Food trucks have seen a rise in popularity over the last five years in The Woodlands area, providing lower expenses to new restaurant owners as well as creating an avenue for restaurants to expand their menus and provide catering services.

With over 400 mobile food permits active in Montgomery County as of March 2023, according to the Montgomery County permitting department, and the introduction of multiple food truck parks and venues in south Montgomery County, food trucks have found new spots to set up and grow in The Woodlands area.

Food trucks offer versatility to the restaurant industry and bring culinary diversity without the need to take up additional development space, according to local vendors. Smaller cities, such as Oak Ridge North and Shenandoah, also benefit from the variety mobile food vendors bring to local events within the cities.

Around the outskirts of The Woodlands, three food truck parks and venues that have opened in the last year are now serving customers with a variety of cuisines off Sawdust Road and further north on FM 1488. Another two locations regularly set up shop at local venues and events within The Woodlands.

“I’ve seen food trucks that are featured at apartment complexes and events because they are mobile, and their overall quality is great food, and it’s just something that is another little exciting piece of our culinary economy,” said JJ Hollie, president of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce.

Culinary diversity

Just like the food they sell, food trucks come in a variety of types. While many food trucks operate solo and travel to various locations, some are more tied to locations, such as food truck parks, which are set up specifically to meet the water and power needs of food trucks. Some venues also host food trucks on-site to provide variety to their own menus.

At Grub on Sawdust, a food truck park off Sawdust Road that opened in September, customers can choose to indulge in Peruvian, Colombian, vegan and vegetarian meals as well as soul food at one location. This variety was crucial to food truck park owner Ricardo Garcia, who said he built the location to provide a hotspot for consumers wanting to try a variety of options.

“When I see a family of four or five ... exit their car then and they go to the park ... sometimes they stick together; sometimes they [split up and go] four different places—you know, everybody does their own thing,” Garcia said. “You know they have an option.”

Garcia settled on the idea of setting up a food truck park after acquiring the property in 2018 with his wife, Alexa. Due to having young children, Garcia said he found it difficult to find places he could take his family out for dinner that were truly family-friendly, but with a food truck park, adults and children can have space to enjoy themselves in an outdoor setting.

“We spend time together, you know, as a family, and so we want that for other parents as well,” Garcia said.

Kirby Ice House, which opened in The Woodlands in September, maintains rotating food truck options that offer items, such as crawfish and seafood, Mexican food, and modern Southern cuisine.

According to Kurt Webb, general manager of The Woodlands Kirby Ice House location, the rotating food truck option benefits business by providing a variety of meal options while reducing the overhead costs of operating a full kitchen at the location.

“That’s just been our concept. We wanted a variety of food instead of having our own kitchen. [The owners] decided to go with food trucks, because that was a better option just because it’s more cost effective for us,” Webb said. “It gives our customers a wide variety of food versus, you know, just burgers.”

With food trucks providing fast meals in a variety of styles and flavors, they offer quick options for local events as well, according to Hollie.

“I think that the advent of food trucks just allows some convenience and flexibility and cost savings,” Hollie said. “They pull up, and they just sell their food, and it’s great.”

Promoting factors

Officials from Oak Ridge North and Shenandoah said the cities do not have tight restrictions on food truck operation, but they are still regulated by the county and state health agencies.

Because it is a special-purpose district, The Woodlands Township does not have the authority to enact ordinances involving the operation of food trucks except on township-owned property. According to Chief Operating Officer Chris Nunes, those instances are typically tied to events in areas, such as parks, which require a special-use permit.

Cities have more power to enact ordinances for mobile food vendors, but the cities of Shenandoah and Oak Ridge North offer similar, straightforward permitting processes, according to officials in those cities.

All food trucks must also go through the Montgomery County permitting process for mobile food vendors to operate within the county. This makes the food trucks answerable to the Montgomery County Environmental Health Services department, which oversees the quality and safety of food trucks in its coverage area according to the Montgomery County Permitting Department.

“It’s a test to try to keep up with everything, and we still have the restaurants to inspect as well,” said Ruben Martinez, chief sanitarian at MCEHS.

U.S. Census data from 2017-20 showed a continual year-over-year growth in statewide registered food trucks, jumping from 487 to 744 going into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While the data has not been updated to reflect the pandemic impact on numbers, the Montgomery County permitting department stated in an inquiry from Community Impact there are roughly 400 mobile food vending permits in Montgomery County alone as of January 2023.

Permitting department officials clarified that obtaining a hard count of the number of food trucks actually in operation is difficult due to the requirements to move the truck at least every 48 hours to have time to refill water tanks and dispose of waste.

Food trucks can also operate in different counties, as their mobile nature allows them to go where the business is most needed at any given moment. However, the businesses still need to obtain valid permits from those counties and cities where they operate.

Positive impact

The inclusion of food trucks at local events also provides opportunities for community bonding and provides an attraction to bring residents out to some events that benefit local fundraising ventures, according to event organizers.

Several food trucks are in rotation at the weekly Grogan’s Mill Farmers Market held at the Grogan’s Mill Shopping Center every Saturday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. The market offers an attraction to bring local residents together, and raise funds for local scholarships and donations to the Montgomery County Food Bank and other charitable organizations in the area, according to Aaron Hoffstadter, member of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association board of directors.

“We have anywhere from one to three food trucks a week, and, you know, certainly a lot of them have their own following and promote the event and bring a lot of new customers to our market,” Hoffstadter said.

According to Christy Miller, director of community programming for Oak Ridge North, food trucks are convenient and fast options for events, such as the upcoming Dogapalooza on March 25 at Marilyn Edgar Park.

For Tristan Bowens, operator of Uncle Louie G’s Italian Ice truck at the Grogan’s Mill Farmers Market, one of the many joys of the food truck industry is the one-on-one time spent with customers—something he said he feels cannot always be replicated in a busy restaurant setting.

“Especially with kids, seeing their excitement ... teaching them how to order and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ just figuring it out for themselves and seeing them shine—it’s just a wholesome feeling,” Bowens said.