Portland Food Truckers weigh in on the scene

Along with Jodie Lapchick I co-host a radio show called Local Solutions at 7:30 pm on Wednesday evenings over at WMPG. A couple months ago Jodie had this great conversation about food trucks with some of the the city’s great food truckers, but the audio of the show went missing for a short while and was ultimately forgotten about until it turned up last week. This conversation took place back on April 24th and I wasn’t present as there were a ton of guests that ultimately had to be crammed into a pretty tiny studio.

Present were:

They discussed their experiences in the scene thus far, their dealings with the city, and what they see in Maine’s food truck future.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]:
Sara, your story includes your travel across the US and seeing this trend in other hip cities. Tell us more about that.

Sara Sutton [Bite Into Maine]: Sure, about three years ago I took a trip to Austin and San Antonio, Texas for the South by Southwest music festival and that was when the food truck movement really hit me. In Austin, it was everywhere and in every parking lot. They had their own food truck lots that had a variety of different permanent and semi-permanent trucks and for about 10 days I made a point of eating every meal at either a truck or trailer and it was such a great way to not only eat local food but you met your chef, you met small business owners and there was such a great variety. It was absolutely impressive.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: What made you pick a truck as your new venture:

Fin Underwood [Wicked Good Truck]: The reason we started a food truck was because one night we went to Pecha Kucha night at SPACE Gallery where we listened to Sara speak about how she started her truck. That inspired us to venture out and explore this some more. In the end we pursued that nice idea.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: Ben, you’re a sophomore in college, so is this food truck thing a summer job for the next few years or do you have a bigger vision?

Ben Berman [Mainely Burgers]: I think we’re in-between right now for a lot of reasons. I wrote an Op-Ed to the Portland Press Herald last month about the same thing. Firstly, it is an accessible entry point for young people into small business, which I have always been interested in, and then secondly, it is a brilliant way to find a way to spend our Summers at home. We didn’t want to miss the Maine summers and it is difficult to find really great internships in DC, New York, at home or anywhere. And it is something that we knew would make a lot of sense for us, and something that we thought could grow into something we would be really proud of.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: I just heard Mayor Brennan give a talk today about the importance of college students in Portland having a place to work, as they are an important part of the economy and it occurs to me that this is something other students could do around here.

Ben Berman [Mainely Burgers]: I absolutely agree, and talking to so many of my other friends who have moved away from Portland or Maine for school, people want to come home for the summer, or come home one day for jobs, but it often feels like there aren’t those opportunities. I feel like it is important for the business community to start drawing them in some way, and I have always felt like offering entrepreneurship opportunities is a great way to address that.

Carson Lynch [The Gorham Grind]: This group of ad hoc food truckers has been a big deal for me, as I get to learn all of this stuff before I am actually live in the mobile sense.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: Right! Like learning from Sara’s mistakes!

Sara Sutton [Bite Into Maine]: I have made many mistakes. [Laughter]

Carson Lynch [The Gorham Grind]: But yeah, knowing which generators to buy, what kind of things are going to be needed for health code regulation, and all of the day to day stuff. I have been thinking of this since before opening the coffee shop in Gorham. I wanted to go mobile in the late 90s where I was inspired by a guy who was operating the Daily Grind out on Western Ave—he has since moved to Westbrook—but he had a semi-permanent installation over by National Semiconductor that I went through daily and it was really good espresso. I figured that was the way to do it. I have had a lot of experience vending at music festivals, so I figured that was the way to go.

The way life ended up happening, I ended up with a brick and mortar shop first and that turned out to be, in hindsight, the right order of things for me.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: What obstacles do you as a group face?

Sara Sutton [Bite Into Maine]: Having finally had the food truck ordinance passed in Portland was a great step and it took a while to get that to happen. As a group, we face a couple obstacles in how the actual ordinance was written. There seems to be a misunderstanding on a couple items, one being that food trucks can’t cluster, which was one of the intentions of the food truck task force from the beginning. There is also the requirement of mobile food trucks on private property having to purchase building permits, which was something that came out of left field from our perspective. We sat in on every task force meeting and participated as we were allowed to because we weren’t actually part of the task force. Somehow once this was passed, this requirement was put out there that any truck sitting on private property must get a building permit for the property they are on.

Ben Berman [Mainely Burgers]: We are going through that right now. We have a kitchen space and office on Saint John St. and so we are looking to get a building permit there and we are also trying to rent some space on Congress St. next to City Hall. We have submitted our application, which we had ready to go. The last thing they asked for, since we were going to be in a private spot, was a building permit. Basically if you are going to be anywhere but the street at a metered spot, you need a building permit. The space down on Saint John St., we own that and it’s our space that we’re already paying for. We are paying for a building permit for the building and they are still making us get one for the truck to sit right outside the building and sell food, but that’s where it is and hopefully it goes quickly.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: What is the most fun thing about owning a food truck?

Fin Underwood [Wicked Good Truck]:  For me I think it was definitely this last stretch where we get to taste all of the food we have been waiting to serve. It’s all the excitement. I think it is really fun how we get to taste all of these different varieties of food and decide whether or not it is going to end up on our menu.

Carson Lynch [The Gorham Grind]: For me the fun appeal is being able to take the show on the road. I have done and been at music festivals where there wasn’t decent coffee. There has got to be a good cup and being able to respond to all different types of circumstances would be the best part from me. We are in a state where the population jumps in the summer and where are those folks going?

Ben Berman [Mainely Burgers]: There are a million things. At the end of the day realizing you served food to people who actually enjoyed it and they paid you for that food, it’s exciting and we haven’t really gotten over that. We have fun in the truck listening to new music with employees and trying new recipes. We have fun every day in the truck and try to not take it for granted.

Jodie Lapchick [Host]: What is your vision for the food truck scene in Portland?

Nate Underwood [Wicked Good Truck]:  I think Portland is kind of later than other markets by a long-shot. Looking at these other markets, they go through a difficult period after they first open because nobody can figure it out. That’s kind of the state that Portland is in right now. I am just hopeful that they will figure it out sooner than later. A lot of these larger cities come to some level of understanding and it becomes easier and they are able to assimilate the food trucks into their food society.

Sara Sutton [Bite Into Maine]: And supportive.

Nate: And supportive, right. People are just trying to bring other food options to the city and not compete with the existing food structure that’s out there. If it is anything, we are collectively trying to take business away from Chipotle or Panera Bread or Burger King or McDonalds. We are trying to provide different choices and a lower barrier of entry to those who want to experience or try different food.

Sara Sutton [Bite Into Maine]: One of the benefits of food trucks across the country is, generally speaking, not only that you get fresher food, but you get prepared food right in front of you. You get to speak to the owners and the cooks, and that’s a lot of appeal for a lot of people. For owners, it is an opportunity to start a business you love and to start small or big, however you want to start. But it also comes without all of the debt you might put into a brick and mortar restaurant. I think a lot of brick and mortars will have a lot of food trucks in Portland as well. It’s not only a way to engage catering, but it is also mobile advertising, literally.

Ben Berman [Mainely Burgers]: From the beginning we have thought that food trucks are vibrant, creative, and good opportunities for people who want to own their own business. We want to be an example for other entrepreneurs to take the leap. Portland is a city with a vibrant culture that people should be proud of. It is the people, art, food, and architecture. Food trucks would do nothing but cultivate that. It’s a niche industry. We are huge Portland restaurant fans and we are at every opening. We’re just trying to do our small part to contribute to that part of the culture of the city and we are having a lot of fun doing it.

Image Source: Bite Into Maine

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.