costs, said Biersdoerfer. “Every month you have to separate yourself in every city and pay taxes to each city based on where your sales were and what [your sales were], and so all of that stuff adds up,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, we went to three locations this day, but they were all in different cities, so we have to look at the sales we earned in each time slot of each city.”
The Law of the Land
Birmingham’s food truck ordinance, which stands at 18 pages long, includes specific detail regarding parking restrictions, food truck rotations, and permit requirements. Individuals interested in operating a food truck have to first submit an online application to the Traffic Engineering Department, along with a $150 application fee for “Mobile Food Vehicles” or a $40 application fee for pushcarts.
The Mobile Food Vendors Committee then reviews each application before sending a recommendation with the application to the Public Safety Committee within 28 days of the original application. Then the application is sent to the Birmingham City Council. “At the conclusion of the Public Safety Committee review, the Public Safety Committee shall vote to recommend its approval or disapproval of the application to the City Council,” the ordinance reads. “The Public Safety Committee shall thereupon advise the applicant and other interested parties appearing before it of the committee’s decision and shall further inform the applicant and such interested parties of the date of the council meeting at which the application will be on the Council agenda.”
The permit application requires the applicant to provide documents including, but not limited to, all necessary licenses and permits from the Department of Health, valid photo ID, a description of the mobile vehicle acquired for operation, and a list of up to three requested areas in which the food truck will operate.
Birmingham’s ordinances discuss the protocol regarding the food truck rotation, which is a cycle permitting trucks to rotate in a given order throughout the provided spots in the “food zone” or “Premier Area of the City Center.” The protocol is that all operating food vendors must rotate based on the order of the created food zones approved for a given area. Participants are allowed 30 minutes before and after their allotted time to set up and break down their location before moving on to the next food zone in the rotation.
Biersdoerfer said that applying for the food rotation is a lengthy process. “It took us about nine months to go through the process of being approved for the food rotation,” he said.
Once a spot is acquired in the food rotation, all operating mobile food vendors must adhere to the following guidelines: “Vending may not obstruct the use of any street intersection or pedestrian crosswalk; vending shall not impede the ingress or egress of any driveway; vending shall not obstruct pedestrian space; any power sources must be depicted on the site plan and must meet all applicable electrical code standards; vending structures shall not be left unattended or stored at any time on the open vending site when vending is not taking place or during restricted hours of operation; amplified sound or sound equipment must comply with the City of Birmingham Noise Ordinance; any and all signage must be contained on the private property. At no time shall any signage be placed within the public rights-of-way.”
Biersdoerfer said that Birmingham is one of several cities with regulations regarding the distance between food trucks and other businesses. The city ordinance declares that a food truck must operate more than 150 feet from the front door of any restaurant currently in operation or of a primary or secondary school within Birmingham’s boundaries. Food trucks are also prohibited from operating within 500 feet “of any fair, stadium, carnival, circus, festival, special event, entertainment district, or other like sponsored event that is authorized by the City” unless the participants of the event give permission for the truck’s presence.
Once a vendor acquires the license and appropriate permits, Biersdoerfer said the hard part is keeping track of the specific ordinances in a given city. “Some are more stringent than others. [There are] some … [who] have to be inspected by the fire department [and] some don’t,” he said. “Some you have to be so many feet from a business [and] some say more feet from a business. Some people don’t allow you to go to certain areas of town. … It’s just a matter of learning and keeping on file what the specific city’s ordinances are so you can make sure you’re following everybody’s rules.”
The Birmingham Food Truck Coalition
Members of the food truck community have a friend in the Birmingham Food Truck Coalition, which has helped represent food truck owners in the community since 2012. The coalition is led by an executive board made up of several food truck owners and works with the local company GoPro Event Solutions to organize events with different venues around town — including the Food Truck Rally at Avondale on April 9. “The coalition is an organization to try and help build the brand of food trucks. When the city tries to pass a law that’s not good for us, we can go and try to fight that battle for all of the food truck members,” said Biersdoerfer, a member of the board.
Currently, 23 of Birmingham’s food trucks are members of the coalition. While it isn’t required to become a member of the Food Truck Coalition for a food truck to operate, being a member does have its benefits, Biersdoerfer said. “If somebody contacts our website and says, ‘I need 10 food trucks for this massive thing we’re doing,’ then it goes to the coalition members only. … So besides just benefiting from what the coalition does and works, it also gets you more locations and opportunities for business,” he said.
There is a $250 initial membership fee join the coalition for the first year, with the annual fee decreasing to $150 after that. According to Biersdoerfer, customers can be confident that members are professionals. “Everybody that’s a member [of the coalition] has to send in their health permit [and] their business license, and so when a customer contacts us, they know all of our trucks are licensed and have everything they need. They don’t have to wonder,” he said.
With there being so many running food trucks throughout the city, Biersdoerfer said that occasionally there’s bound to be some overlap. “For example, we’ll have somebody use the coalition to fill some of their spots, but then [they] went outside the coalition to fill some of the other spots. So we had two Italian ice people at the same location, and that’s not good for either one of them. So that kind of stuff can get complicated,” he said.
“We’re just trying to hone in on what we can do for customers,” he added. “If you want to go outside the coalition, that’s fine, go do that. But we need to know who’s coming and not coming before we send some of our coalition trucks, because we want them to have a good spot and a good day.”
Always Room for Growth
In early April, Birmingham resident Terry Damsky announced that he intended to present his plans for a downtown food truck park to the Birmingham Design Review Committee in April, as noted elsewhere in this issue of Weld. Damsky spoke to the committee on April 12 and received feedback regarding some aesthetic qualities.
Once his plans are altered, Damsky said he wants to continue his quest for a park large enough for multiple food trucks, picnic tables, and even live music. “Everyone loves street food, and we’re lining up some of Alabama’s best food trucks. We’re hoping it will make a positive impact on Birmingham’s city center as well as being a very cohesive neighborhood within our community,” he said.
Damsky is keeping the details of the park, which will be located on the corner of First Avenue North and 24th Street North, quiet until the its opening date gets closer. When the date is announced, Dansky said his Facebook followers will be the first to know. “The outpouring of support for the Birmingham food park has been tremendous,” he said. “Within the first 24 hours of posting our Facebook account, we had more than 2,000 followers. Not just likes, but followers within the Birmingham metro area. So we’re going to reward our followers.”
The Food Truck Coalition has room to grow. GoPro Event Solutions indicated that the combined followers for all of its members’ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts added up to over 100,000 followers. Biersdoerfer said he believes the food truck community is only getting stronger.
“People live in an area for a long time and they work in an area for a long time and those restaurants don’t change much,” he said, adding that food trucks provide variety for what could otherwise be a mundane lunch hour. “It’s just a fun experience,” he said.
For more information regarding the Birmingham Food Truck Coalition, visit bhamfoodtrucks.net/. If you would like updates on Damsky’s food truck park, follow the Facebook page at facebook.com/birminghamfoodpark.
Full disclosure: GoPro Event Solutions has organized events for Weld in the past.