Food Trucks Work to Gain a Foothold in Hartford
Every city’s street food is an extension of it’s overall culture. In Taipei you can eat squished squid on a stick from a permanent market stall and in Paris and Lyon you can get chicken and potatoes in a bag from an outdoor rotisserie. If you're in New York and need help with physics homework, it’s said that you can ask the guy who runs the coffee cart on 116th and Broadway.
The growth of food trucks across Hartford follows that pattern. Everyone eats while operating giant moving vehicles, so why not eat from them?
“I usually don’t eat from food trucks, they kind of skeeve me out” one young woman said, finishing a burrito on Elm Street just across from the Capitol. (She asked not to be identified----for fear, I think, of being exposed as a Capitol staffer using the word “skeeve” in earnest.)
She continued, “These food trucks, like the burrito truck, offer something different. There are people from my office who come here every day.”
Along Elm Street there’s Peony, which serves Chinese food, a sometimes pizza truck, a classic hot dog cart and a two-month old Mexican truck run by Agave.
Agave owner Al Ferrenti, who drives a Jeep licenced AGAVE, said, “We have been thinking about doing a truck for years. We just set up in the park and didn’t know how people were going to react to it.”
Even as new trucks and carts open up, and people become more comfortable eating from them, keeping a truck open is difficult. While there are some institutions, such as M&M Fruit, other carts that were hailed as great lunch spots just last summer seem to have disappeared or moved on. Crepe Escape, run out of Wilimantic by two recent grads, hasn’t been around this year. Also missing: the sausage truck and the Thai Food on Wheels.
“It’s difficult if come here and have your heart set on something,” one woman told me, plaintively, referring to the sausage truck.
While trucks around the city come and go, the Old State House offers more stability. City statutes allow only four vendors there at one time, and they all pay for special permits.
Barry Green opened Seafood Express, which serves fish and chips, four years ago after a 22 year tenure at IBM. He has a shiny silver truck and a shaded table with all kinds of condiments.
“I used to bike down here every day at lunch time,” he said. “I decided there wasn’t anywhere to get fresh fish. I looked at buildings, but they were too expensive,” so he decided to open a truck.
This year, however, the heat has affected business. He says, anything out of the ordinary hurts.
"If it’s too cold, if it’s too hot, people stay inside,” Green said. His business is down around ten percent this year.
Weather, equipment issues and the pressures of running a business in a down economy make it hard for trucks to be open consistently day to day let alone year to year. (A new reality show called the Great Food Truck Race premiers this Sunday on the Food Network; The slogan is “There will be breakdowns.”)
Absences are felt acutely by Hartford customers, where food truck choices are somewhat limited. In New Haven, there are 20 to 30 trucks outside of Yale-New Haven Hospital daily.
There is one new cart, though, that is capitalizing on the inconsistency of life in a food truck. Larry DeNorio owner of the Cupcake Brake, a truck painted Roy Lichenstein Yellow, tweets, blogs and emails it’s whereabouts daily. Finding the truck has become a kind of game.
DeNorio, who has been operating the truck since March, understands the heartbreak of a missing truck.
“A lot of the food vendors don’t have open communication with their clientele. I wanted to make sure that there was always open communication, so there [aren't] any surprises,” he said.
Before the Cupcake Brake, DeNorio didn’t have a twitter account. “I think I had eighty friends on Facebook,” he said. Now there are around 1,000 people on his email list alone.
He sat down with a friend who does web work and figured out the best way to get his daily menu and location out to people. It’s unclear whether creating a buzz was really on DeNorio’s mind. He seems more concerned about keeping the frosting from melting in a hot aluminum truck.
He moves around, because, “You can only have so many cupcakes in a certain time frame before you grow tired of it.The way that I map it out, I try to pick a location that’s opposite of where I was before. Hopefully that everyone that works in Hartford can get to the truck at least once or twice a month.”