Food trucks arrived in Cincinnati only three years ago, but already a few are expanding into brick-and-mortar locations. While some of these changes are in hopes of transitioning into a fecund restaurant business, others are just trying to survive in a competitive market in a city with limited spots to park and do business.
Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan started Cincinnati’s pilot food truck program in the summer of 2010, which ushered in a new era of food trucks vending downtown and firmly planting the Queen City on the growing national food truck map. Major food truck hubs like Portland, Ore., Los Angeles (9,500 trucks/carts/trailers and counting), Austin, Texas and San Francisco already had established bases, but finally Cincinnati’s creative cooks were able to bring their affordable foods to the streets as well.
Gourmet burger and fries truck Café de Wheels was one of the first food trucks on the road — owner Tom Acito, a former Los Angelican, helped Quinlivan start the pilot program. In December, he opened his burger kiosk inside Short Vine’s Dive Bar.
“I wanted to do a bricks-and-mortar originally,” Acito says about his new endeavor, Basecamp1. “Because I didn’t have experience, I didn’t do it and didn’t really have the money to do a full restaurant, so I kind of had to cut my teeth and learn a little bit more.”
Acito, like some other food truckers, thinks the city encumbers truckers like himself with its high fees ($1,000 a year for a vending permit) and lack of adequate parking spots, but he’s found a temporary fix — opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant to anchor the business.
“The obvious solution to that is to start a brick-and-mortar where we can get more established and take the brand that we built with the truck and try to expand it into a viable business,” he says.
But so far business has been slow: Short Vine isn’t exactly keeping up with the renaissance of Over-the-Rhine. Despite the slow lunches and nights when Bogart’s isn’t bringing in a crowd, Acito does relish the stability of having his own place.
“I know where I’m going to work. I know where the door is. I can tell people where I am and they don’t have to find me,” and it’s a step toward his ultimate goal of owning “an actual bar and restaurant.”
“The next one, the whole thing will be mine,” he says.
Whereas Acito’s Café de Wheels has been around for a while, PizzaBomba is a fairly new truck that started about a year ago and also decided to open a brick-and-mortar in December, a fairly quick turnaround. Bill Stone and Terry Wilson founded their Fourth Street domicile in Covington hoping to draw the locals to their mouthwatering pizzas after making appearances last summer at music fests and Fountain Square.
“We’re proud of our product,” Stone says. “We feel we have some of the best pizza in Cincinnati.”
The truck certainly has its limitations, and the restaurant can sell more pizza varietals and added sandwiches, salads and beer to the menu. Some of their items include crab rangoon pizza, spicy devil knots and beer mac and cheese pizza — basically pizzas you can’t get anywhere else around here. They’re banking on delivery constituting about 40 percent of the business.
On the flip side, there’s Taco Azul, with tacos modeled after L.A.’s famous street tacos. In 2011, husband and wife team Tracy and Gary Sims started the truck, and it recently became so lucrative that they were able to quit their day jobs and do the truck full-time. Building off what they’ve learned from the truck, this month they’re opening their labor of love — a brick-and-mortar taqueria in Northside called Barrio Tequileria.
One reason they’re opening the restaurant is to generate a “festive atmosphere” with margaritas, something the Sims couldn’t do with their truck; the restaurant also allows them to expand their truck menu and meet their goal of opening an eatery.
“The truck was kind of our means to get there, and once we knew the truck and that type of taco would make it in Cincinnati, we were excited to see that it had such a strong following, and everybody really took to it,” Tracy says.
Another business, New Orleans To Go, did the opposite: They first had a brick-and-mortar in Springdale but closed it due to high overhead costs.
They started the food truck and then recently went back and opened a small luncheonette in Blue Ash to host their Cajun food.
The coterie of food trucks that have upgraded to brick-and-mortars are all still running their trucks, which sometimes involves hurdles like the dearth of ample parking in the central business district. When the program began three years ago, five spots were allocated on Fountain Square, but with the implementation of more trucks, those spots have become competitive. They’re on a first-come, first-serve basis, a concern that’s prevented New Orleans To Go co-owner LaToya Foster-Filson from taking her truck downtown for months. She uses fresh seafood, so if she shows up downtown and can’t get a spot, her food for the day goes to waste.
“I think if the city can get their ordinance intact and make it where these trucks can park, we do the downtown scene again,” she says.
But Fountain Square’s demand also demonstrates the success of mobile food vending in the city’s core.
“Without Fountain Square, we wouldn’t have done as well with lunches and we wouldn’t have gotten our name out,” Taco Azul’s Tracy Sims says. “Fountain Square is a huge get for Cincinnati food trucks.”
Currently, Quinlivan and newly anointed food truck head Dale Grigsby of the Cincinnati Health Department are working with the nascent Cincinnati Food Truck Association to find sufficient spots downtown for the trucks, but it entails coordination with the police department, traffic engineers and other brick-and-mortars.
“The immediate goal is to work with the city of Cincinnati to increase the number of available mobile food vending spots within the pilot program,” says Emily Frank, president of the association and owner of the C’est Cheese grilled cheese truck. “The CFTA aims to reinvent food truck vending in a way that is positive and beneficial to Cincinnati, food truck entrepreneurs and our patrons.”
Luckily for the association, the city has been receptive to finding more coveted spots. “I’m all in favor of working with any citizen or neighborhood group or mobile food vendor that thinks they have a good place for a mobile food vending zone,” Quinlivan says. “I would love to have more — anywhere in city you want to create them.”
Other complaints from food truckers are the fees, and recent research at the University of Cincinnati suggests that Cincinnati’s are relatively high. UC Assistant Professor Marisa Zapata and her graduate students did a food truck study last fall and compared permit fees from L.A. to Columbus to Cincinnati, and according to their research Cincinnati’s $1,000 per year vending fee is the highest in the nation, beating out the next highest, San Francisco’s $800. But what the research doesn’t factor in are other costs like an additional $1,000 yearly food preparer license for Chicago, making theirs more than $1,200 a year, so there’s some discrepancies in the info.
New Orleans To Go’s Foster-Filson doesn’t balk at the fee.
“You’re going to be paying that on a monthly basis in a restaurant. So at $1,000 a year, when you break it down, it’s nothing compared to what your rent payments would be. That’s $83 a month. You can’t even park in a downtown garage with that. I don’t see it being a problem.”
Frank, of C’est Cheese, also says the fees are not as bad as they seem.
“Considering cities like Columbus only allow vending on private property and Chicago says you cannot sell within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, I think we’re lucky,” Frank says.
Almost three years later, the state of food trucks in Cincinnati has improved from when it started — especially how fast the trucks turned into permanent locations — yet the program still has a long way to go. Other cities like Portland, Ore., have adopted food pods, or clusters of trucks in a permanent, private location. Even Columbus has a food court-like place for trucks called Dinin’ Hall.
Zapata did preliminary studies of pods in Avondale, but pods require underutilized land, foot traffic and a lot of funding, a combination Avondale can’t offer right now. Someday food pods in Cincinnati might be an option, along with trucks in parks and fresh produce vending, but for now the trucks and the brick-and-mortars are trying to participate in the revivification of the city on their own.
Quinlivan thinks there’s room for improvement but is happy Cincinnatians are embracing the trucks.
“People love it. It’s actually good food. ... I think it makes our city a lot more vibrant, it gives some life to the street, it gives people more options for food and it’s inexpensive,” Quinlivan says. “I would like some brick-and-mortar restaurants to open a food truck as a way to expand their businesses.”
Go: 14 E. Fifth Street, Covington
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.
Café de Wheels
Go: 2608 Vine Street, Corryville
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 8 p.m.-midnight Friday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 9 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
New Orleans To Go
Go: 10921 Reed Hartman Hwy., Blue Ash
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday.
Go: 3937 Spring Grove Ave., Northside
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Follow Cincinnati Food Truck Association: @CincyFTA or facebook.com/CincinnatiFoodTruckAssociation