Austin’s Food Trucks: Stronger Together

I found myself buying a last minute ticket to Austin after our first official food truck season had come to a close. The selling points were visiting some friends, a break from Debbie (my truck), and sunshine.

That was how little I knew about Austin. Grant it, I got the friendship part right. But what I didn’t expect was how much inspiration I would garner from the food truck scene in Austin, Debbie was almost constantly on my mind. My trip away quickly became a business trip where I dedicated most of my time to following my stomach on a tour around the city, stopping to look closely at truck menus, their set-up, eat their food, and occasionally talk to their owner’s.

First up was Veracruz All Natural. A kitchen on a school bus, serving up delicious breakfast tacos, including Austin’s favorite Migas. The beauty of Migas is that it takes day-old tortillas, mixes them with eggs, and BOOM! You have a brand new, delicious, breakfast meal! I am always thinking about how to reduce food waste, and I think recipes that can take something a day old and make it sparkling new, is utter genius. One of my favorite cook books, Prune, dedicates an entire section of the cookbook to demystifying how to use products that might otherwise be waste. In addition to recycling tortillas, Veracruz is set up on a used school bus. The ultimate dream. When I originally got started with shopping for a truck to build out I looked for a school bus. My interest in having an education component for the business mission made a school bus seem like the perfect fit. I quickly found out that it violated the size limit for trucks in Maryland, but was brought back to my initial day dreams while eyeing the awesome kitchen on the Veracruz bus.

Next up was East Side King. The East Side King has expanded to several trucks and brick and mortar, so their hustle alone is inspiring. I went to the original location tucked discreetly behind The Liberty, a dive bar with an open patio in the back. A lot of bars in Austin have open air patios in the back, creating a symbiotic working relationship with trucks. If a dive bar can find an influential truck to change the game, and a truck can find ample room with private picnic tables and a constant stream of people- that’s a win-win. This model doesn’t quite work for Baltimore, since it’s not an ‘al fresco’ city. But it did get me thinking about the collaborations trucks have with local breweries like Union and Monument. My heart also sang for their beet homefries. You know a girl swoons when she’s sees someone taking an unpopular vegetable and making something delicious with it.

It wouldn’t be a trip to Austin without a stop at one BBQ joint. We went to Micklethwait Craft Meats. They are on a stand alone lot, with three trailers hitched together like a train. One for service, and two to contain their enormous smokers. Their meats fell off the bone, and their sides were tweaked ever so slightly from the classics to make your mouth giggle with delight. There was a liquor store a block over, and while they couldn’t serve drinks, you could BYOB, taking this casual sit down picnic to an eatery you could really linger at.

Last, and by no means least was Patrizi’s. A true Italian restaurant featuring homemade pasta, local ingredients, and baseball sized meatballs. I spent the most time at Patrizi’s, as the owner and manager were both around to generously give me a behind the scenes tour and swap stories about our relative experiences. Their homestyle eatery and emphasis on slow food were really inspiring and refreshing, seeing as in Baltimore it would seem to be a business flaw to slow your street food down to take more than five minutes. They talked about how their boom in popularity caused wait times of up to an hour and how they remedied that in their business, since speed is a constant concern on wheels (whether you’re mobile or not). They also had a Front of House person, and I don’t just mean a friendly face in the window to take your order. They had one person dedicated to talking you through the menu, explaining Italian words that might be over your head, helping you to make the best choice- and then they brought you your food to your picnic table. This truck was drawing outside the lines, and I was into it. Why put “food trucks” in one box, we don’t treat brick and mortar all the same?

A few weeks ago a friend sent me an article titled “No Longer Trendy, Food Trucks Facing Declining Revenue Find Ways to Survive”. And arguably it’s true, food trends ebb and flow, trendy donuts chomped on cupcakes, as pop-ups have gobbled up trucks. While it could be argued that Baltimore is not nearly as saturated as D.C., or Austin, it is still important to keep a pulse on what is trendy. The surge in food truck popularity was largely influenced by the low initial investment and overhead cost, partnered with the classic “restaurant model” failing in our economy. While trucks trend out, Wilde Thyme is here to stay. The most impressive take away from my time in Austin was the teamwork. Whether it’s a truck partnering with a bar, a theater, or, like the image above, each other (in a fenced off lot with a stage, a garden, communal picnic tables!!), they have found one common way to survive in a saturated industry. Teamwork makes the dream work. We can’t sit pretty on the corner of S. Charles and Baltimore and think that things will always be the same. Because if there is one guarantee, it’s that they won’t be. We need to reach out to our neighbors, our industry brothers and sisters, our theaters, and our rec centers, and we need to talk about how our communal efforts will become the most sustainable trend the food industry, and our communities, have seen yet.

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