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June 19, 2017

Food truck craze spreads across Greater Hartford

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns Food trucks line up daily along downtown Hartford's Elm Street bordering state offices and Bushnell Park.
HBJ PHOTOs | John Stearns Iron & Grain Co., set up here on a recent Friday night at New Park Brewing in West Hartford, has a food truck with a portable counter to bring the experience closer to customers. Cousins Tate Norden (left) and Adam Belward (right) run the truck.
Top PHOTO | Contributed; Bottom HBJ Photos | John Stearns (Top) UConn’s Food for Thought food truck includes seasonal menus and specialties like lobster rolls. (Bottom left) M & M Fresh Fruit Salad’s Mai Le (left) cooks, Minh Dang (center) preps food, and David Le (right) takes orders. (Bottom Right) M & M Fresh Fruit Salad’s Mai Le (left) cooks, Minh Dang (center) preps food, and David Le (right) takes orders.

Food trucks, long a staple of street fare in downtown Hartford, recently received approval to operate in the towns of Enfield and West Hartford, albeit on a restricted basis, partly in deference to brick-and-mortar restaurants.

West Hartford — where trendy, fixed restaurants proliferate, particularly in the town center and Blue Back Square and where the town's image seems increasingly tied to culinary arts — approved the trucks in the New Park Avenue industrial zone. The idea was to capitalize on the food truck craze, boost a less focal part of town and complement new businesses popping up there with the least disruption to town restaurants paying rents, mortgages and property taxes.

The food truck zone, including an allowance for food truck parks featuring up to five trucks in one location, are envisioned as generating more momentum for an eclectic part of town with new businesses that include a craft brewery, Chick-fil-A restaurant, and a $19 million retail/apartment development at 616 New Park Ave. that's under construction at CTfastrak's Elmwood station. Furniture and home-design stores, The Home Depot and BJ's Wholesale Club are among other New Park businesses in what the town dubs the Home Design District.

“We feel … we came up with a good compromise,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said of balancing food trucks with the town's established restaurants and other factors.

The ordinance, among other things, prohibits food trucks operating within 500 feet of a restaurant, allowing them on about 15 streets near New Park, as an accessory use within the parking area of an existing business in the industrial zone and within a licensed food truck park.

Not everyone likes the ordinance. The manager of a 16-year-old restaurant in the industrial zone estimates one proposed food truck park will be 600 to 700 feet away.

“All along, my feelings were if they want to put them in one area, they should have them throughout the town,” said Chris Foley, manager of The Corner Pug, a roughly 150-seat restaurant with 33 employees at New Park and New Britain avenues.

“I'm not opposed to food trucks, I think it's the way of the future, it's a great thing, but level the playing field throughout West Hartford,” Foley said.

A few other smaller restaurants also dot New Park.

Cousins Tate Norden and Adam Belward, co-owners of the Iron & Grain Co. food truck that occasionally sets up at New Park Brewing and who are proposing the roughly 1-acre Gastro Park off New Park Avenue near the CTfastrak-Elmwood station, believe they can help build the food truck business, bring attention to restaurants in the area and broader town, and feed the eclectic vibe growing along New Park.

“We're certainly going to pull local West Hartford residents to our establishment, but we also believe that this is going to attract a lot more people who weren't coming to West Hartford,” Norden said.

“So I think most people get that this is going to be a good thing and there will be a lot of spillover in terms of other businesses bringing us people and us sending a lot of people to other businesses as well,” he added.

Norden hopes Gastro Park — featuring five rotating trucks around a commissary for truck supplies and food preparation, outdoor seating and yard games — helps grow the town's foodie reputation. The commissary will be in a building once occupied by Kelsey's Auto Sales, with a new structure added for what is essentially a fixed Iron & Grain restaurant.

The cousins have an agreement to buy the Kelsey's site, which they hope to close on this month and, with investors, open Gastro Park by next spring.

Belward, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., said food trucks aren't what they used to be.

“I think that food trucks have changed a lot from the old thought process of like a greasy-spoon truck,” Belward said. “There's a lot more culinary thought to food trucks, in the cuisine that's being put out, and I think that's appealing to people because it's something different than necessarily going to sit down at a restaurant,” he added.

Items on the menu of Iron & Grain, which operates out of a refurbished 1959 Chevrolet truck, include turkey sliders, Mexican street corn and more.

“You're seeing the foodie culture explode and you're seeing a lot of chefs who otherwise wouldn't be able to open their restaurant and take their own chances with their own cuisine, they now have that sort of freedom of flexibility since the entry point is much lower than what it would be to open up an actual brick-and-mortar [restaurant],” Norden said.

Connecticut is not oversaturated with food trucks and is behind on the times in that area, he said. Hartford County, in particular, lacks public venues where food trucks and consumers can go, he said. Other than Hartford's Bushnell Park at lunch, where about a half-dozen trucks typically line up along Elm Street bordering the park and state offices, the best opportunity to find food trucks is at a brewery or farmer's market, he said.

Regulations done right

Sarah Maloney, executive director of the 700-plus member Connecticut Restaurant Association, including about a half-dozen food truck members, says towns like West Hartford are doing it right regulating where food trucks operate.

“Food trucks can be a great addition to cities and towns; however, I think there's a place for them, and I think many towns and cities are recognizing that and that they need to set restrictions on where food trucks can be located,” Maloney said.

Requiring food trucks to be certain distances from established restaurants, for example, is good policy, she said.

Max Restaurant Group, with three sit-down eateries in West Hartford Center and two in downtown Hartford, hasn't had an issue with Hartford food trucks and doesn't see them as competition, said Scott Smith, vice president and partner at Max.

“I like the whole idea, the whole concept,” said Smith, who occasionally visits the Bushnell Park food trucks, as do his staff. “I think it's a cool alternative. I think the people that are doing it, it takes a lot of work and I admire them. I don't see it as any direct competition to us.”

Food truck customers aren't really dining the way they would at one of the Max restaurants, he said.

The city of Hartford has licensed 127 mobile food vendors this fiscal year, according to Otis Pitts, operations manager for the environmental health division at the city Department of Health and Human Services. Not all those operate daily, some just for events, and the number has increased annually. He expects more growth.

“It's definitely a booming trend and we're doing our best to make sure we're ahead of the curve and they're safe as well,” Pitts said.

But unlike trucks parked in the same spot each day, others are moving targets, he said. The city tries its best to reinspect units each summer when the $500 annual license is renewed.

There's also a one-time fee when a truck is first licensed of $100 to $200 based on food preparation classification and additional fees for reserved parking spaces through a separate department. Parking is allowed on many streets in the city, but not all.

The University of Connecticut, which is preparing to open its new campus in downtown Hartford this fall, doesn't plan to park downtown either of its two food trucks that are popular on the Storrs campus.

UConn is mindful of collaborating with Hartford, bringing foot traffic to downtown restaurants rather than its own food businesses, said C. Dennis Pierce, executive director of UConn's Department of Dining Services, noting that the campus' original design also had a cafe that was nixed.

UConn's Food for Thought truck includes seasonal menus and specialties like lobster rolls and fried-clam rolls. The other truck sells UConn Dairy Bar ice cream. Both, typically parked in front of the main library on Fairfield Way, are performing well since launching about 1 ½ years ago, Pierce said. They also set up at campus events and the Food for Thought truck includes a mobile kitchen that UConn's catering department can use for off-campus events.

Ironically, UConn bought a food truck about 20 years ago envisioning a new revenue source, selling basic fare like burgers and hot dogs. Food trucks weren't a trend yet and the truck didn't work out.

“We had it for about two years and we sold it because it didn't drive any business and it wasn't a trend,” Pierce said.

UConn invested in two food trucks after studying some peer universities. The trucks' ROI is long term, but they bring added value in advertising UConn and the Dairy Bar, he said, noting their markings.

Hartford experience

Clover Marsh, who pays $1,350 a year to reserve a spot for her Quick Bites food truck serving West Indian and American cuisine bordering Bushnell Park on Elm Street, hasn't heard of restaurants objecting to her operation or that of others sharing the street with her in her three years there.

“We're all unique, we're all different, different foods, different backgrounds, different culture, so especially for me, my food is really good,” Marsh said, seeing no direct competition for the type of cuisine she serves.

Marsh, who occasionally operates out of a booth inside Dunkin' Donuts Park that rotates among vendors and provides additional exposure, emphasized that food trucks have to meet stringent health regulations, like other restaurants, and aren't cheap.

She worked five years to buy and then fully equip her truck after operating a seasonal ice cream truck for more than 10 years.

“The generator alone is like $5,000,” she said.

Marsh said it's motivating to be her own boss and she dreams of having a fleet of five Quick Bites food trucks someday, serving a variety of cuisines and to open a commissary in Hartford for other food trucks.

M & M Fresh Fruit Salad food truck, which sets up at the corner of Trumbull and Pearl streets downtown, sold only fruit salads when it started in 1991, but soon after added hot food, said Dao Saengaly, whose stepfather, Minh Dang, is the primary owner and whose mother, Mai Le, cooks.

The truck, however, kept its original name by which it was known and for which M & M represents her parents' first initials, said Saengaly. The menu includes soups, Vietnamese dishes and more.

Saengaly rotates working the truck's order window with her brother, David Le, who one recent afternoon was juggling phone and window orders and relaying them to his mother, working over a hot wok while Dang tended to other tasks.

M & M pays for its spot and hasn't experienced tension with area restaurants, Saengaly said, noting a few occasions where M & M provided fruit for a restaurant that had run out.

Saengaly attributes the surge in food trucks to being easier and less costly to open than a restaurant, but the work is far from easy.

“When it's cold, it's really cold; when it's hot, it's really hot,” she said of the work inside a truck. But you do what you have to do, she added.

Wait-and-see approach

The Corner Pug's Foley tries to be optimistic when asked if the Gastro Park will draw more attention to his West Hartford restaurant.

“Possibly, time will tell, kind of like the busway, right?” he said of the CTfastrak station located across New Park Avenue from The Corner Pug.

While he decries the disparity in costs between a restaurant and food truck, particularly property taxes on equipment, he acknowledges food trucks' rising popularity, similar to fast-service eateries.

“The day of the sit-down, casual dining restaurant is going the way of the bicycle — people just don't have the time to come out for lunch for an hour anymore and that's the reality, you know, times change,” he said.

Another problem is too many restaurants in town for the population, he said.

West Hartford Mayor Cantor acknowledges that the town may have to revisit the ordinance, depending on how it plays out.

“We may have to look at it again if we feel that things are not working as we intended, but right now I think the framework is pretty effective,” she said.

Enfield is taking a similar wait-and-see approach, said Michael Ciriello, director of development services for the town, where trucks are limited to about 10 areas and town property, with no more than two trucks per site.

Fees are levied for a health department license, mobile food vendor license, and daily vending permits. Fees are cheaper for locally based trucks. As of late May, no trucks had yet applied for a permit.

The ordinance provides guidance, but may need to be tweaked as parties work through its implementation, like many new laws, he said.

“We'll see how it works,” Ciriello said.

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