The emerging food-truck scene tries to find its place in Rochester
by Dayna Papaleo | November 14, 2012 | Rochester City News
It wasn’t long after her army-green Le Petit Poutine truck hit the road in the spring of 2011, slinging the Canadian staple of hand-cut fries, savory gravy, and cheese curds, plus a scattering of thyme, that I approached Lizzie Clapp about doing a story on Rochester’s food-truck scene. But there was just one little hitch: Rochester didn’t actually have a food-truck scene at that point.
Though chuck wagons are by no means a new way of grubbing up, sometime in 2008 the modern breed of food trucks rolling around New York and Los Angeles began garnering oodles of attention thanks to inspired menus and a canny mastery of social networking that enabled them to attract ravenous throngs with a mere tweet. Then the media chimed in with reality-TV shows and breathless articles about innovative chefs creating their own opportunities outside the restaurant realm.
Of course, longtime locals understand that it can take a little while for things to catch on in cautious Rochester, with trends typically saturating both coasts before seeping inland. But after the phenomenal success of this year’s two Food Truck Rodeos at the Rochester Public Market — the October installment boasted the participation of more than a dozen of these wheeled meal dealies — at this point it’s fair to say Rochester officially has a scene.
“It was awesome,” Clapp says of the October 4 gathering, which drew hundreds of hungry Rochesterians. “It’s so helpful for us in the food-truck community.”
The popularity of local food trucks is no longer in question. The major issue now, for both food-truck owners and City of Rochester officials, is defining locations where the trucks can do business.
You’ve probably noticed the ubiquitous hot-dog carts downtown; the City of Rochester has earmarked about 50 different spots for the carts, with around half of them in use, and typically just during the more temperate months. By contrast, there are only two spaces set aside for trucks in the downtown area; one is at East Avenue and Alexander Street, the other near Manhattan Square Park. This dearth of opportunity frustrates the food-truck owners who would love a chance to feed lunch to the estimated 55,000 people working in Center City. City officials say they’re interested in finding a solution that addresses zoning and safety issues, but the food-truck owners are eager to sell their wares downtown sooner rather than later.
Since debuting their food truck Brick-N-Motor at the October rodeo, Paul Vroman and Nathan Hurtt — who met on the line at Max of Eastman Place — have found resourceful ways of providing customers with fresh salads, soups, and hand-ground burgers. Whether it be a lunchtime pop-up at Eagle’s Landing Business Park in Henrietta or as part of an occasional mini-rodeo Saturday mornings at the Object Maker’s Lot on Railroad Street with fellow trucks Le Petit Poutine, Marty’s Meats, and Hello Arepa, they’ve found opportunities to operate. But, says Vroman, “I’d like to get downtown.”
“We’re down in the suburbs, and we see the skyline of the city; we want to at least broaden the view and get more exposure downtown,” Vroman says.
So what’s the hold-up? Why hasn’t the city done everything in its power to revamp an outdated system and use the popularity of the food-truck movement to bring a little taste of progress to an often static downtown?
“Basically what it comes down to is the safety concern,” Vroman says, citing the City of Rochester’s requirement that trucks not block the sight line of moving traffic. That’s generally not an issue for food carts, which are not only smaller but, unlike trucks, able to set up on the sidewalk.
City Clerk Dan Karin says that he has met with several food-truck operators about new vending spots, and that there is support for this growing business niche on City Council. But in addition to the public-safety issues, the city also has to make sure any new truck spots won’t detract from existing brick-and-mortar businesses, or impact residential areas. He says he’s interested in working on a pilot program that he hopes to have going by the spring that would address the need for more downtown truck spaces. He also has an eye toward the promised public space in the still-evolving Midtown redevelopment process, which might offer some permanent spaces for food trucks.
“I think there’s room to work within what’s already set up, and it’s really exciting,” says Le Petit Poutine’s Clapp. “But in order to get things done, we’ve got to supply the information, supply the demand. Really paint a picture for them, and just kind of make some compromises and let [city officials] see, over the evolution of how this is going to work, that it will.”
Which brings us back to that gonzo October Food Truck Rodeo, an experience that Arthur Rothfuss III of Hello Arepa likens to “learning to swim by being tossed in the deep end.” After discussing with his Venezuelan-born wife the notion of doing something in Rochester with a traditional Latin-American dish known as arepas, Rothfuss decided this past spring to get in the food-truck game. By the end of September Hello Arepa was serving what the side of the truck describes as “a grilled then baked corn-flour patty stuffed with tastiness,” with fillings that include barbecued tofu or black beans and feta.
Besides the Railroad Street gig, Hello Arepa occasionally sets up at Roc Brewing Co. on Union Street, and Rothfuss is optimistic about working with the city. “They want us to be able to do business like everyone else,” he says. “It’s hard to change regulations, but I’m confident we’re going to work something out. We just want to make sure it doesn’t get swept aside.”
Like any good entrepreneur, Clapp did her homework when she made the decision last year to secure a curbside spot for Le Petit Poutine, eventually settling on the space outside of Lux Lounge on South Avenue, where she serves on select evenings (the South Wedge falls outside of the downtown business corridor, and it is subject to different zoning regulations). But she describes a veritable “Who’s On First?” routine upon trying to convey her wishes to the powers-that-be, eventually going so far as to e-mail the code-enforcement officer cell phone photos of the required measurements.
“I didn’t hear from him for two weeks,” Clapp says. “I thought maybe I overstepped my bounds by being a little overbearing, but I really wanted this to happen.”
Le Petit Poutine’s Clapp is one of the area food-truck operators working with the city to find more spaces from which they can sell downtown. | (right) Poutine from Le Petit Poutine; the Canadian dish features fries, gravy, cheese curds, and thyme
“They have a lot of work to do,” says Clapp of city officials. “Maybe the budget isn’t as much as it should be for people in those positions. But in order for Rochester to be cooler, or improve in any way, it’s going to sometimes be more work. And I think from our end, as food-truck owners, the more of that research and help that we can give to them, the more they’re going to want to work with us.”
The Rochester scene isn’t alone in its growing pains. The Buffalo News recently reported on what it called “the Amherst food-truck controversy,” which jeopardized Buffalo’s Best Food Truck Contest, an outdoor event at the Boulevard Mall that doubled as a benefit for Buffalo City Mission. At issue was Amherst’s 1993 “peddling and soliciting” law requiring “a retail or wholesale business conducted from a temporary structure or tent, truck, van, or trailer” to pony up a $100 permit fee (per truck and per location) that would only be good for 90 days.
Food-truck owners essentially argued that the repeated permit fees were prohibitive, while town officials countered that they could not legally waive the fees, even for a fundraiser. The October 6 function went on after one of the mall’s tenants covered the $700 in fees, and the Town of Amherst is said to be updating and revising its peddling and soliciting law, with plans to create a new permit specifically tailored to food trucks.
Those kinds of laws are usually meant to protect the businesses around where a mobile vendor sets up, and that is one of the concerns mentioned by City Clerk Dan Karin. But Vroman says that he doesn’t see a lot of pushback from the traditional Rochester restaurant community. “We know enough people who own or operate or work in brick-and-mortar establishments that are probably more excited about food trucks than anyone else in the city of Rochester,” he says.
Besides, says Chowder UP’s Tim Gorie, any nearby restaurant would be able to offer amenities that trucks can’t, like ambience, tables, and restrooms. “If they’re not serving substandard food, they have nothing to worry about,” he says.
Gorie, who has been cooking seafood in different jobs for the last 35 years, made plans to open Chowder UP after realizing that there were no chowder houses in Rochester. “I basically offer what I like,” he says of his steamed-and-sautéed seafood menu, which includes classic lobster rolls, crab sandwiches, fish tacos, and of course clam chowder.
Gorie is encouraged by the ongoing dialogue between the city and the food-truck owners, some of whom have recently begun meeting as a Food Truck Alliance. “We’re very cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to be competing,” he says. “The trucks are a great draw.”
And like Vroman, Gorie is very interested in offering his creations to downtown workers, whether on the street or as part of a pilot program. “In order to be a serious chef in a food truck,” says Gorie, “we need to be employed five days a week, year round.”
Marty O’Sullivan of Marty’s Meats wants to be able to serve lunch in Center City as well. “We like being downtown; it’s such an eclectic, interesting crowd,” O’Sullivan says. “I don’t think the city is against food trucks; I think the city is willing to work with us. We are business owners, and I can’t see why the city wouldn’t want more businesses downtown.”
Morgan Stanley’s loss is the food truck scene’s gain, as O’Sullivan left a career in finance upon noticing a lack of food trucks. (Fun fact: he also played hoops for the Rochester RazorSharks over the 2008-09 season.) “A lot of people probably thought I was insane,” O’Sullivan says, but he knew food, having cooked at Coppergrass Bistro under Max’s Ryan Jennings and dabbled in catering for family and friends.
Naturally, O’Sullivan put his business acumen to work as well. After designing his truck, he says, “The first thing I did was find locations to do business. I read the rules, I read every town code.” And that strategy paid off in spades, with Marty’s Meats on the road nearly every day, doing breakfast or late night at RIT’s Park Point, or bringing lunch to the hungry workers at Tobey Village Office Park in Pittsford.
It’s worth underscoring that the food being churned out by many area food trucks goes far beyond the hot dogs and street meat being offered by more traditional mobile vendors. O’Sullivan tailors his protein-centric menus to the particular clientele on a given day; brunch on Railroad Street features egg sandwiches and meats on a stick with sophisticated flavor combinations, while the aprés-midnight crowd has access to tacos, tater tots, and plates. Lunch brings out the salads and an impressive array of sandwiches, like the Thanksgiving, consisting of smoked turkey, house-made stuffing-flavored potato chips, and cranberry mayo.
“I think that you can put the same quality of food out of a truck that you can get out of a fine-dining restaurant, minus the high overhead, the high cost that you have to pass on to the consumer,” says Vroman, who knows a thing or two about upscale eateries from his most recent job as executive chef at Max of Eastman Place.
Vroman’s Brick-N-Motor, which Clapp describes as “a dream kitchen on wheels,” recently offered a wild mushroom risotto with pork belly, fennel salad, and maple gastrique for $8. Mobile food sure ain’t what it used to be.
“I think that’s the hard part, is breaking the stereotype of the hot-dog vendor, and then what we’re doing,” says Brick-N-Motor partner Hurtt. “We respect what they’ve been doing for years now, and we’re not trying to take their territory. We’re just offering a different opportunity to get some food to enjoy the city outside, and that’s the beauty of this.”
The intimacy of the food truck also offers the opportunity to subvert another cliché, that of the surly cook skulking around the back of the house.
“I don’t think you ever really see a relationship between someone that’s making the food and the customer that close,” says Hurtt. “When you’re working in a kitchen you never get to see the customer.”
For Rothfuss, the set-up combines the best of both worlds. “It’s really, really fun. I love arepas, and I love chatting with people,” he says.
Unlike many of her counterparts, Clapp specializes in just one thing: poutine. (Well, two things if you count her increasingly in-demand vegetarian version of the dish.) Poutine is a childhood favorite of hers from trips to her Canadian dad’s cottage near a little village where the comfort food is sold, Clapp says, from “broken-down buses, little shacks, all run by families.”
It was her sister-in-law and former partner, whom Clapp credits with giving her the confidence to take the plunge into small business, that first planted the idea of replicating the poutine experience a little further south.
“If I did it alone from the beginning, that whole start-up process — all the paperwork, figuring out where the truck’s coming from, and just putting the money up — I would have been too afraid,” she says.
Clapp eventually bought her partners out. “The things that were working were starting to make money. Val and Seamus had a young family and couldn’t do that kind of schedule, and I got a taste of it and I loved it. And I didn’t want it to go away.”
“I’m just getting the hang of this whole thing; ordering, keeping things in line,” Clapp says. “I think poutine’s done really well, but within doing well I’ve made improvements to the truck that make poutine easier and safer. That’s the next — can I say that? That’s the next truck. I want to do poutine with country gravy and an egg over easy. I want to do Le Grand Poutine.”
With Rochester’s cold weather looming, other food-truck owners are thinking about their futures, too. For Marty O’Sullivan, 2013 involves the branding of Marty’s Meats, bottling his sauces for retail, and maybe even launching another truck. Tim Gorie is securing high-profile gigs for Chowder UP, though he acknowledges, “It’ll be a lean winter.” Many food trucks are available to cater private events. And all of them are waiting to see what the city’s next move might be.
“Obviously there needs to be regulations,” says Vroman. “We don’t want to just be able to drive around the city and stop wherever we want to stop. But at the same time we don’t want to be given the spots that are so far away from everything where it’s not feasible for us.”
Says Clapp, “The whole beauty and purpose of being on wheels is to go to underserved areas, to bring a little something special to a spot that might not be available otherwise; that’s the part about it that’s exciting and could be used as a really great tool for the city. But I think they’re just very caught up in all the details, which is their job — but let us help answer those questions. Let’s have a conversation about it, not a conflict.”
This article contains additional reporting by Eric Rezsnyak.