It took awhile, but the food-truck phenomenon that has been blossoming in Ohio’s largest cities and other metro areas across the United States finally has motored its way to downtown Toledo.
For now, it’s limited to two or three trucks and a tent on St. Clair Street adjacent to Levis Square. They are there on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
But those involved in the mobile dining experiment are hoping to keep it going through the winter and possibly see it blossom next spring to give downtown workers and visitors some tasty cuisine while out for a noontime stroll in Toledo.
“People are very excited. You can tell by the smiles on their faces,” said Phil Barone, co-owner of Rosie’s Family Restaurant, a local eatery known for its Hot Mama Bread appetizer.
Rosie’s was the first food truck — actually, a trailer pulled by a truck — to roll into the downtown in mid-September. But it quickly was followed by Bueno Vida, a Mexican cuisine food truck operated by Bowling Green resident Scott Hodges, and a truck operated by Deet’s BBQ and co-owners Bob, Lisa, and Trevor Deeter. Also, Chick-fil-A began setting up a tent nearby to sell chicken breast sandwiches.
“What we’ve done is we’ve sold parking meters [along St. Clair Street] to whoever wanted to come down. Rosie’s did it, and then Bueno Vida, and then Deet’s,” said Bill Thomas, head of the Downtown Toledo Improvement District, a special assessment district created by downtown property owners to provide benefits within a defined 38-block area.
“Food trucks are very popular in a number of other towns,” Mr. Thomas added.
In its 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast, the National Restaurant Association predicted that “food trucks and pop-up restaurants will be the hottest restaurant operational trend in 2011.”
That prediction held true, and a number of cities across the United States have experienced a growth of food trucks serving up all types of cuisine from carnival food to gourmet meals. Food trucks differ from traditional lunch wagons in that they serve freshly prepared meals often prepared by chefs.
In Ohio, the trend has taken off in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, and Columbus. In Columbus, a two-day food truck festival in 2012 featured 50 of the vehicles.
“Food trucks are the fastest growing segment in the food-service industry as a whole. We’ve seen a lot of growth,” said Brian Reed, president of the fledgling Central Ohio Food Truck Association, whose membership numbers 27 gourmet-food truck operators.
“In the last three years we’ve gone from zero to roughly 50 food trucks in Columbus,” said Mr. Reed, who runs Mojo TaGo Inc., a food truck specializing in “Tex-Mex Fusion” cuisine.
“We have areas in Columbus where restaurants can’t really make it, but food trucks are a perfect fit for the lunch crowd. And the technology has evolved as to what you can do on a truck,” Mr. Reed said.
“With the old lunch wagons it was all pre-packaged food. Now you’ve got kosher food trucks, farm-to-truck fresh food, and all types of cuisines. Some have solar power roofs or run on biodiesel,” he said.
“I have two trucks and two chefs working, one for each truck. They love it. They can do what they want to do from a culinary and creative perspective,” Mr. Reed said. “Yes, you have to have a limited menu, but you can also change it on a regular basis.”
Mr. Barone and Rosie’s were the initiators in getting food trucks rolling into downtown Toledo.
While visiting his brother in Seattle — a city rated among the best for food-truck cuisine — Mr. Barone got a glimpse of the trend. “My brother said, ‘You’ve got to have a food truck,’ ” Mr. Barone said.
He looked into the matter and saw a food truck as a good way to give Rosie’s restaurant more exposure. “Rosie’s is tucked away on McCord [Road in Sylvania Township]. But this has the potential to make people think about Rosie’s again,” Mr. Barone said.
Mr. Barone bought a trailer with a commercial kitchen in it but couldn’t get it delivered until August. Then he contacted Toledo Mayor Mike Bell about bringing the truck downtown on a limited basis.
On a Tuesday last month, the mayor stopped by to see the trucks at lunchtime and talk to customers about what they thought.
“We’ve been working on this for a while, but it’s great now that it’s happening,” Mr. Bell said. “A guy just walked past me and said, ‘I feel like I’m in Chicago!’ This is definitely something that hasn’t been done before here.
“I’m just enjoying the synergy this creates. We’re trying to invigorate Toledo,” the mayor added.
Downtown workers like the idea too.
“This is cool. It’s just nice to see something different downtown,” said Barb Nichols, a downtown worker who ordered food from Mr. Hodge’s Bueno Vida food truck.
“I just like it — period,” said Elaine Szilagye, Ms. Nichols’ co-worker. “It’s nice to get out of the office.”
The experience also agreed with the food-truck operators.
“People are loving it,” Bob Deeter said.
“It’s a benefit for everybody,” agreed Lisa Deeter. “It gets them out of the office. And when it catches on, yes, it’s going to be great.”
Bill Wersell, vice president of business development services for the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, which is helping the food-truck operators, said he was surprised the idea hadn’t been tried before.
“There are a variety of mobile vendors in the community. Deet’s BBQ has had a mobile ability for a long time,” Mr. Wersell said. “There’s been a lot of interest in food trucks, and we’ve had a number of people come to the chamber to talk about the development of food trucks.
“But to tell the truth, it’s a costly operation. You need licenses, and you have to prepare all food on site. It’s for lunch only, so it’s a costly proposition.”
Mr. Barone said he is hoping to break even on his expenses and possibly benefit by getting more downtown customers to think of dining at Rosie’s once the workday ends.
He said he plans to continue to operate downtown through the winter on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “If the people keep coming, we’re still going to be here.”
However, not everyone is thrilled with the arrival of the food-truck experience.
Mr. Thomas of the downtown improvement district said he has fielded some complaints from downtown restaurants unhappy about the arrival of mobile competition.
A downtown ordinance says food trucks cannot operate within 100 feet of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, and the location keeps them in compliance.
Mr. Thomas said once improvements to Promenade Park along the river are completed, the plan is to move the food truck vendors to Summit Street next spring.
“We want to try to work out some arrangements where everyone can be happy. They do create a lot of energy, and I think the excitement will wear off after awhile,” Mr. Thomas said.
“But we have had complaints. It has hurt some of the to-go businesses, for sure.
“But I do think the food trucks have gotten some people out who wouldn’t have been out anyway. So, to some degree you can say the more the merrier, and you’re creating a lot of interest in the downtown,” Mr. Thomas said.
“We think the park will be a better location, and you could have several food truck operators there, and you don’t have any restaurants in that area.”
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.