Food Trailer Parks Ushered Out by Economic Recovery
Central Austin is peppered with a handful of food truck courts – empty lots that are home to a half-dozen or so mobile food vendors. Like the East Side Drive-In, a lot where you can stroll in, crack open your own beer, grab a wood oven pizza or some Greek food, and dine al fresco at a picnic table.
Only these days at the East Side Drive-In, the options are slowly dwindling. Food truck owners were notified a few weeks ago they would have to leave by the end of May to make way for a condo development. Some operators decided not to wait. Until just a couple weeks ago, Jason Waller was selling bacon-themed dishes from a converted camping trailer called Pig Vicious.
“We’ve been working on our brick-and-mortar thing for a long time,” Waller said in an interview on their last night at the East Side Drive-In “So we’re going to put the trailer away, do at least once a month, maybe twice a month things with the trailer that will show up here and there until we get the brick and mortar.”
Even though the East Side Drive-In’s closure was not a surprise, Waller’s cook Damon Spencer says no one there wanted to see it go.
“People believe in this stuff somehow. The little guy, the DIY ethos, and just the fun. There’s community. There’s family. There’s camaraderie here,” Spender said.
The East Side Drive-In was never supposed to be a food trailer park. Richard Kooris, the president of Pegalo Properties, bought the lot in 2007. He thought he would start building a mixed use development within nine months. But then the recession hit.
“Our timing couldn’t have been worse. The economy went into the toilet,” Kooris said. “The country went into a depression for the next two-and-a-half years. Nobody was lending any money. You couldn’t get projects financed. It was just awful.”
Kooris wanted somehow to offset the cost of owning the property – the taxes and maintenance – until the economy turned around. So he spent $12,000 dollars to install recreational vehicle power supplies for eight food trucks.
“I didn’t know first of all, if I build it will they come. Is anybody going to rent these spaces? And am I going to have food vendors there for long enough to pay back the investment and make a dent in the carrying cost?” Kooris said. “Well, as it turned out, we made a pretty good bet.”
Kooris wasn’t the only land owner whose development plans were stymied by the economic downturn. The owner of a lot at East Sixth and Waller Streets, Jason Seidman, planned to build a hotel there in 2007. When the recession hit, those plans went down the tubes, so he leased it to food trucks and a bar called Cheer Up Charlies. He now plans to start building a hotel there within a year.
It’s the same story at lot in the 1600 block of South Congress It’s a food truck court but a hotel is planned there, too.
Tony Yamanaka of FoodTrailersAustin.com says the loss of all these lots forces mobile food vendors to adapt.
“A lot of the ones around town are technically trailers. They don’t consider themselves mobile due to electricity. They don’t have on-board generators or anything like that,” Yamanaka said. “It’s just a matter of evolution. And if it’s a very young start-up industry essentially, it’s going to go through evolution and it’s going to mature and get more efficient.”
Richard Kooris, the East Side Drive In owner, has another idea: getting the city to lease space to food trucks. He points to Palm Park off I-35 and Cesar Chavez – a two-acre field of grass that sits mostly unused.