Why not food carts instead of trucks?

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By David Hammond

In Oak Park last spring, we had a food truck rally that can only be described as a "disappointing success." This parking lot-based (Pilgrim Church) gathering of food trucks generated a huge turnout of villagers — so much so that some vendors ran out of supplies within the first 30 minutes and many more within the first hour. Same thing happened at the very first food truck rally at Goose Island in Chicago several years ago.

In Oakland, Calif., last month, we went to a food truck rally that had similar problems: Trucks ran out of product well before the end of the event, and quality was subpar. We had a hamburger at Doc's of the Bay food truck — voted #1 food truck hamburger in the area by Serious Eats — and it was dismal. The gimmick at this vendor was that the hamburger is smashed on the griddle with a "sad iron," which was supposed to make it crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, but it was overall a mouthful of undercooked mush.

Food truck rallies are, I believe, doomed because:

1) Food truck crews are usually unprepared for turning out food fast for large crowds (regular street-based business flow is usually slower, with people coming up randomly and lines usually small, so crews have time to prepare the food correctly).

2) Rallies defeat the whole purpose of food trucks, which is to bring food to you.

3) The very novelty of rallies draws big crowds, and when vendors run out of food without a supply chain established to replenish supplies immediately, they just drive away.

Of course, in Chicago and Oak Park, there are regulations that make it challenging for food trucks to, for instance, actually cook food on public streets, meaning there's a lot of prepackaged stuff that, you know, sometimes sucks big time.

On the other hand, in Portland, Ore., earlier this month, I visited several "food cart pods," which are incredibly diverse collections of trailer-mounted kitchens that serve excellent food without any of the abovementioned food truck rally problems.

To wit:

1) Food cart crews handle moderate crowds, in part because there are so many carts and pods to choose from, so they can keep quality levels high and prepare food correctly.

2) Carts are by nature stationary, so it's natural that you go to them, just as you would a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and they're always in the same place, so if you crave Georgian dumplings or Jamaican jerk chicken, you know where to go.

3) When they run low on food, cart vendors have systems established to replenish supplies, so it's less likely they'll run out.

In Portland, we were impressed with the quality and diversity of the food. Because pods are located on private property, they can cook on the spot, which radically increases the tastiness and the range of foods offered.

Also like food trucks, food carts provide an opportunity for small vendors to try out new things. One of my favorite carts was run by the friend of a buddy of mine: it's called Potato Champion, and it sells French fries with several different sauces. Across the street from the pod where Potato Champion is located is a restaurant called Lardo. Not long ago, Lardo was just another cart, but their product proved successful and now they've got a brick-and-mortar location. And that, as I understand it, is the dream of many food truck operators as well: to have their own restaurant.

So my question is: why don't places like Oak Park and Chicago set up food cart pods? I don't mean to minimize the likely hurdles, but if these mobile vendors are set up on private property — as was done at Oak Park's Pilgrim Church or Chicago's Goose Island for their food truck rallies — it'd be easier to deliver a high-quality product at a good price without encountering the problems that seem endemic to food truck rallies.

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