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Food trucks are colorful, but healthy?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/16/11 @ 12:42pm

With its colorful food trucks, Cleveland opened a way last year paved by cities like Portland to a new foodie culture dominated by chef-driven enterprises that are bringing street life to empty corners or dead spots from downtown to college campuses. Anywhere, it seems, but the suburbs (more on that later).

The city paired up with OSU Extension to write guidelines for a pilot project last year which includes $2,500-5,000 grants for designing and buying trucks. They awarded extra points for nutritious and local food. A year on-after a much publicized dust up by food truck operators who were being ticketed because the rules were unclear-how is the Cleveland food truck scene faring? Many of the ten trucks that applied for the pilot are still around, and the buzz they've created has emboldened many more to try their hand at vending.

Today's Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition meeting discussed the challenges and new avenues for food trucks.

Izzy Schachner, chef/owner of Streat Mobile Bistro, said the 2,000 brave and hungry souls who lined up during a snowstorm in Tremont last year was a bellwether that the food trucks are bringing the vibrancy.

"They create an environment for the food scene. The Tremont restaurants also did record business because we had to turn so many people away."

In fact, the buzz created by Schachner and fellow panelist, Dim and Den Sum and Hodge Podge chef/owner Chris Hodgson (who finished second among eight competitors in Food Network's Great Food Truck Race) has mushroomed into 16 food trucks jockeying for a limited supply of legal parking spaces in the city. Hodgson complains that at least six are gyro vendors who are crowding him out of popular food truck events like the Walnut Wednesday and Downtown Chow Down. 

"Some are serving Sam's Club mac and cheese served on toast," Schachner confirms.

Is there a way to cultivate the buzz food trucks bring but bring balance in the city's legislation that ensures quality and quantity control, Jon Eckerle asked.

"The city cannot tell the operators what to serve, it's illegal," said Hodgson.

And even if they could, there's "no demand for (a salad truck) in Cleveland." so for the time being, they'll continue to sell pulled pork and bacon sammies because pigs will fly off the truck. At least they're pigs that Hodgson is raising himself, and served with veggies that he buys from the Ohio City Farm. Not everyone is committed to local and nutritious. The city will still offer its carrots, said Ifeoma Ezepue who heads up the food cart program for the Department of Economic Development, to the vendors who want small grants. But, Eckerle's question is a good one ? can the city include in its new food cart legislation more than land use details (i.e. no closer than 100 feet of an operating restaurant) to define how the industry grows? Is the city powerless to legislate how many and what type of vendors are food trucks versus the pre-existing hot dog and gyro vendors?

Policing the health and local aspects of just the ten pilot trucks proved unwieldy, said OSU Extension's Morgan Taggart. "Overseeing what is served is nearly impossible. We discussed having (an icon) like a carrot on the menus to designate the healthy choice?" but nothing came of it. Hodgson says he buys local regardless of the guideline. "I want to serve local food. I want to support local businesses."

As I hop off the bus and walk across the CIA parking lot, I spy the green and black Streat Bistro truck. I saunter over and let out a breath-two of the four daily offerings are a fresh veggie wrap and steamed veg and rice.

If most food truck menus aren't very innovative (or healthy) in Cleveland, at least it's not all stoner food at the five gourmet food trucks (by Hodgson's estimate) that are still operating. And at least Hodgson sees it as a vehicle for innovating his workforce. He partners with GoodWill in hiring three ex-cons who are training in the non-profit's prep kitchen at E. 55th and Central.

Besides a watering down of the market with gourmet-less trucks, the roadblock thrown up by the suburbs was a hot topic. It's still illegal for food trucks to operate in the suburbs, Hodgson said, adding that he's been escorted from Progressive Insurance's campus by the Mayfield Village police. Is there stronger pressure from suburban restaurant owners on politicians, Eckerle asked? Schachner concurred, but agreed with Hodgson that some suburban restaurant owners like Matt Fish of Melt, have invited them to park and serve in front of his place. "He sees it as great cross promotion. We don't serve any drinks, and the five hundred dollars we make doesn't really hurt his bottom line." Still Hodgson has made no headway with Lakewood and Cleveland Heights-two places the Heights native would like to tap.

One final word on the food trucks and their original goals-it's clear that they are magnets wherever they go, thanks in large part to a devoted group of foodies who follows their every move on Facebook and Twitter. But the nutritious and local food goals are thornier-the city and top dogs like Hodgson and Schachner could put their heads together to figure out what, besides carrots, can be served.

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