Instant economic development: Food Truck Fridays

Food trucks in Dayton at Fifth and Jefferson

The place was hopping under the transportation Center

[Full disclosure, my firm The Next Wave has done work for Tonia and Joe Fish in the past. She spreads her work around, so there is no ongoing relationship.]

Last night, there was a long line at the Zombie Dogz food truck, which was the first truck of food truck row, lined up in a semi circle behind the old Sa-Bai/Elbos/Chins space that the city doesn’t seem to know what to do with. You could tell the food trucks were there from blocks away because of the din raised by all the generators. And there were people- lots of people, strolling around, sampling food from trucks run by local restaurants- and by purely mobile operators like Zombie.

At the fulcrum of this pop-up food court is a force to be reckoned with, Tonia Fish, an Oregon District resident who is a force of nature. Married to an incredible Chef- her world is food- and entrepreneurial spirit. For the last 3 or so years, they’ve run “The Chef Case” in the Second Street Market, with a broad selection of gluten-free food- and a freezer full of Dolcessa Gelato. This is in addition to Joe’s “day” job as an executive chef running UD dining halls.

About 2 years ago, Tonia started the concept of Synergy incubators– a shared commercial kitchen space for independent food businesses. Synergy ended up in control of the former Dayton Public Schools commissary, which wasn’t needed anymore as new federal guidelines required school food to be made on school premises. Think of it as an entrepreneurs’ center for food-focused businesses. Her next target is to turn the Sa-Bai space into a banquet center/demonstration kitchen/rental kitchen, food truck court to bring life to a spot that’s never had much impact economically, despite being next to the convention center.

As always the debate comes down to “Is this fair?” Is it fair to the fixed operators like Thai 9, Lily’s, Salar, Oregon Express, Blind Bob’s etc who pay property taxes, an additional tax to the Downtown Dayton Partnership, and follow all the other rules- including liquor licenses etc.- while these nomad businesses get to drive up- and drive out drawing business away? The easy answer is no. Food trucks are a parasite, sucking off the gift of an opportunistic parking space. The flip side is that the food truck rally point brings out more people than what a typical night would bring- and these people may wander down for a beer- or a band later. What Tonia brings to the table is order and marketing to what is normally a mercenary business and the synergy is a good thing.

The city is putting up every road block to this concept. The question is why? These are jobs, these are people downtown. This is a great stepping stone to a vibrant downtown, as long as these trucks aren’t a permanent fixture or not contributing back via payroll taxes, permits, health inspections etc. Working with Tonia and her band of boxed meals on wheels, could help bring vibrancy back to other parts of our community- with a rotating smorgasbord spectacle moving from Jefferson and Fifth, to Courthouse Square, to Riverscape, to Island Park to Wright Dunbar, to Residence Park. Let’s embrace the idea of bringing food to the masses and having a roving party on wheels.

I have a vision of building a mecca of street basketball courts at the old Parkside homes space- where the entire region can gather for basketball tournaments every night in the summer- with a food truck court.

The city could start by allowing the trucks to ditch the generators and hook into metered power stations, much like a trailer park. We should consider also investing in sanitary hook ups- to encourage this new breed of business. My guess is that in 5 hours last night, they did more business collectively than Sa-Bai did in a month. Isn’t this “economic development?”

Over and over, I’ve heard the same things from small businesses- that Dayton isn’t friendly or easy to work with. We have to learn to get out of the way of people on a mission like Tonia Fish- to listen to their dreams and become cheerleaders instead of gatekeepers. It’s one of my goals for my term on the City Commission- I hope you support my vision and Tonia’s this November 5th.

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10 Responses

  1. truddick September 7, 2013 / 11:53 am
    Perhaps someone can explain food trucks for me in more detail.  I do not see the attraction of a food service that (a) is not reliably where and when I expect it (b) consumes excessive petroleum and propane both by driving a kitchen around and by using energy-hogging equipment (c) is vulnerable to quality issues due to cramped and limited work space (d) is not convenient for health inspectors.  Not to mention how, yes, it sucks clientele away from places I like to patronize.
    Is it all a fad that, as with champagne bars or karaoke or pro wrestling, will wear off its charm in a few years?
    In any case, I do not intend to get a smart phone, so the marketing technique of having locations announced via Twitter is going to miss me.  
    Does your force of nature have any response to all those misgivings?
  2. Dayton Citizen September 7, 2013 / 12:03 pm
    http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/07/expansion_of_food_trucks_gets.html
    Check out the above link to the New Orleans City Counsel’s recent approval of new, more lenient, regulations for food trucks. 
    New Orleans restaurants have no complaints or problems with food trucks, indeed, some have seen higher volume traffic to their businesses when food trucks are nearby.
    The Bravo TV show, Top Chef, recently chose a chef from a New Orleans food truck as a contestant.
    The City of Dayton continues to provide examples of its inability to adjust to change, doesn’t it??
     
     
  3. Roger September 7, 2013 / 12:59 pm
    TR,
    I’m afraid you are just a dinosaur. These food trucks are not really being marketed to you.
     
     
  4. Roger September 7, 2013 / 1:07 pm
    They are fun. That’s why they succeed. Not the kind of thing a noted curmudgeon is going to dig.
  5. djw September 7, 2013 / 4:09 pm
    Is it all a fad that, as with champagne bars or karaoke or pro wrestling, will wear off its charm in a few years? 
    Premise here strikes me as odd. I don’t know a thing about Champagne Bars (I didn’t know that was even a thing), but karaoke and pro wrestling have been around and successful for many, many decades. I don’t understand why you’d classify either of them as fads with a lifespan of a ‘few years’.
    In my other home (Seattle) there are a lot of great taprooms and tasting rooms for small breweries that don’t have a kitchen, or any interest in investing in one. Rotating food trucks are fantastic for these businesses (and vice versa). As the brewery/good beer revolution sweeps across Dayton, this may become an important part of their value to the community. They also increase foot traffic and outdoor activity, something that makes Downtown Dayton seem more inviting and less dead to a lot of people. 
    It’s OK if you’re not interested. There’s stuff going on in downtown I’ll never patronize, because it’s not my thing, but I’m still happy it’s there and wish it great success.
  6. Dave C. September 7, 2013 / 10:11 pm
    ZOMBIE DOGZ ARE GREAT! To me, this is a wonderful example of free enterprise. 
    —————
    Health inspection should be a snap. Everything being inspected is within a radius of no more than 10 feet. Pretty tough for the owner to hide anything substandard.
    —————
    I’ll bet the up-front investment for a food truck is a lot lower than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. And you don’t need an extensive menu. Plus, you can drive the truck to your suppliers. 
    —————
    Many restaurants fail due to location. Not a problem for food trucks…relocating to a new site (or a new city, a new state, or even a new country) is easy.  City of Dayton should take note of this!
    —————
    Yep, free enterprise!
  7. Gary Leitzell September 8, 2013 / 12:38 am
    The City has put up no road blocks. I have embraced food trucks. We had Fressa at the Webster Street Market in 2012 and Horseless Buggy and  Bella Sorella this season. My wife and KathynStubbs manage the outdoor market. We  passed a food truck ordinance granting flexability to staff so that the policy can be adapted to as needs change.  I took the City Manager to Synergy Incubator so he could visualize what was happening and emphasizing the need to embrace this. I sent him pictures last year from Winchester, England of a butcher truck at a market stating that downtown needs things like this. I lit the spark in Tonia to create a community kitchen during a meeting to discuss the idea of creating an outdoor market at Webster Street Back in 2011. I have helped her to find an ideal location for the community kitchen. Admittedly I may be the most supportive member of the commission because I understand entrepreneurship more than any other member. Thursday afternoon, Tonia was in my office asking for a meeting with the assistant city manager regarding their lease. On Friday morning at 10 AM she met with him. Wish I knew where you get your info from. Glad you support this but to state so boldly that there is no city support is totally wrong. I have heard as you have that the City is not business friendly. What I have also learned is that we are not always responsible for delays. Often the architects, being paid to do the minimum, do the minimumin in their drawings which do not meet the standards that are set. When the city returns the plans for changes the architects don’t tell the client that they did inadiquate work. They tell the client that the City is holding the job up. This has actually been the case for many businesses. When I explain this to them and they ask questions it is often discovered that this is the real truth behind the story. It was the case with Toxic Brew, the Fifth Street Brew Pub and Riff Raff Bar. I was also able to explain to the owners of these establishments how to get through the system and they both did and thanked me. No other member of the commission took the time. I really hope you get elected. Not only will you ask questions but this will be an eye opener for you. There are always three sides to a story. Your side, my side and the truth! Always seek the truth and never take sides and you will do OK.
  8. truddick September 9, 2013 / 11:01 am
    I am so glad to read that I am noted as a curmudgeon.  All that work not in vain…
    DJW, true, pro wrestling and karaoke (and even champagne bars) are not extinct.  But in the 1980s they were suddenly huge–now they’re way below the attention level they then commanded.  Note that in 1983, Hulk Hogan was a household name–at present I’m not even sure who is the #1 draw in WWE (didn’t John Cena just return?) and I doubt there will ever be the same recognition level in my lifetime again.
    And so yes, food trucks will always be around and they’ll always have a place. and I’ve been known to give business to many of them during, say, Citifolk (alas).  I’m just dismayed that recently they seem to be held up as such a wonderful innovation.  Taste vary; if I’m getting really good food, I want to sit down and eat off a real plate (and I do have concerns about the waste stream).  So granted, tge current popularity seems trendy to me, and in a few years some other fashion will spring up–I’m hoping a re-emergence of belly dance.
    And the food truck contestant on “Padma’s Picks” did NOT win a cheftestant spot on the Top Chef series; those spots went to two chefs who lead fine-dining establishments in brick-and-mortar locations.   
  9. djw September 9, 2013 / 12:27 pm
    I’m still puzzled by your characterization of professional wrestling. It’s a form of entertainment that’s almost 100 years old, beginning in the South and becoming a national phenomenon around the same time television became common. So far, it has had two so-called “golden ages”–the first in the 40-50’s and the second in the 80’s-90’s. It isn’t really that far off its 80’s popularity peak now, it’s just that entertainment media is more bifurcated by all the choices available to us, so we don’t see it as much. But regardless, it’s an industry that (bafflingly, to me, I find it really dumb) has stood the test of time and experienced two extended “booms” in popularity. You may be right that it’ll never experience a 3rd, but I don’t know why. There’s no accounting for taste.
  10. joe_mamma September 10, 2013 / 2:03 pm
    @djw
     
    Exactly.  Pro Wrestling is not really shrinking.  WWE revenues in 2007 were 485.7M.  In 2012 they were 477.7M.  A miniscule decline.  It just appears to be a lot less popular because there are more choices for entertainment.  In other words the pie got bigger.  It doesn’t mean it is not a worthwhile business or that it is going to disappear tomorrow, just that things change.   
     
    Just today it was announced that HP, Alcoa and Bank of America are going to no longer be listed in the DOW Industrials….Those companies might as well close up shop according to some folks logic.
     
    I guess the moral of the story is that Dayton should be doing what it can to make itself attractive to business and to not play favorites because you never know what the next hot thing is going to be.

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