Food trucks rolling into Greensburg region
Where once the term “street food” conjured images of a lackluster hot dog served from a grungy cart, it now denotes a foodie's paradise, thanks to the rise of food trucks.
These mobile restaurants have become increasingly popular in large urban areas nationwide, and now they've found a growing foothold in Westmoreland County.
Sara Lechman's Miss Meatball truck was one of the first.
Coming home from culinary school in New York City, where food trucks were just starting to boom while she was earning her degree and working in restaurants, she got in on the ground floor locally in 2013.
“I knew that if I started it when I did, it would be the right time,” the Hempfield woman said.
Within the cramped confines of her bright red panel truck, Lechman becomes a one-woman restaurant staff. She scoops her signature chicken meatballs onto a sandwich roll, then smothers them in spicy sriracha-teriyaki sauce, creamy asiago cheese or other inventive dressings.
She and other truck owners often serve their creations to the bustling crowd that comes to Hempfield's All Saints Brewing Co. on Route 119 to have a few beers and dine on food truck fare in its parking lot.
“These guys are great,” said All Saints owner Jeff Guidos, whose bar lacks a kitchen. “They're artisans. They're small. They're specialty.”
Food trucks don't keep regular hours or locations, relying on Twitter and Facebook to let fans know where they're going to be and what they'll be serving on any given day.
“Nowadays, it's very easy to get a following just on social media,” said Dave Metzgar, owner of the Earth, Wheel and Fire gourmet pizza truck. “It's growing quicker and faster than I have imagined, and I've only been in it less than a year.”
Lechman said food trucks have become a good option for young chefs. They can get started for about $30,000, far less than it takes to run a traditional restaurant, and focus on one or two specialties instead of developing a full menu.
Since her arrival, other food trucks have joined her on streets in the Greensburg area.
Speal's on Wheels, Swing Truck, The Funnel Cake Men and Earth, Wheel and Fire all arrived in the last year.
“I've said all along, I just need a couple more food trucks around here,” Lechman said. “We all kind of help each other.”
City regulations on way
The camaraderie among competing food truck owners does not always extend to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. Some Greensburg restaurant owners say food trucks have been parking on their street, possibly drawing customers away from established businesses.
“It doesn't affect our restaurant in the evening, because we're an expensive restaurant, and our clientele would never go to a food truck,” said Richard Kurtz, owner of One Eleven on South Pennsylvania Avenue.
Kurtz was considering opening for lunch, but said it's unlikely he will do that if he has to compete with food trucks.
“I don't think they should be in the city at all,” he said. ”It's kind of like you and I are standing in line at the movies, and someone just cuts in front of us.”
Greensburg has issued two health licenses allowing food trucks to operate in the city: one to Speal's on Wheels and the other to Swing Truck.
The city is working on an ordinance to regulate food trucks in response to worried restaurateurs and others, said city Administrator Sue Trout. It won't issue any more licenses until new regulations are finalized.
“I want it to be an even and fair playing field, and that's going to be the purpose of the ordinance,” Trout said.
Speal's on Wheels started serving burgers and bar food out of its truck in August, but getting permission from the city was tricky, said owner Terry Lee Speal.
Once he got his license, he was very limited in where he was allowed to park. He struck a deal with The Rialto on West Otterman Street to serve food to the late-night crowd outside the bar after its kitchen closes.
The trucks not licensed to work in Greensburg often operate nearby in Hempfield, which requires them to get health licenses from the state but has no other restrictions.
The food truck industry in Pittsburgh — more than 30 trucks — has faced similar growing pains with regulations.
For a long time, trucks could park for only 30 minutes in one spot. A law passed in December eased that restriction by allowing licensed trucks to park and serve food for up to four hours at a time.
Lechman said regulations for food trucks in the city are still a problem.
“Pittsburgh, for whatever reason, continues to fight it. It's like they don't want that scene here,” said Lechman, who sometimes takes Miss Meatball into the city.
She's worried Greensburg's moratorium on food truck licenses, and the pending ordinance, might have a chilling effect on truck owners.
“I don't know why they're doing the same thing that the city of Pittsburgh is,” she said.
For now, however, regulatory difficulties have not stopped food trucks from coming to the area.
Bobby Fry, one of the co-founders of Bar Marco in Pittsburgh, decided to leave the restaurant and come to Westmoreland County to start Swing Truck a few weeks ago. He said he gets the same vibe from Greensburg that he did from Pittsburgh at the start of its culinary renaissance.
“I kind of feel like I had pretty good timing, getting into Pittsburgh right when it was about to pop,” he said. “Greensburg is on the verge.”
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.