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Food truck parks: How to make it in America

By Jonathan Auping


It’s a slow day at the food truck park. That’s often the case at this particular park. Sometimes it gets busy. But more often than not the foot traffic dies down after 1:00 p.m. and it’s just a matter of killing another hour.

“What’s your favorite one?” I ask while leaning into the window of the cupcake truck parked in the third spot, behind the taco truck and the barbeque truck. “I know you’ve got a favorite. I’m just going to trust you. Let me try whichever one you like best.”

Based on my own criteria, flirting is about 80 percent of my job. Not necessarily just flirting with the cute girl working inside the mobile cupcake shop, but with just about any female working the register of any food truck inside my park. The girl’s appearance is hardly relevant considering a romantic relationship is not the end game here. It’s all about free food.

Despite a whole menu of exotic flavors, she tells me her favorite is chocolate icing on vanilla cake. I tell her that she’s a traditional girl and that I like that about her before asking for a vanilla cupcake with chocolate icing. The key is to have the wallet ready and the money visible. It’s a gamble, but if I have to take a loss I will.

She smiles after handing me the cupcake, looks down at the three dollars in my hand and says, “Don’t worry about it.” As always, with my best attempt at genuine surprise I ask, “Are you sure?” followed by an overdramatic thank you. I then put one dollar in the tip jar.

I have no clue one way or another whether the girl gave me the cupcake because she was truly smitten by me or because she felt sorry for me and wanted to throw this pathetic guy a bone. I stopped caring a couple months into the job.

People have been cooking and selling food out of automobiles in America for years. The chuck wagon was pioneered during the westward expansion of the post-Civil War era. It was primitive in the beginning (no fresh food, mostly preservatives and coffee), but it stored, moved and sold food nonetheless.

Only in the past 20 years have they universally been called food trucks. Only in the past 15 years have they been considered trendy. Only in the past ten years has there been a food truck craze in America. And only in the past five years has a Twitter account and Facebook page become essential survival tools in an increasingly crowded market.

Some say the food truck craze began in California where authentic tacos were hawked on street corners, slowly creeping closer and closer over time to corporate buildings where lawyers and executives risked spilling salsa on their dress shirts and slacks. That authenticity is crucial to what tipped the food truck business into a food truck craze.

Authenticity, in this case, is corporate fatigue combined with a sense of adventure. People want to take a break from McDonald’s and Taco Bell and get something they would never find in their own neighborhood. They want food made by people who learned their recipes from their grandmothers, not from a website online. They want a food truck that’s just creaky enough to avoid seeming commercial, but not so creaky that they might question things like sanitary issues.

Who makes the best Mexican food? Logic would argue that Mexicans do. So Mexican neighborhoods would probably be the best place to find good Mexican food. But lawyers and executives (and doctors and administrators) don’t all want to go to Mexican neighborhoods on their lunch break. It’s too far away, they say. It’s impractical. It’s inconvenient. It could be dangerous.

That’s where the convenience factor comes in. Each truck has wheels that bring the authenticity to you. The restaurant down the street is just that: down the street. Its origins are established. But when the restaurant drives up and parks itself in front of us then we can make up our own story about where it came from. That story helps us believe we can play a role in rejecting America’s commercial culture. That rejection spawned the creation of the food truck park, and spawned my job as a “food park manager” in Fort Worth, Texas.

The title is the most official part of the job. The majority of my few responsibilities are handled just before the park opens and just after it closes. Those responsibilities include having the correct electrical cords prepared for the scheduled food trucks, plugging the cords into the correct outlets, setting up tables and chairs (and taking them down) and leading the trucks into their designated spots. I’m also in charge of obtaining the 10 percent fee that my employers demand from trucks who want to sell on their property. Other than that, it’s pretty much just flirting.

The brick mansion, over 100 years old, serves as the elegant backdrop for the food park. The driveway ends in a turnaround and converts into a food truck parking lot during the day. While it only holds a maximum of four trucks — less than most parks — it makes up for this with green space and tables on either side of the turnaround, large trees and flourishing gardens with colorful flowers. Located in the heart of the medical district, it is literally overshadowed by two looming hospitals. Doctors, nurses and administrators make up about ninety percent of the customers. At noon on a typical Friday the property is hosting food trucks serving messy lunches and at night it turns into one of Fort Worth’s most popular wedding venues, thanks to its photogenic qualities.

When I found out about the job, it appealed to me immediately.  I like meeting people with stories. I also like eating food. So the notion of meeting people who wake up every day to load a truck full of food before driving it to a park to sell sounded right up my alley.

I assumed I would meet interesting people and I liked the idea of writing about them. And I liked the idea of sitting in my designated chair with pen and paper in hand, looking over the park and documenting the life stories of vagabond food salesman.

However, there was still something very different from my documenting and the process of most immersion journalists of the past: I actually needed the job. Writing was hardly supporting the Subway “Five Dollar Foot-Long” diet that I had grown accustomed to. My reasoning for showing up everyday went well beyond observational research. The free food that I received was more than just a perk, it bordered on necessity. Just like the food truck drivers, I was just trying to get by.

Getting by was a skill most of them had mastered as well as cooking. They are like the modern American gypsies, a community of nomads, moving their businesses from location to location. The community, however, doesn’t always travel together.

On Mondays I used to order from a gourmet sandwich truck, saving humanity one sandwich at a time. Owned by a short, stocky man and his short, stocky wife, the truck committed one day out of every week to feeding the homeless. Not a token, guilt-appeasing gesture of handing out leftovers from a regular business day. We’re talking the $8.50 pork, beef and chicken sandwiches, free of charge, straight to the stomachs of the less fortunate.

The first few times I ordered food from this deliciously philanthropic truck an adolescent boy no older than 11 years old popped his little head up to take my order and yell back “one chicken sandwich” to an even smaller version of him who would subsequently make my sandwich. About a minute later, the original boy would stick his head out of a completely different window, spot me standing by the original window and yell “order up” before handing me my meal.

Neither of them stood much higher than my belly-button. But since their curly hair resembled that of the owner’s and their features seemed like an accurate juxtaposition between the appearance of he and his wife and since my duties as park manager didn’t include keeping an eye on the enforcement of child labor laws, I assumed they were the owners’ children and enjoyed my meal.
It was later confirmed to me that both boys were in fact the proud descendants of the charitable couple. But the boys weren’t their only children. They also had multiple adopted children, a few of who were special needs children previously without families.

The truck was the family’s primary source of income and one business day each week they gave their product away for free. I started to tip two dollars for the meal that I didn’t pay for in the first place. We all have to do our part.

Tuesdays and Thursdays I usually went with either Cajun or barbecue. I never really had a stereotype for people from Louisiana who make gumbo, jambalaya, catfish baskets and Po Boy sandwiches. But then Carter, father and overseer of the family-run Louisiana Flavor truck, stepped on to my park. A tall and slender black man in his fifties, he sported a New Orleans Saints cap, LSU T-shirt and jean shorts. He also had a fly swatter in his right hand -- exactly how I had imagined anyone stepping off a fan boat, dodging gators in the Bayou would look. Flies had never been an issue at my park. But if they ever became a problem, it was nice to know I could delegate the resolution to someone else.

Transplanted to Texas to work in the security field for over 15 years, Carter insisted upon telling customers that he and his wife were “retired” and just did the whole food truck thing for fun (although it didn’t sound like a hobby when he complained to me about customers not showing up). He was quick to tell anyone that he did in fact go to college, but that the degree and the things they teach you won’t contribute to the job you get in the real world. I wanted to prove him wrong. But I didn’t want him to know I was another one of those unimaginative English-Literature majors who ends up becoming the manager of a food truck park.

Every day was the same question and the same conversation: “So how ’bout them Cowboys? Whatdya think?” It didn’t matter that the Dallas Cowboys only played once a week and I often saw Carter twice a week; we’d repeat the conversation each day. Sometimes I would intentionally contradict what I’d said the previous time, trying to determine if he even watched the games or listened to me. He just rolled with the punches. It became impossible to tell if I was messing with him or he was messing with me.

Between he, his wife, and their two twenty-something sons, they successfully made food about as tempting to your nostrils as it was terrifying to your heart and arteries. Like every other food truck, this Cajun truck had a tip jar. But unlike most, the tips weren’t used for that night’s round of beers. They were saved. Carter estimated that, split between the family, the tips came out to about $1,600 a person at year’s end. Instead of a simple Christmas bonus, the money was pulled together for an exotic vacation cruise to kick off January.

During the heart of winter, the slowest time in the food truck business, while I was plugging in electrical cords for other trucks with three jackets on, this man was sipping his favorite beer—Dos Equis—on the open sea with his family and, I assume, his fly swatter.

The barbecue trailer was also family-run by a household that you would just want to join for Thanksgiving dinner. Not just because you know it would be delicious, but because they embody every television sitcom family in the twenty-seventh-minute of an episode after that day’s problems are resolved and they are reminded why they all love each other.

The trailer was run by Turner, a tall, slightly overweight man who I originally pegged for about 40 years old. With about 85 percent of his face covered in facial hair and sunglasses his age was no easy guess. Turns out he was 25.  Turner brought his girlfriend, Becky, back home to Texas following college in Arkansas to help him run the trailer. Becky was one of those sweet, Southern, ‘tom-boy’ blonde girls who you see on television, but never seem to exist in real life. More noticeably, she was way out of Turner’s league. But they had been together for over eight years and it was no surprise that Becky liked Turner because everybody liked Turner. “Every time I turn my head, he’s made a new friend,” Becky told me. “Then I have to get his attention again to focus on what we’re doing.”

Turner is a person born with the ‘likable’ trait. He listens just as well as he speaks, his laugh is unique and contagious enough to make you feel like you could be a stand up comedian, and his version of complaining is telling a funny story about something going wrong. His parents owned the trailer and his mother, Cynthia, a full-time nurse, handed over the reigns to Turner who made it his own operation. Cynthia would still stop by and work the truck when she missed interacting with customers and fellow truck workers.

If you could remove any negative stereotype about Southern people and leave friendliness, hospitality and culinary aptitude then you would have Cynthia, Turner and Becky. They were the prototypical family business: friendly, skilled and reliable.

They were the type of family that reminded you that if you keep the people you love close to you then nothing could truly go wrong.

That’s why I was so taken aback when everything went wrong. Turner and Cynthia eventually had a falling out. Things were said. Then things were yelled. Then things were thrown. Turner stormed out of his mother’s house faster than she could kick him out.

The tension had apparently been bubbling over for a while before Cynthia called me to let me know their next day at the park would be their last. Turner was a hard worker when it came to operating that trailer, but according to Cynthia, that was about all he ever lifted a finger for. The disagreements, Cynthia said, were petty.  “Get out of bed and work! … Get off my back!” That sort of thing.

On Cynthia’s last day I expressed my grief and my hope that I didn’t contribute to the rift between the two of them, what with the stress of my 10 percent fee deadlines and specific need to have them be the first truck each morning for logistical reasons. She assured me that I had nothing to do with it and that, no matter what, they both still loved me.

Just like that they were out of my life, or at least my park. A different barbeque truck replaced them. Their food was arguably as good. But it wasn’t the same. It was run by two beer-bellied men in their forties who spent half their time on the park hitting on female truck workers.

As I watched them I thought about the importance of family…but more nervously I asked myself, “Is 20 years and 30 pounds the only difference between me and these new guys?”

Wednesdays were great because that’s the day I ate from the Mexican truck that just so happened to employ a stunningly gorgeous cashier named Jasmine. Sure, their food is really good. In fact, they were easily the most popular truck on the park. But it was the girl I was interested in, not the food.

As do many attractive women who are annoyed by the constant advances of guys like me, she was hesitant to talk, associate with, or smile at me the first few weeks. But after about a month, I had laid down enough charm to earn myself free meals from the truck. Regardless of Jasmine’s appearance, this was a victory in itself because this particular Mexican truck was the last of the food trucks to resist even giving me a discount. I ate lunch that day with a sense of confidence that only someone who had received free tacos from a beautiful girl could truly understand.

Eventually she let her guard down around me and it became clear that she was more than just a pretty face. Behind the guise of a tough girl who you wouldn’t want to mess with – a guise created for guys like me – she was a sweet person capable of making people feel good about themselves.

It wasn’t long before I was asking myself “what is she doing here?” Why wasn’t she doing something a little more glamorous than working at a food truck park with me? That smile alone could sell the worst toothpaste on the market. Eventually she opened up to me and I got her story.

At twenty-one, Jasmine was three years younger than me. But she had been through much more in her life than I had. Including half-siblings, she was one of ten children. She always had a home, but few resources. School was suggested, but not enforced. When she was 17 she got pregnant. And from there, things got more complicated. She later found herself arrested as an accessory in a felony offense orchestrated by her child’s father and his friends. Her crime: driving a car. “They told me they were picking up their stuff from someone’s house,” she recalls. “Then they kept coming out with more stuff, TV’s and stuff like that. I was like ‘hold up, this is way too much stuff.’”

A good lawyer might have persuaded a jury of her lack of conscious participation in the crime. But good lawyers are expensive and that isn’t how things played out. She spent nearly a year in prison.These things helped explain her hectic work schedule. The time she spent on my park was just a fraction of her schedule. She would usually work in the early mornings and after leaving my park the truck would often park itself outside a bar and remain there until 3:00 a.m. where drunken men would harass her while they ordered their food.

Her schedule was not busy because she was a “workaholic” or because she wanted extra walking around money. Separated from her child’s father, she still had a little girl to raise, a little girl whom she loved and bragged about, whose goofy laugh got Jasmine through so many tough days and nights. She had to feed her and shelter her. She still had court fees to pay off. Not to mention that jobs aren’t easy to find with a criminal record. If she is told to work certain hours, she can’t afford to argue. “I was young, dumb and naïve,” she says, referring to the mistakes she had made.

Perhaps that’s true, but at twenty-one-years old she’s still supposed to be young, dumb and naïve. That’s pretty much the definition of being twenty-one. She no longer has that luxury. Just before the holidays I asked her what she was hoping to get for Christmas. The look on her face along with her reaction hinted that she didn’t expect to get much of anything for Christmas, but that she knew she had to figure out how to get something for her daughter whose fourth birthday happened to land on Dec. 26.

After a few seconds of thinking, “I just want to be happy and healthy this year.”

“Are you not happy now?” I asked.

She looked at me and smiled what seemed like a genuine smile. Not a sarcastic smile or an annoyed smile, but a heartfelt smile that suggested she didn’t want any sympathy.

“I’m really healthy.”

Friday I liked to indulge in arguably my favorite truck, which served gourmet takes on American classics like Sloppy Joes and Cheese Steaks. It was run by Mark, an enthusiastic, friendly and slightly cocky man in his early forties who had a beard and enough of a stomach to suggest that he tested everything on his menu before it hit the market.

He bought the truck on the Internet from a guy in Alabama for much less than a functioning vehicle of that size should cost. That probably had something to do with the fact that describing it as “functioning” would be quite an exaggeration. The engine cut off about every 35 seconds.

After driving it down from Alabama, he hired his brother, Ben, to be his main cook. The two brothers look alike in the same sense that Mario and Luigi look alike; if you could take Mark and stretch him upwards about five inches you would more or less have Ben.

On top of being an amazing cook, Ben just so happened to be perhaps the strangest person I have ever met. You know that one friend you have who always seems to say something inappropriate and manages to make half the room uncomfortable? Well, Ben would make that friend blush.

He deems himself a “back porch philosopher” and I have yet to determine whether his insight was brilliant or completely insane. I typically leaned towards the latter. He liked to walk up to me without a normal introduction or pleasantry and present me with a riddle, joke or nugget of nonsensical information to mull over. “So there’s a hotel with infinite rooms and it fills up to capacity, but there’s one more couple that wants to check-in.

What does the hotel do?” he asks me while stroking his beard.

“How can it fill up if there are infinite rooms?”

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t know. I guess they kick someone out.”

“No. They put the new couple in the first room and they move every other guest down one room. They can do that, you know, cause there’s infinite rooms.”

There was also real highbrow stuff like this one:

“You know when a dog comes up to you and starts humping your leg?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know the best way to get him to stop?”

“No, how?”

“You pick him up and suck his dick.”

Or this little thought provoking account:

“So there’s a person standing on the street, right? And there’s another person over on the other side. Then the second person walks across the street and stands next to the first person. Now there are two people standing on the street. Think about it.”

Don’t think about it. I’m fairly certain there’s nothing to think about.

Mark and Ben are the children of a preacher. Mark’s the cheerful boss and Ben’s the eccentric wildcard. They spent their childhood in Costa Rica while their parents did missionary work. Mark claims to be able to listen to a song and if the lead singer is “a preacher’s son” then he will know by the end of the song. Twenty years ago Mark was in the military serving as a dental specialist. The gig took him all over the world. He found himself in Germany when a superior officer caught wind of the relationship between his daughter and Mark. So he turned it into a long distance relationship, which turned into no relationship.

Nowadays, Mark is married with two small children and has an ambitious and optimistic belief that his food truck will be as profitable as they come. His food certainly backs up his confidence. Mark and Ben were even newer to the food truck game than I was having bought their truck a few months after I began my job. Something about that fact got me to rooting for them. Their enthusiasm, confidence and quick ability to fit into the food truck community made them undeniably likable.

Mark seemed born for the food truck life. While staring at the line of a Mexican truck on the park he told me, “When I have the time I’m going to buy another truck and just sell rice and beans. That’s all some people want.”

“If you’ve got the money it’s not a bad idea.” I replied. “Just might work.”

“All I need is the time. You never have to worry about the money. It’s called a loan. If you go to the bank they’ll give you the money.”

It was not lost on me how fitting it was that this remark came from the owner of a truck selling American food.

Yet there was also something wonderfully American about Mark’s quick success. His truck didn’t have a gimmick. It didn’t have a catchphrase. His version of gift certificates was writing “Good for $10” on the back of a business card. He pestered customers into trying his food and not once did I see an unsatisfied face. He developed a rapport with his regulars. He rewarded free sweet tea to whoever he noticed recommending his food. He was succeeding at capitalism without succumbing to commercialism.

We associate with people like us. It’s a habitual tendency. There’s a strong chance that four out of your five best friends are the same race as you and have shared life experiences not drastically different than your own. In a country that claims to embrace diversity as a staple of its existence it still usually takes something unique to bring different people together.

Somehow I found myself right in the middle of that particular something. The park was a melting pot. Each truck brought with it people of different race, background, class, beliefs, education, and certainly life experience. They were not people you expected to associate with each other. The interesting thing was that all these differences aside, most of these people did not consider themselves in an entirely dissimilar demographic as the person parked behind them. That commonality is a principle concept in the structure of this country: people brought together through hard work.

There was the cashier who owned a 10-foot pet python that apparently got “antsy” whenever it was held by anyone but her. There was the other cashier who was desperately trying to earn college scholarships for her two sons in the cutthroat world of male cheerleading. There was the complete asshole whose parents bought him a restaurant (and the food truck that came with it) despite his clear lack of business acumen.

There was the young couple who rolled a cart no bigger than six feet onto the park to sell cupcakes. They started the business after the wife saw an episode of Cupcake Wars and thought it was a good idea.

There was the nicest, unassuming cashier, Katie, who never seemed to say much of anything out of the ordinary until a customer came by who happened to be wearing a shirt with the logo of a drug rehabilitation program of which he was on the board. As serious as I had ever seen her, she thanked him for every thing that the program does and told him that it saved her life. She had been sober for years.

There was the Hispanic guy that helped on the hot dog truck with snake tattoos completely covering his shaved head. Super friendly guy by the way.

There was the lady whose truck managed to catch on fire twice while at my park. She wore Crocs on her feet and often smelled like alcohol. Also, her food wasn’t very good. She didn’t last long.

There was the boy working the Indian food truck. Probably nineteen or twenty years old, he took advantage of the truck’s flat screen television by playing DVDs for customers to watch while waiting in line. Unfortunately, he often seemed to choose R-rated films and strangely managed to start each DVD during the films’ most intimate sex scenes. I obviously had to tell him to turn off the movies in these instances, but we eventually bonded over our shared interest in Texas rapper Chamillionaire.

Really? An Indian food truck worker with a tendency to play soft-core pornography having an intelligent conversation about the lyrical ability of Chamillionaire? It begs for a tired cliché like “Only in America.” That’s the feeling I get when I step on a food truck park now. I feel like I found America. The America that I read about and have been told exists, not the one I see on commercials.

The park is full of stories parked behind stories. It’s not that McDonald’s employees don’t have stories of their own, but the customer doesn’t know or care. When you eat at a food truck you directly involve yourself in their story. Your purchase plays a small part in determining the future of their story. And you’re happy to do it, because on top of everything else, the food is “authentic.”

To many, America is a mall food court; branded corporate eateries lacking character located in the center of the manifestation of commercialism. The mall food court is the American expectation. Perhaps, it is what America became a long time ago. But the food truck park is the heartland. It is what we’re told America was intended to be: Diversity, hard work and equal opportunity.

One of the most telling moments of my time at the park was the day a Taco Bueno truck was scheduled. Never had I received more flack than I did that day for letting a “commercial truck” on the property. Even trucks who weren’t there that day approached me later in the week saying “I heard you had a Taco Bueno truck in here the other day. What’s that about?”

That was the last day Taco Bueno came to the park. I put a stop to it. Actually, electrical reasons made it hard for them to come back, but the other trucks didn’t have to know that. I received even more free food that week for standing up for the little trucks. I ate it outside while making the rounds every fifteen minutes to have conversations with anybody on a truck without a line. It felt like a pretty good gig. It sort of felt like the American Dream.

Author’s Note: The names of these people and their food trucks have been altered to respect the privacy of the individuals.
 

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By Jonathan Auping
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