Food trucks are finding a foothold in the Pittsburgh-area market
Though food has been served out of trucks almost as long as there have been trucks, the modern concept of the food truck was born only a few years ago in the vast auto-centric, warm-weather sprawl of Los Angeles. Suddenly, it was not only acceptable to serve good food out of the once-derided “roach coaches,” it was a good business decision. Startup costs are much lower than a full restaurant build-out, and you can go to where the customers are, instead of hoping they come to you.
Pittsburgh is a far cry from Los Angeles in most respects, but we're finally starting to adapt the food truck to our own peculiar topography and our own walking, working and dining preferences.
It hasn't been easy. As in many cities, there are a lot of legal and bureaucratic obstacles to operating a food truck in Pittsburgh.
According to Pittsburgh Mobile Food (www.pghmobilefood.com), which advocates for more food-truck-friendly laws and regulations, some of the impediments include restrictive operating hours, a requirement that food trucks move every 30 minutes, and a rule that they must stay 500 feet from any business with a similar product for sale, even something as innocuous as soft drinks. Obviously, in certain places (Downtown, East Carson Street, etc.), this severely limits where a food truck can park. Food trucks also can't park at metered spaces.
As a measure of how prominent food trucks have become, city Councilman Bill Peduto has made changing food-truck regulations a (small) part of his mayoral platform.
“It is simply unfair to put overly restrictive rules on food-truck operators,” says Dan Gilman, Peduto's chief of staff. “In fact, cities across the country have been sued for doing so. Food-truck operators should have the same opportunities to grow a business as brick-and-mortar restaurant operators do. And, food trucks can be a great benefit to our city. They create economic vitality in our neighborhoods, they help young entrepreneurs raise awareness about their products and make a living, and they make Pittsburgh attractive to young people and people who are in the food scene.”
Many brick-and-mortar restaurateurs aren't convinced, however.
“We think it's great to have food trucks, as long as they're regulated,” says Jeff Cohen, owner of Smallman Street Deli, Weiss Provision Co., and treasurer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “(Regulations) should just stay the way they are.”
“If you owned a restaurant, you wouldn't want me parking in front of it, taking three to four parking spaces at your busiest time of day to compete against you. (They) need to be 500 feet away from existing businesses.”
Some daring food truckers aren't waiting around for more favorable rules. Pittsburgh's food-truck count has nearly tripled since we last did a count in 2011.
Pittsburgh Taco Truck
It's a little before 5 p.m. in Braddock, and a line of hungry patrons has already formed on the sidewalk. Parked a few feet away is a bright red-and-yellow truck bearing one simple word on its side — “TACOS” — and in a few minutes, that's exactly what these food-truck fans will be having for dinner.
In the few months since it hit the streets, the Pittsburgh Taco Truck has already established a loyal following and is gaining more patrons every day. That response is the driving force behind owner James Rich's vision.
“I like the idea of creating a unique community experience and interacting with the community,” he says.
Because of restrictive mobile-vending laws within Pittsburgh city limits, the truck spends most of its time parked near friend Michael Witherel's business, Coffee Buddha at 964 Perry Highway in Ross. Rich makes stops on Tuesday evenings outside Ink Division at 218 Braddock Ave. He posts his schedule and menu on his website daily.
Tacos, between one-third and one-half pound and entirely wheat- and gluten-free, cost $3 to $5. Some menu items change depending on available ingredients. Options can include Korean braised steak with kimchi, Indian butter chicken with sambal yogurt and spicy jerk chicken with avocado cream. A vegetarian selection has zucchini, mushrooms and queso blanco. A vegetarian or vegan option is available every day.
If a customer wants to change up the ingredients a bit, it isn't a problem.
“People make suggestions and we listen to them,” Rich says. “We make changes according to them.”
Customer Maria T. Cruz of Braddock appreciates Rich's efforts to bring convenient food to neighborhoods that are somewhat lacking in other options.
“There aren't a lot of places to eat, so we want to support him when he comes out here,” Cruz says.
— Rachel Weaver
The Steer and Wheel
Details: 412-230-7323, www.thesteerandwheel.com
The Steer and Wheel first hit the road six weeks ago, offering gourmet burgers, french fries and beverages. Owner Jamie McCleland, whose background includes culinary school in his native South Carolina and work in the food industry there and in Pittsburgh, became fascinated by Pittsburgh Taco Truck and decided a food truck would be a great niche for him.
McCleland buys a variety of cuts of naturally grown beef, raised locally with no hormones or antibiotics, which he grinds fresh in the truck on the mornings when he arrives at a site where he'll be open for business.
The menu includes a variety of what he calls composed burgers, combining different toppings and buns around themes, such as Italian and Cajun styles. The Kelly Burger is named for his wife and is topped with field greens, tomatoes, white cheddar and grain mustard on an English muffin. Three of the composed burgers on the menu are available at any given outing. He also cooks turkey burgers and veggie burgers. All are available in small, $3.50 to $4, and large, $8 to $9.
French fries are made from hand-cut russet potatoes, double fried and served plain, $2, or in specialty combinations, $3.
— Mark Kanny
Oh My Grill
This new food truck peddles many people's favorite comfort food on wheels: grilled cheese, with side of macaroni and cheese to boot.
Oh My Grill, a roving truck that got its start in July last year at a Lawrenceville event, sells many styles of grilled cheese on white or wheat bread or Texas toast. The truck usually offers three to five special sandwiches ($4 to $8) at a time, often with an accompanying sauce: for instance, a grilled cheese with smoked gouda, white cheddar and caramelized onion. Many of the specials come with a cup of soup.
“We try to change up our special,” says Larry Gunas, owner of Oh My Grill. He lives in Evans City, Butler County, but the business is fully mobile.
Oh My Grill goes wherever the truck is invited, Gunas says. He often goes to company lunches, festivals, farmers markets, weddings, parties and the like.
“The possibilities are endless,” he says. “It's very well-received by the public.”
— Kellie B. Gormly
They didn't have a lot of company for a while, but for Franktuary, the risk was worth it.
After about seven years of selling their creatively topped gourmet hot dogs out of the hard-to-find basement of Trinity Cathedral, Downtown, partners Tim Tobitsch and Megan Lindsey thought a food truck would be a fun way to build their business. While it has been less than fun at times — such as discovering the regulations and restrictions — the Franktuary food truck has become so ubiquitous at local events that it seems like there can't be just one.
The Franktuary brand also has risen considerably. They just opened their second physical location in a large, high-profile spot on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
The Franktuary food truck offers regular hot dogs, veggie dogs and “Under Dogs,” made from New Zealand grass-fed beef, and a monthly featured gourmet dog. One constant is poutine, the French-Canadian junk food/delicacy beloved by hockey fans and denizens of dairy country — french fries topped with fresh cheese curds and thick gravy.
“We thought, ‘How can we distinguish ourselves in Pittsburgh?' (It) is so saturated with french fries, on salads, sandwiches, everything,” Tobitsch says. “We thought it was something Pittsburgh would like. I liked it.”
— Michael Machosky
Dozen Bake Shop
(Pictured on cover)
Satisfy your sweet tooth with a moist cupcake, a tasty scoop of ice cream, a creamy peanut-butter chewy bar or a crunchy Rice Krispies treat out of the Dozen Bake Shop food truck. Look for it in and around Pittsburgh. It usually makes a weekly stop at Carnegie Mellon University Technology Drive along the river on Second Avenue.
“We are known for comfort food,” says Dena Rupp, director of operations and event coordinator for the food truck. “We enjoy bringing fresh-baked goods and ice cream out to people. It is fun to be with all the other food trucks. We all support each other.”
Dozen decided to go on the road after owner Doreen Valentine saw how popular food trucks were when she visited Los Angeles. She purchased a truck designed specifically to sell food. It has a display window so customers can see the goods just like in a regular bakery.
The company is based in Lawrenceville, with another storefront in Oakland. That location will be closing at the end of May and a new store is planned at Donaldson's Crossroads in McMurray.
They are known for their cupcakes but have added lots of homemade ice cream, which can be served in homemade waffle cones (including a gluten-free option). Flavors include strawberry shortbread, vegan blackberry, goat cheese pistachio caramel and dark chocolate merlot. Mexican popsicles also will be on the menu. They are not as sweet as the regular kind and come in flavors such as toasted coconut and avocado. Dozen has sorbet in flavors such as lemon and strawberry.
Prices range from $1.25 for a cookie to $5 for ice cream with multiple scoops and lots of toppings.
The road business is growing from events to weddings. They've been hired to be a part of bridal receptions during appetizer and cocktail hour or after dinner for dessert.
— JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Bella Christie and Lil' Z's Sweet Boutique
Details: 412-772-1283, www.asweetboutique.com
The treats truck of Bella Christie and Lil' Z's Sweet Boutique is on its way to some sweet duty.
Jennie Vidt'Elliott, the coordinator of the truck at the Aspinwall sweet shop and bakery, says the vehicle began operation only a few weeks ago. For this year, a run of regular stops won't happen, but planners are trying to line up stops at events.
The first series will be Tuesday evening stops through May at the Bethel Park Farmers Market at the community center at 5151 Park Ave.
Vidt'Elliott says the 20-foot truck they use was found in North Carolina, already made into a food truck. Outside of “wrapping” it in company colors and logos, she says, little had to be done.
The Bella Christie truck will be selling only sweets, she says, but if a client rents it for a party or get-together, other items such as quiches could be included.
Hiring the truck for an event starts at $250, she says, which does not include fees for food.
— Bob Karlovits
It's hardly a surprise that carbaholics might be easily tempted to kick self-control to the curb with the promise of an authentic, handmade pierogie arriving curbside.
Claiming the title of the “first and only” one of its kind, temptation from the Pierogi Truck comes in the form of sweet cheese, sauerkraut, potato and onion, beef and even plum, with additional room on the menu (if not your stomach) for more Polish favorites, including haluski and stuffed cabbage.
And if that weren't enough to put you over the edge, when you've got a craving and can't get to them, they'll come to you. All it takes is an email. You can find them most Wednesdays outside the House of 1,000 Beers in New Kensington. The truck will be at the Whitehall Farmer's Market on Mondays starting in June.
— Kate Benz
Details: 724-742-2333, www.brgrpgh.com
Drew Garbarino is hoping to put the food-truck business in gear for the BRGR restaurants.
The operation is only about six months old, the manager of the truck says, but “if there's a festival out there, an event, we'll be there.”
Besides special festivites, weddings, parties and picnics, Garbarino says the truck also will be seen at various lunch spots, including Forbes Avenue and Grant Street, Downtown.
The truck offers the burgers the restaurants in East Liberty and Cranberry are named after. There is the Fire in the Hole with jalapenos and guacamole and daily specials such as the Steakburger, which is a burger that looks like a Philly cheesesteak (both $8).
Besides chips, fries and slaw ($3), the truck offers shakes ($4) such as the Cap'n Crunch, which is topped with the cereal.
The truck operates out of the Cranberry Mall because it is easier to park and do some of the preparation work there, he says. But, he adds, most of the work can be done on the road in the 27-foot truck that was created as a delivery vehicle by the company that builds them for FexEx and UPS. It has a 15-foot by 18-foot kitchen area filled with grills, fryers, pizza-prep equipment and coolers.
Rates for catered events begin at $500 minimum for a two-hour period and begin with $150 rental for sites within a 30-mile radius of Cranberry.
— Bob Karlovits
Fans and followers of Fukuda's roving sushi truck may have feared it had reached a dead end when owner Hoon Kim and executive chef Matt Kemp opened a restaurant at 4770 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield, last fall.
Not to worry, Kim says. The newly revamped and upgraded truck and will soon be rolling on a regular schedule.
“We wanted to continue to be part of the culture,” Kim says. “We are talking a tight-knit community base.”
Wherever they park, people show up in droves, Kim says.
Most often they clamor for Okonomiyaki ($8 to $10), a traditional Japanese Napa cabbage and fish-batter pancake stuffed with as-you-like-it choices that can include sushi-grade fish, chicken, pork, pickled ginger, seaweed and bonita flakes.
Also popular are Chirashi Temaki hand rolls ($6) and a variety of familiar sushi choices ($5 to $8) made with fish flown in from as far away as Scotland and Japan.
— Alice T. Carter
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