Food Trucks: Keeping Austin Weird
By RL Reeves Jr
This vast arsenal of food culture did not happen overnight.
Back in the 80s, Austin first started to see a few loncheras (Mexican taquerias on wheels) begin to operate. They were largely unregulated, and everybody just sort of looked the other way so the community could enjoy sub one-dollar tacos without undue harassment by the man.
This utopia lasted well into the 90s before the city saw fit to begin regulating these mobile kitchens. Change really came a couple years ago when the dominant local food truck chain bulldozed a series of regulations through the city council. The beauty of this was that the man’s own trucks couldn’t pass these new, stringent regulations and he lost a ton of money due to his own hubris.
(If you’d like to read more of this rollicking tale, just google Tom Ramsay and Snappy Snacks. It’s a lovely story.)
So what does Lexington stand to gain by legalizing food trucks in the city? A lot.
As a driver of the local food/beverage economy these trucks can be major players through taxation. Austin’s 1500+ trucks pour thousands of dollars into the city’s coffers on a daily basis.
A 1000 plus trucks need a 1000+ workers, each collecting a paycheck and each paying taxes on these earnings.
One step up the chain, I’m certain that Lexington has a Sysco or US Foods purveying raw groceries and sundries to the restaurants. What if they needed to service a few hundred extra commercial kitchens (food trucks) by this time next year? That’s a lot of jars of olives and rolls of paper towels.
One argument against the food trucks that’s been proven laughable here in Austin is the old “what will the brick and mortars do?” Well, out here they realized they’d better tighten up their operation, improve the quality of their food, and be nimble in this modern era or they’d be left behind.
We’ve seen two migrations occur between the food truck-brick and mortar axis.
Some food trucks have become so successful that they’re now in brick and mortar establishments. And some brick and mortars have gotten with the program and launched food trucks as a complement to their physical restaurants.
Bigger tax base, more interest in the local food scene, more people working in the industry, and a general contentment in the air from having all these amazing food sources from chefs who did not have the half a million dollars it costs to get a brick and mortar running out here in Austin.
When it’s date night out here in Austin, sometimes my girlfriend and I will go to a physical restaurant and have an appetizer and a beer, walk down the street and have an entree from a food truck, then go to a restaurant for a dessert.
This kind of roving dining is commonplace out here. We migrate from restaurant to food truck and vice versa. The flowering of the food truck scene has shown deeper-pocketed restaurant owners what they need to do to lure the modern diner into their businesses.
I haven’t been to Lexington in a couple years, but I remember the downtown as being fairly quiet on weeknights. Contrast this to downtown Austin where dozens of food trucks are set up all over the area with picnic tables out front, hundreds of people eating and laughing the night away.
When we’re sated with the food, we wander into a nearby bar for a few drinks and some live music, then at 2 am, we might wander back outside and finish the night off at the Creme Brulee cart.
There’s something about having a personal-sized creme brulee torched for you on the sidewalk as a capper to your evening.
Get with the program Lexington. Legalize your food trucks, and may a 1000 new businesses bloom in a sort of bluegrass version of culinary perestroika.
RL Reeves Jr is a Kentucky native and an Austin,Texas food writer (scrumptiouschef.com.)
This article appears on page 7 of the May 10 print edition of Ace Weekly, as part of this week’s cover feature on Lexington’s Food Trucks.
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