There’s been a lot of attention put on New Orleans throughout the years; articles, movies, food interest, cocktail references, mardi gras, books, top chef seasons, etc. And for good reason, it’s been made readily apparent to anyone who’s heard even the slightest bit about the city that it holds one of the richest, most cross-cultural histories in the whole country. Not to mention its quite the unique place, with its narrow streets, old buildings, particular style, and of course their famous food. The place is a gastronome’s delight, yet at the same time a pit for the most hardcore party goers, dens of thieves and bastions of those wise in the ways of life and voodoo.
So it’s no stretch to think a city like this should have a thriving Food Truck scene, and as such it’s only natural for us to talk about it. Yet surprisingly, and with almost no sense of understanding on my own part, the number of mobile vendors is quite minimal compared to other thriving truck cities. Why is this, for what reason are the streets of this highly food-centric, street food delighted city relatively bare of the newly iconic street food movement? Is it simply new and well-open to new entrepreneurs in Louisiana to explore, or is there a particular, shady reason? Maybe a curse…
Whatever it is, we hope to find out today. To help us with this, Micah of King Creole, one of South Carolina’s giants in the mobile catering game now returned home, has sat down to talk about his city. With him, we now have a guide to take us through the meandering food scene that is jazz and sin. Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!
Question: Tell me a bit about yourself, your business, and how long you’ve been operating in your city?
Micah: Well, I’ve been in the restaurant business most of my live, been an executive chef a lot of years and got out of the business about a few years ago, felt like I really wanted to be a chef but didn’t want to work in restaurants anymore. Thought about the food cart for a while and just decided to go for it, start the truck actually in North Carolina, have had it a for three years I guess and just moved back to New Orleans in November. We were really successful with the truck up there, won the North Carolina Food Truck Championship, and uhh moved it back here and I’m starting over. And we’re doing well so far. The truck’s called King Creole, do Southern Comfort Food with a strong Indian accent, try to get special ingredients and do a lot of catering and stuff, and just really good southern soul food. We started small after buying, just kept at it, and got a nice full kitchen now; oven, a friar, sandwich press and griddle, all that. We do a lot of catering and stuff, and that kinda helps to have everything in there.
Q: How did you start back up in New Orleans? Did you have any mentors? Tell us about those early days figuring it all out. Are there any resources you recommend for getting started or organizations that could help entrepreneurs get started in your area?
Micah: Not really, I was kinda on my own, started eating at a lot of food truck, networked with a lot of guys, didn’t have much time to get back into it and figure it out, did my own study on food trucks and whatnot. You know, here in New Orleans, I don’t know but everything is just different here, and North Carolina is practically the opposite. Up there you have to park on private property, but in New Orleans you can’t be on private property because of zoning you have to be on the street.
Up there was a little more camaraderie (which one can assume that in New Orleans there’s not as much), when I first got started they definitely helped me out with this pilot program, so they did like a 6 month program to try out and help food trucks in downtown. That was a good way to get my foot in the door, I started networking with all these trucks, and I decided it was a good place for truck owners to get together and help eachother out, so I started the Food Truck Alliance, so now there’s a resource there for people doing food trucks. Now I’m back here and on my own. I actually sort of hated leaving North Carolina as a business perspective, because I was doing really good there, was working 6 days a week… but there’s a lot of opportunities here, up in Carolina it’s very event-driven, not a lot of newer spots for food trucks to go to, because of that there’s really not a Street Food Culture, whereas down here it’s been part of the culture for a long time. There’s a lot more opportunity here too, if you want a regular schedule and a regular spot, to build up your business in a couple locations rather than… you know, I was in the Greensborough area up there, and I had to drive to one central Rolly, so sometimes I had to drive an hour to get to my spot. Down here, I don’t drive a whole lot, because it’s a dense populated area, there’s lots of people. And the late night business, there’s a whole ‘nother shift we’ve never had up there, the 9pm-2am shift is where most of the trucks are making great money. Can add that on to lunch service, run dinner 5-8, and then go somewhere else for night.
New Orleans is a tough place to do business though. The city is not a very friendly environment, dealing with City Hall and getting established. Certainly not like North Carolina, I got that done in a day, went down and got my permits, my inspection and I was done. Here, it’s an unbelievable process, there’s a checklist they give you, you have to make appointments with various inspectors… the problem with the city, they don’t even know, they’re not familiar with all of this. It’s tough, I wish there was a better resource, but the only thing I can say is to make friends with people at food trucks, I’ve had people who’ve come to me to help them out with opening their truck. There’s no one resource to go to.
Actually there is one website, can’t remember the name of it though, it’s got a lot of food truck information on it, but it’s not really region specific.
Q: You’ve answered this rather well already, but what are some of the other unique opportunities of operating a food truck in your city?
Micah: Customer base wise, New Orleans is a food town, and people really appreciate food here, they get excited about food. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do a food truck, because I love what I do and part of the thing that makes me happy is feeding people, getting them as excited about food as I am. So that confirmation and appreciation is definitely here.
The other thing about New Orleans is, the food trucks that ARE operating here, there’s not a lot of variety, a bunch of taco trucks, a couple of which are really good. But there’s not much competition believe it or not; they’re all fly-by-night, hamburger hot dog, they’re all doing the same thing, nobody’s really doing serious food except for a handful of trucks. So there’s a lot of opportunities here. And people here are loyal, they will seek out a truck, and once you build a following you’ll have a very loyal customer base.
Q: What are some of the other unique challenges of operating a food truck in your city?
Micah: The con is that you’re dealing with a much more educated diner in New Orleans, people know good food here, and if you’re not good you won’t make it! People aren’t paved with gold for anybody who has a truck, you have to work at it with good food and a good truck, Cuz if you’re not good, people know.
Micah: It can be really tough, I have a decent sized truck, and it’s tough getting in and out of here. You really kind of have to plan your route, because there’s a lot of skinny one-way streets, people drive down like it’s a third world country. You have to give yourself extra time to get good spots, and a lot of these aren’t guaranteed, it’s first-come first-serve. You’ve really gotta be on top of your game to get ahead, get a good spot and whatnot. It’s definitely a challenge, and there are areas in the city where we’re not allowed to operate, like the French quarter. But then again there’s lots of opportunities, everyone is concentrating on “Oh, the downtown area” and other areas where it’s really crowded, but New Orleans is a big city with office parks and a ton of places that aren’t being serviced, you can go out to people work and aren’t being served. I’ve got a spot down at the marine base, lots of marines out there that want a great place to eat, they get tired of the cafeteria. So that’s a regular lunch spot for us that no other trucks go to, we’ve built up a great following down there.
Q: What do you have to say on New Orleans’ rich culture and how it affects the Food Truck Scene and business owners?
Micah: I think initially, whenever food trucks start to become popular in the area, immediately the media makes a big deal about it and start interviewing restaurant owners. And the managers, without really receiving or knowing anything about food trucks, go “Oh it’s terrible, we can’t have these food trucks here!” But there’s always a backlash, umm, and the Louisiana Restaurant Association is a very influential group with the city of New Orleans. They have a lot of pull, so they forced the city to make some really sweeping and hard regulations here, it’s one of the hardest places to run a food truck that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve brought my truck down to Florida before for festivals, run the truck in South Carolina and Virginia, and never run into the same issues as I have here.
The thing is though, even though the city put in these really tough regulations, there’s no enforcement, because the city WANTS the street food. That’s part of the charm of New Orleans.
Q: Since you mentioned it, what ARE some of these regulations that have been put into place? Where should truck owners go to find information about them?
Micah: The city of New Orleans does have some information on their website about food trucks and business application. They claim the information is all there, and the regulations… but I’ve had a really tough time, you know you call the phone numbers they say to call, they’re up to date, but trying to get in touch with someone in city hall is tough.
The city requires you have a full fire compression system, along with two different types of fire extinguishers in addition to that. And the way your gas lines have to be run here is completely different than anywhere else; instead of just putting the piping in, even if you had a plumber do it to code, they want all the gas lines to run UNDERNEATH the truck. It makes it really difficult, and to me it’s more difficult, cuz you have all these pressurized gas lines underneath and susceptible to road hazards. I’ve had to completely rip my truck apart and rebuild it, put new gas lines in, the bands I had the city didn’t like so I had to get new ones, it overall cost me $5000.
There’s also two types of licenses, a Franchise License and some other type that allows you to run on different areas and whatnot. If you park on private property, you’re supposed to have a Special Event Permit. That’s New Orleans for you.
Q: What’s the parking situation like in New Orleans and do you need a special permit to park or is it a free for all?
Micah: Yeah it’s a free-for-all, your permit is good anywhere on the street as long as it’s a legal spot. But, you know, we can pretty much park anywhere and nobody bothers you; we like the meter maids and tell them we put money in the meters. According to the rules we’re supposed to put money in the meters and only allowed to stay for a certain amount of time, but nobody does and the meter maids don’t enforce it. They do say “Hey, you have to move” but again, no enforcement. I see trucks parked on the medians, on the boulevards, all the time, it’s their regular spots, and it’s not really a big deal. If somebody complains though, they’ll come over and tell you “You gotta go.” Just don’t do anything stupid, don’t park where you’re not supposed to; don’t go to the French quarter, don’t block traffic, be respectful of the restaurants and no one will bother you.
Q: Part of surviving and building a Food Truck culture in any city is event organization; what sort of Truck rallies are usually going on throughout the year?
Micah: I haven’t even been made aware of anything here. I know there was a couple little food truck rallies, but that’s about it. There is a coalition here, the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, but the organization is floundering, the truck owners that were running it really don’t have time for it, so they’re not organizing or planning anything. There is another organization called My House Nola that’s been talking events, I’m working to get in touch with them now about events and whatnot. But the best thing to do is just raise your street cred, build your reputation. I don’t wanna work with shady operators, I want to work with good reputable trucks with good food.
Q: Finally, if you could give only one piece of advice for new food truck entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Micah: Work hard to build your customer base. It’s not about just setting up somewhere and making money with it, you really have to look for a customer base here. Gotta get good spots and stick with them and build it up. Make sure you have plenty of operating capital. And pay attention to your truck, don’t be an absentee truck owner, be on your truck and build those customer relationships.
HELPFUL READING MATERIAL
NOLA’s Food Truck Permit – the city page that outlines he permit, also serves as a good jumping off point to other resources on the site.
“Food Trucks Thrive Under New City Laws” – an interesting little article discussing benefits of past new laws
SPERA Blog Articles – a page with all the articles on New Orlean’s Food Trucks, could be an interesting read
Yet another foray into the active nightlife and daily charms of this southern treasure has led us to get a better idea of its burgeoning food truck culture. King Creole certainly lived up to his name in allowing us a view into their streets and what excited entrepreneurs will have to deal with to operate in this mysterious landscape. We are very appreciative to Micah for helping us through this, and hope that his answers can help any business owner on their path to New Orleans vendorship. Whether you’re looking to vend beignets or jambalaya, crawdaddy tacos or andouille sandwiches, pizza or burgers, we wish you luck in making the city a home for your business.