Patrons of local brewpubs are just as likely to find food trucks in the parking lot serving up hip cuisine these days as they are to find nice craft beer flowing through the taps. For example, Jailbreak Brewing Co., in Laurel; Heavy Seas Brewery, in Halethorpe; and Columbia’s Black Flag Brewing Co. and Lost Ark Distillery all schedule rotating food trucks.
Mobile vending is nothing new. It’s long been a staple of industrial parks and construction sites, but this recent wave has also meant that the days of the roach coach hawking stale white bread sandwiches and bags of chips are, thankfully, long gone.
The current focus is on award-winning barbecue, gourmet fusion, farm-fresh seasonal fare and new takes on comfort food. Corned beef bibimbap and seafood gumbo? Slainte on Wheels has it covered. Korean, Thai or Hawaiian pork tacos? Check out The Jolly Pig.
T&J Waffles makes a mean smoked salmon or Spinach Florentine Belgian waffle, Greek on the Street serves up grilled lamb chops and falafels, Bistro Lunch Box takes a fresh seasonal approach, and there’s Pasta La Vista, Baby! and any number of gourmet pizza trucks for an Italian fix. In addition, many of these fine options have a loyal following, and most post schedules on their websites or tweet updates to followers to let them know where they’ll set up on a given day.
Despite the hype they receive on The Food Network, it has taken a few years for local food trucks to evolve beyond the predictable tacos and carne asada grills along Route 1 and a handful of specialty food trucks in out-of-the-way places.
One of the reasons is likely tied to an outdated every-chef-for-himself mindset, but the local food truck scene experienced a messianic sea change in 2010 with the establishment of the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association (MMFVA).
Founded by Patrick Russell, a serial restauranteur and owner of Baltimore’s first food truck, Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon, it was originally intended to give a voice and support to the six or eight mobile vendors in Baltimore who were experiencing a backlash from brick and mortar establishments seeking legislation to limit food truck operating zones.
In the past seven years, the MMFVA has grown from 10 members to more than 50, with a territory that now includes Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties. “Our goal was to make things fair for everybody,” Russell said, “and to get to know one another, and work out issues like preventing vendors from monopolizing the best spots.”
“We’re mostly all friendly and look out for each other,” said Tad Calwell, owner of The Jolly Pig. “It also keeps us up to date on what’s going on in the political world and new regulations, and regularly provides us with leads to events that need vendors.”
It also allows members to schedule rotations and promote their operations on www. mdfoodtrucks.com.
Since he took over as MMFVA president two years ago, Fulton resident Dave Pulford has added lobbying to the association’s repertoire. Last month, members celebrated their first legislative win with the enactment of a new Maryland law streamlining the food truck licensing process and allowing mobile reciprocal licensing in counties located up to 90 miles away from a truck’s home base.
“I don’t mind paying an extra license fee for each county,” said Calwell. “What’s frustrating is having to spend a day in each county getting inspected over and over when you could be on the road making money. One inspection in your home county should be enough.”
Members have been encouraged by the new legislation, said Pulford, who operates the Upslidedown Dave food truck that specializes in sliders.
“There are a lot of things on my radar now that I feel we need to do,” he said. “One of our biggest challenges is that the people who regulate us don’t really understand what we do, so roadblocks get put up even when they’re trying to be helpful. It’s going to take some education and understanding, because as they see things, having fewer regulations and requirements automatically equates to more danger from a food safety standpoint.”
Willy Dely, general manager of Kloby’s Smokehouse, in Laurel, is a founding member of the National Food Truck Association and advises the MMFVA Board of Directors.
In his estimation, there has been a noticeable upsurge in the number of food trucks operating in the region. Maryland also experienced a gain when some vendors left the District of Columbia two years ago as a result of a controversial new law there that tightened food truck regulations, he said.
“Our scene isn’t as big as the food truck scene in Southern California,” Dely said. “On the other hand, we’re a small state, [yet] we’re very competitive with what I’ve seen in Pennsylvania and New York. We have a huge variety of cuisines, and we’re doing very well for ourselves.”
The reason Howard and Anne Arundel counties are seeing an influx of mobile vendors has a lot to do with the large number of business parks and the density of employees and government workers who are making good salaries, he said.
“Some innovative commercial property owners have begun to invite a rotating variety of food trucks to their properties once a week or so as an added benefit for tenants or employees,” Dely said. “It doesn’t cost them anything, generates goodwill and benefits nearby retail tenants by driving more traffic to these areas.”
Howard County government also boosted the industry by inviting food trucks to serve the Gateway Innovation District two days a week and designating a parking area at 6821 Benjamin Franklin Drive, he said, while The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, and the National Security Agency’s farmers market at Fort Meade have made similar arrangements with rotating vendors.
“We can’t help notice [but] that there are breweries popping up all over Howard County, and there’s no doubt that these breweries are helping us,” Pulford said. “They put a ton of money into their equipment and can’t afford to spend money on a kitchen, so it’s an ideal solution for both of us. With the added attention we’ve been receiving from business parks and the benefit of some new legislation, we’re bound to see a few more food truck operators joining the fold.”