As the steam curls off the oozing cheese at the corner of Stamm Road in Newington, Akele Jenkins fumbles with wrinkled bills to help his niece make change. Jenkins, battered with flakes of flour and fish, works through the last days of the summer standing in his cramped food truck, Unique Cuisines. He toils to make his dreams and the dreams of his niece a reality. A lone chef invested his white picket dreams in the food truck industry.
“I’ve been cooking for about twelve years,” said Jenkins, serving me in his splattered, white smock. “I went to culinary school, and right out of culinary school, I was trying to work for [a restaurant]. They pay you low wages and give you a lot of work. So, I always wanted to do my own thing and be an entrepreneur. I said, ‘I’m gonna start a food truck and have a mobile restaurant where I can go to the people. [I will] make money and actually be appreciated.’”
Jenkins learned early that food trucks compete for curb space. The sense of community among vendors is thin. “It’s more like a competition,” said Jenkins. “It’s territorial. Like, why they over there on my spot?” Through all this animosity and territorialism, Jenkins still attempts to foster community. “I’m the type that when I go to any type of spot, I always greet the next person, let them know I’m here, [and show them] what I have. Make sure we’re not serving the same things. I talk to them and tell them what I’m trying to do. So, I’m trying to build a food truck community where we all come together [and share] business advice,” said Jenkins, standing over the steaming grills in his galley kitchen. He turned to hand a carton of food to one of his regulars. Business is good.
The CEO of the National Food Truck Association, Mathew Geller, assists food truck associations coast-to-coast. Geller said, “Here are the two big things I get called on: ‘Our regulations are terrible. We need help.’ Okay. So, we try to help you. The other thing I get called on is, ‘Our organizers are taking advantage of us. We need help.’” The regional food truck associations at lower levels find vendors being taken advantage of by their immediate association organizers. There are also various disagreements among association members and their respective leaders. Akele’s niece roams around next to a set up table and chairs for prospective customers, while the chef himself slaves over a fiery grill.
In spite of the ever-growing disparities between vendors and their corresponding food truck associations, the food truck craze continues to roll. Food trucks are not a new invention by any means. “There have been trucks in Los Angeles since the early seventies [or] late sixties…horse-drawn tamale carriages in the late 1880s in Los Angeles. There have been halal carts and trucks in New York forever,” Geller states.
Despite the increasing prospect of territorialism among vendors, the deteriorating sense of community amid those who share a common bond and aspiration, and possible corruption in the ranks of the food truck hierarchy, food trucks are here to stay. “People get tired of the same old cuisines. And if I want to open up [a] restaurant, I’m going to need a lot of money. And the people that are going [to] give me that money have a lot of say in the cuisine and the concept. They don’t want to fail,” Geller said. “Restaurants are the most opened, most closed business in the country.”
Food trucks fill this niche in the foodservice industry. They offer personalized fast food to customers. Geller has seen the evolution. “On the consumer side, they’re seeing cuisines that we would never see in a restaurant, ever. So, you have innovate cuisines; the people love it. You have a social experience. You have three food trucks that can pull up anywhere, [on] any street corner, [in] any park, and create an organic public space automatically.” This unique experience has made food trucks the fastest growing segment of the foodservice industry. The cost of food trucks, though expensive, still provides the better option for entrepreneurial chefs. “Instead of dropping 250,000 to a million dollars into a restaurant to build and all that stuff, you can get into a food truck and get it going for around 50,000 to 100,000 dollars depending,” Geller said.
Jenkins looks up as he describes the infusion of cultures that make his jerk ribs so special and finger-licking good. Each spice on the overhead rack in his truck was added with care and consideration to create the perfect balance of flavor. Without the availability of food trucks, Jenkins’ idea may have never left the test kitchen.
But before Jenkins loads and gases up, there are reams of red tape and certifications food truck vendors must complete in order to become fully operational. A food truck owner must pass an eight-hour Food Safety Principles Course, and an ANSI-CFP Certification Exam, combined with a Food Handler Training Course, which usually takes two hours to complete. There are even more certifications: the Sanitation of Foodstuffs, the Itinerant Food Vending, the Qualified Food Vender, and the list goes on.
Generally, food truck laws are strictly dependent on the geographical area in which they set up shop, which means each state, or district for that matter, have their own individual and unique set of laws. However, all food truck vendors must abide by proper licensing and up-to-date health inspections. After all of these regulatory hurdles, vendors can sell food, just as long as they stay mindful, and save copies of all transactions with food distributors.
There’s a lot more to starting a food truck than making tacos. The hurdles are high but the trucks keep rolling. So next time you place your order for Akele Jenkins’ flavorful jerk ribs, remember all the red tape, food prep and truck oil he’s changed so he could proudly serve you his dream.