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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