Food truck industry at crossroads

Despite challenges, aficionados optimistic

Mobile food vendors and connoisseurs both say they think the number of food trucks and trailers has potentially rolled to its peak in Austin.

The South Congress Food Trailer Park, the city's most recognizable mobile food vendor hub, is scheduled to close soon to make room for a hotel. The expected closure follows years of rapid growth within the local mobile food vendor industry.

The number of registered mobile food vendors in Travis County has grown to more than 1,400 in 2012, up from 955 in 2008, according to the City of Austin Health and Human Services Department. Andy Potter, co-owner of Austin Eats Food Tours, leads guided tours of local food trucks and estimates that out of the licensed mobile food vendors, approximately 600 are currently active in Austin. He said he expects that number to drop.

"I am a bit concerned about the saturation [of mobile food vendors]," he said. "I personally think ... about 40 trucks do really well, about 300 make ends meet and the other 250–300 are [struggling]."

Wes Hurt said that when he opened the Hey Cupcake! food trailer in 2007, his friends thought he had lost his mind.

At the time, there were almost no other modern mobile food vendors, and most people could not comprehend the idea of only selling cupcakes out of a trailer, he said.

Hey Cupcake! has since opened six locations, including a new location at 1511 S. Congress Ave.

Hurt said the mobile food vendor industry, which includes movable food trucks and stationary food trailers, has grown dramatically since he opened.

However, he said he does not think that growth is sustainable.

"I think that the market will slowly be thinned out and that the cream will rise," he said. "This business is way tougher than many people thought."

Food-trailer parks

Despite the expected closure of the South Congress Food Trailer Park and closure of the East Side Drive In Food Trailer Park in 2012, Alex King, manager of the Downtown Austin Food Park that recently opened at 30 N. I-35, said he expects food-trailer parks to continue opening.

"I think there will always be entrepreneurs who want to invest in the culture and see it succeed and find locations," he said.

King said mobile food vendors benefit from being grouped together because they can share customers and resources. Mobile food vendors also have many ideas or tips they can learn from each other, he said.

Likewise, the food-trailer park landowner gets to collect rent after making an initial investment in getting the permits and installation needed to provide electricity, King said. Some food-trailer parks also set up live music and marketing for the park, he said.

"[Food-trailer parks] create a community environment where everyone can work together and play off each others customers," he said.

However, King said Austin's rapid development has made it more difficult to find open land suitable for a food-trailer park. Mobile food vendors were a good option for landowners during the economic downturn, but now that financing is more readily available for bigger projects, the short-term, relatively low-profit option of having a food-trailer park becomes less appealing, Hurt said.

"I think just from a practical standpoint, real estate will become more scarce, therefore decreasing the number of ... food trailers," Hurt said.

Meanwhile, food-trailer parks have opened in Round Rock and Pflugerville. Parks are also planned for Georgetown, Hutto and Cedar Park.

Potter said he expects the saturation of mobile food vendors in Central Austin to cause more food trucks to open outside the city limits.

Brewing partnership

As available, affordable land becomes more scarce, a growing number of mobile food vendors have been opening or operating in collaboration with new or established bars in Central Austin.

Within the past two months, The Bacon Bus opened on the patio of Craft Pride, 61 Rainey St., and The Blue Ox opened on the patio of The Buzz Mill, 1505 Town Creek Drive.

Shilpa Bakre, Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman, said she thinks the area's food trucks have helped spur the rapid development of the Rainey Street area. By teaming up with a mobile food vendor, a bar does not have to go through the lengthy process of getting food permits and can open sooner, she said.

"One of the reasons [the Rainey Street] district has been able to develop as quickly as it has is because it didn't actually have to be mired down with the food permitting part of it in getting it up and running," she said.

Meanwhile, mobile food vendors such as Melvin's Deli Comfort, 501 E. 53rd St., are operating by themselves in parking lots, while others, such as Garbo's Lobster Truck, travel around on a daily basis.

Regulations

Austin City Council passed a set of regulations on mobile food vendors in 2011 that increased the inspections and fees on the industry.

Texas Restaurant Association spokeswoman Wendy Saari credited a general lack of conflict between the brick-and-mortar restaurants and mobile food vendors for Austin's prevalent food truck culture and the regulations that have been put in place.

"I think that the food culture kind of came up here in Austin a lot differently than it did in other cities," she said. "I think it's a part of the Austin culture."

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