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The Truck Stop in the Crossroads, the First Friday event run by the real-estate firm Copaken Brooks in a lot at 21st Street and Wyandotte, has ballooned from seven food trucks in 2011 to the 50 trucks that rotate through the 12-16 monthly spots. This past summer, BMO Harris Bank started booking food trucks in its parking lot, at 11th Street and Walnut, for the Food Truck Invasion on the third Thursday of every month.
"The food-truck scene just continues to grow," Sharon Ko says. She's a marketing associate with Copaken Brooks and coordinates the Truck Stop. "And I think that's because of the passion of the food-truck drivers."
Adrian Bermudez, who owns Indios Carbonsitos and is president of the Kansas City Food Truck Association, knows that it's getting harder for trucks to find eaters. That's why he hired artist T.J. Daniels to give his three-year-old truck a makeover in September, replacing its plain white sides with an Aztec mural over bright-red paint.
"With all these new trucks coming out with really nice paint jobs and wraps, I knew we had to do something to get us back out there," Bermudez says. "People were passing us by. They go for the bling. They go for the pretty."
Food trucks have launched brick-and-mortar restaurants here: Port Fonda in Westport and Little Freshie on the West Side being the most high-profile examples. But the dynamic has reversed polarity, with trucks becoming mobile brand extensions for existing restaurants. KC Hopps has a Blue Moose catering truck, and Bread + Butter Concepts sent its Taco Republic vehicle to events while it was building a permanent restaurant across from the original Oklahoma Joe's. Bermudez says these restaurants on wheels, and the arrival of trucks from national chains (McDonald's parks at Arrowhead), should help the pool of existing trucks.
"They have the money and the pull," he says. "They can make things happen that a Joe Blow like myself can't do."
The Food Truck Association, which launched in January and now counts a membership of 20 trucks, has been working with the city to identify additional areas downtown where vendors could park. The only designated spot for food trucks most weekdays is a stretch of 13th Street between Oak and Locust. Trucks can set up in other parking spaces, but there must be enough room, and the meters have to get fed before the customers do.
"The food trucks have to abide by the same rules as anyone else in that parking space," says John Pajor, manager of the Kansas City, Missouri, Business Customer Service Center. "We don't have a lot of flexibility to remove parking spaces for mobile vending."
The Z-Man is about to become the biggest food truck on the road (the typical vehicle is about 26 feet long), and it could be at the vanguard of the movement toward more dedicated space for mobile vending. Some cities have permanent food-truck parks: San Francisco; Boston; Atlanta; and Portland, Oregon. Owners of parking lots, undeveloped parcels and existing businesses might find their holdings more valuable if they let vendors park their own six-figure investments nearby.
"I hope that somebody comes forward with a lot that is safe and well-lit," Bermudez says. "And with a truck from Oklahoma Joe's, maybe that's possible. I'm getting older. I can't drive this truck around in the cold and heat forever."
The Z-Man seems poised to further elevate MAG Trucks' profile. Carlson is talking to a Kansas City coffee company about creating a custom ride, and there's a plan to build the Z-Man a sister: a working 33-foot model that would be MAG's own mobile billboard. The showroom could be a destination for entrepreneurs nationwide. MAG is already building a chili truck for a client in Kentucky, and it's retrofitting a container truck with doors that swing open to reveal a stone pizza oven.