Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Where We Going Wednesday...Austin

Now that the Dallas-Fort Worth street food scene is fairly well established, I thought it was a good time to compare our scene to the street food scenes in other cities.  Each week I will ask a guest blogger from a different city to give us an overview of the set up and rules from around the country and hopefully some international cities. This week, we head south to the  city that sets the standard for all Texas food trucks, Austin.  Thanks to Tony Yamanaka of  for providing this overview. 

Austin’s food trailer scene isn’t too different than that of Vancouver, New York, Portland or San Diego. It has however been ushered into the national spotlight through its intricate involvement with SXSW, East St. ,No Reservations, and the peaking interest of other food-ophile celebrites such as Adam Richman. Although similar to other cities with a food truck culture, Austin holds a varied advantage: It is a mix of every other city’s culture.
Austin's Belgian Waffle Co. Truck

To begin, the City of Austin had over 1,300 mobile food vendor permits issued in August of 2011 (Bernier 2011). Although it’s safe to say that there are not 1,300 active trailers, one can admit that there is an intense amount of options available to appease any hankering for flavour you may have.  Of those permits, there  is a healthy mix of stationary trailers (traditional Airstream & remodelled storage trailers) and the all-famous food truck (a far leap from the taco truck that was popular years ago) which are 100% roving. These two types of vendors compose the heart of the Austin food trailer culture, and they pump food into the life veins of Austin’s culinary requisite. Let’s look further into the two types of vendors and the variety of food in the Austin region.

Food Trailers
Food trailers in Austin are wildly popular due to their consistency in location, hours and availability. Austin’s trailers are primarily “permanent” at a lot anywhere from six to twelve months depending on their contract and ability to remain in business. Austin benefits from a monstrous amount of trailer parks, which station anywhere from 4-12 trailers in one location. Although recent economic recovery has caused the gates to shutter on some of Austin’s favourite parks, others are quickly in line to open such as Jessie St. Eats and North Austin Trailer Yard (NATY). Major trailer parks in Austin are as follows:

This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but these are trailer parks with known names.  Food trailers are primarily permanent at these locations. Some do leave from time-to-time for catering gigs, but they can be considered relatively reliable.

The downside to these types of parks and stationary trailers in general is their limitations on following the hungry. Basically, they are bound by their surroundings. If they are near bars, they are most likely late night trailers. If they are near UT they don’t see much summer traffic etc. Also, they are bound by their landlord. This causes a huge issue when the landlord wishes to sell the land as was seen with East Side Drive-in and leaves trailers looking for a new home.

Verts, the world's smallest food truck. Located in Austin
Food Trucks
The roving food truck style of vending is something that is relatively untapped in Austin. There are a string of very successful trucks who are purely mobile. Their success can be stemmed from essentially being at the right place at the right time. For example, they are able to relocate downtown from 8pm to 3am for the bar crowd. During the day, they relocate to office parking lots to feed the masses. Their flexibility is impeccable and highly valued. Additionally, they are building great brand awareness by having a rolling billboard. They are not only waiting for people to see them, they are putting their name in front of thousands of people. Perhaps the most successful of these trailers are Chi’Lantro, Coreanos and Peached Tortilla. There are other trailers that do also do extremely well such as The Evil Wiener and Mmmpanadas, who benefit from pairings with local brewery Thirsty Planet for cross-promotion.

The downside to having a roving trailer is highly linked to the issues faced by car owners. As a roving trailer you must compete with traffic, truck maintenance, parking and additional expenses like gasoline. Essentially, being roving leads to having a lot of variable costs, which make it difficult to be sure of a profit margin for the specific time-frame.

Tacos from Chi'lantro
The Noms
Structure aside, the food aspect of Austin’s food trailer scene is downright outstanding. Think about it, you can step out of your house and get top-notch Asian cuisine at East Side King, authentic cheese steaks from Way South Philly, Detroit-style pizza from Via 313 and the most authentic tacos I’ve had outside of Mexico at Tacos Selene. This variety is all found within 100m. Extrapolate that variation across Austin’s metropolitan area and you’re faced with choices of gourmet ravioli, Navajo tacos and even buffalo chalupas. Yes, there is a bit of everything in Austin.

True to Austin style, the food trailer scene in this wonderful capital is not a standardized industry, but rather a bricolage of everything you’ve seen across Portland, New York, Phoenix and Boston. It is delicious and 100% Austin.

Tony Yamanaka
Managing Member/Lead Contributor

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