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For Andrea Rayford and her husband, a food truck was the best means to reach their overall goal of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“It was basically a lot cheaper to start a food truck,” she said.
Traditional restaurants often come “with a pretty hefty lease,” she said. So, when her chef husband, Jessie, wanted to open his own place, the Parker couple found a food truck on Craigslist, spent six months fixing it up and started working at the local farmers market.
Eventually, the couple started getting requests from breweries or corporate locations for their truck, Jessie’s Smokin’ NOLA, to come to them. They dish up cajun food inspired by Jessie’s upbringing in New Orleans.
As business grew, they expanded their coverage area north, got licensed in Denver and began participating at Civic Center Eats. The annual event gathers dozens of trucks in Denver’s Civic Center Park to serve lunch on certain days of the week.
“We were all over the place,” Rayford said. “That’s the great thing about a food truck.”
Today, the couple has that brick-and-mortar shop — which shares its name with the food truck — in Centennial near Arapahoe High School.
Once branching into Denver, Jessie’s Smokin’ NOLA joined the epicenter of the local food truck scene. In the last six years the number of food trucks operating in the city has grown by 369 percent.
Excise and Licenses Director Ashley Kilroy, with the City and County of Denver, said approximately 700 food trucks were licensed in the city as of late May and they expected to reach 750 by the end of the summer.
While Denver’s food truck industry explodes, suburbs are taking note of that and the broader trend. Nationally, the food truck industry had an annual revenue growth rate of nearly 7 percent in the past five years, according to IBISWorld, a market research company. In that same time, the number of businesses grew by 13 percent and the number of employees by 10 percent.
In Lakewood, there are 60 trucks licensed to operate, according to city spokeswoman Stacie Oulton. Officials there believe the trend is partially driven by diners who want customizable food choices.
Meridith Hatterman, food program coordinator for the Tri-County Health Department, said there were 258 licensed food trucks in Tri-County’s jurisdiction of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties as of early May. That’s an approximate 35 percent increase over the last five years.
With the local and national trends, the communities are eyeing entrepreneurial opportunities for residents, the potential boost to local economies and squaring up regulatory procedures for overseeing the roving eateries.
“Five, 10 years ago, food trucks were at construction sites,” said Pete Mangers, revenue manager for the Town of Castle Rock. “Now it’s the trendy thing to do.”
A handful of food trucks now gather along Wilcox Street in Castle Rock’s historic downtown over the lunch hour. The trend arrived in town roughly three years ago and spiked in the last 18 months, Mangers said.
Lawrence Bowdish is the director of research and issue networks for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizen Center.
Bowdish said the food truck trend’s origin is often traced to 2008 and attributed to Los Angeles-based food truck Kogi Korean BBQ. The truck put Korean-style meat in Mexican tacos, parked outside a nightclub at night, tweeted its daytime locations and took home $2 million in sales it first year in operation.
“I think that kind of encouraged a lot of other food trucks to be in the space and do it in a way that was different than a rolling white cafeteria,” Bowdish said.
Immigrant groups seized food trucks as an opportunity to serve cuisines that “they knew, to an audience that maybe has never seen it before,” Bowdish said. Established brick-and-mortar restaurants used them as a way to further their brand. And stories like Rayford’s are “quite common,” Bowdish said, where entrepreneurs use them as a stepping stone toward opening a permanent restaurant.
The U.S. Chamber’s 2018 study, Food Truck Nation, surveyed food truck owners across the country and evaluated regulatory burdens on the industry. The study’s Food Truck Nation index ranks cities on their friendliness toward food trucks.
Denver ranked No. 1 nationally for its ease of obtaining permits and licenses and No. 2, behind Portland, for its overall friendliness toward the industry. Bowdish said a more recent study has not been done.
“In Denver we’re proud of having had such a significant increase and that we’ve managed that growth,” Kilroy said. “We’re trying to be as business-friendly as we can.”
Kilroy said a work group comprising her department, the Denver Fire Department, Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, and Denver Department Public Works, among others, regularly reviews if city regulations are efficient.
The group holds a weekly, one-stop-shop at the Denver Animal Shelter, where trucks can receive an inspection and get licensed “on the spot.” There is also an annual symposium each spring, before the food truck industry’s busy season, to educate truck owners on the inspection and licensing process.
From the survey, the U.S. Chamber found Denver’s process to be straightforward and simple, Bowdish said.
“Operating a food truck in the suburbs wasn’t as clearly defined or laid out,” he said.
Food trucks must receive health inspections and be licensed to operate in the areas they go to. In places like the Denver metro area, where trucks can move from one community to the next with ease, it’s ideal for jurisdictions to work together to streamline the regulatory process, Bowdish said. That way truck owners aren’t visiting numerous offices and filling out a large number of forms for each community.
“The chamber understands that it’s difficult to have multiple municipalities come together and come up with a joint system,” Bowdish said.
Eric Escudero, spokesman for Denver’s Excise and Licenses department, said Denver regularly gets calls from other jurisdictions and about the city’s regulations, and they hope to serve as a model for neighbors.
In Littleton, the city sees food trucks most often at local breweries or distilleries, places that don’t have kitchens. Littleton has about five city events that include food trucks.
Economic Development Director Denise Stephens said with food trucks’ popularity growing, the city is working across departments to form a pilot program that brings consistency in Littleton food truck policies.
“We are going to probably create a special food truck application and have them register with the city, and then we’re going to ask them to show us proof that they’re licensed with Tri-County (Health Department),” she said. “We want to attract the really good food purveyors and so we want the process to be pretty easy and not too expensive.”
Greg Pixley, spokesperson for the Denver Fire Department, said by email the department conducted 467 inspections during the one-stop-shop events at the Denver Animal Shelter in 2016. That number nearly doubled by 2019. So far, Pixley said, the department has kept up with administrative demands, but they expect the industry will continue growing.
“DFD will need to expand its staffing to accomodate growth of the mobile food industry in the kiosk, standalone and truck areas across the metro area,” he said.
Hatterman said Tri-County has so far kept up with additional workloads that resulted from the food truck trend. As to whether the trend will keep up or put more pressure on regulatory agencies, she’s not sure.
“It’s really hard without a crystal ball,” she said. “Sometimes there are trends that come and go, but when you look at the trucks and their ability to be mobile and go to different events, take advantage of different sites, I think it may be beneficial for some of those operators versus a brick and mortar.”
Bowdish said Denver is not threatened with a food truck overcrowding issue more than other cities, and of the two dozen Denver owners the chamber surveyed, only one felt there were too many trucks in the city.
“You used to think food trucks were a fad, but they’re not,” said Kelli Narde, Littleton’s director of communications. “I think they’re here to stay.”
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