Summer 2013, officials in Huntsville, Alabama released an ordinance allowing Food Trucks to park in certain areas downtown. Initial regulations, though great to introduce the street food scene possibility, forced the Trucks to only open between 9pm and 2am, so as to thus avoid ‘upsetting’ local restaurants. As such, one could imagine survival worries; would the scene actually kick off? Luckily for us, a year later Downtown Huntsville Inc, an organization focused on revitalizing the area, stepped in to start promoting these mobile businesspeople. With a plan to increase interest through a set of 6 Food Truck events during the rest of the year, and having no idea if it’d actually kick off, they saw 20,000+ people flock to this new tradition now residing in the Church Street area.
2014 was a success, and now we move into a new year to start exploding the southern city’s line-up of motorized vendors. Its streets are becoming more aware and used to the rhythms, creating the starting blocks to a lively truck culture. Their originally night-focused parking has expanded to include lunch hours, the springtime will feature a food truck park starting up, and there’s already popular spots popping up here and there. Already the area is growing into a novel opportunity for nearby truck startups to flock to.
Now, normally, when we start these “How to” posts, we like featuring a single local Truck owner to discuss the local situation, along with tips and hints to help any interested newcomers to survive. During the interviews for this, however, we came across two different business owners who we just couldn’t choose between, so for the first time we’re gonna have them both on! Firstly, Vonda Patterson is the owner and operator of the Rollin Lobstah, a recent truck that seems to have a bright future, and opposite her we’re joined by Jeff and Heather Baggett of Cottage Crepes. I’ll let them tell you their stories as we get into it.
Question: First off, tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do, how did you get started, and how have you been navigating Huntsville’s streets?
Vonda: Well, I am a network engineer, and I actually work full time for NASA, I have an aunt who lives in Martha’s Vineyard area, I go out and visit her and that’s where I came up with the Rollin Lobstah idea, thought I’d bring that to the south. I had always wanted to open a food truck, didn’t want to do burgers and hot dogs, I thought that Lobster Rolls would be something different and people seem to really like it.
As far as navigating the streets, we have Downtown Inc which is an organizer who does a lot of organizing for street functions and festivals, the food truck thing is fairly new to Huntsville, I started in April. I’ve been doing Nasa for 23 years, ready to get into my passion now.
Jeff: Well I started my career in building supplies, then I retired, my daughter Heather was in restaurant management and loved to cook, wanted to start a food truck, so we decided to do this as a joint venture. We discussed doing several different things and finally decided to do crepes, purchased a used trailer, converted it to cook out of, made a deal with a nearby convenience store to sell. We go to Nasa, Redstone Arsenal twice a week for lunch, and some private events for General Electric and other companies.
Q: From what you can tell so far, what are some of the unique opportunities of owning a truck in Huntsville specifically? Counter to that, what are some of the issues?
Vonda: I think the issues is that it’s still fairly new, there’s still some places that don’t allow food trucks you know we still have to be invited to be able to set up, so finding places is kind of tough right now. Redstone Arsenal has opened their arms to it, they have set up a Food Truck Battle that we go to, they’ve been a good supporter of food trucks. Like I said, Downtown Inc is having lots of functions and festivals, the crowds have been really open and responsive to it.
Jeff: We’ve encountered a lot of issues, biggest one is finding a Commissary, in order to have a permit you need a commercial kitchen, and it took quite some time for us to work out an arrangement with anyone in this area who has this. Usually you’d do this in a commercial kitchen for rent, but there’s no place like that in Huntsville, we had to work out a deal with a local bar and grille.
Q: From what I can tell, Huntsville is a bit different in that the Food Truck scene started with a heavier focus on late night parking as opposed to lunch hours, though those have started to become more accessible. What is this like, what exactly does it mean for you guys, and are there any particular strategies that new owners should keep in mind to survive those shifts?
Vonda: I’m not sure, I do a lot of lunch shifts, really the only time we have a night time thing is if they have something going on in downtown. If you have some kind of connection or someone to draw you in to be during the lunchtime, it’s nice to know somebody in the business. And unless there’s a function or brewery or something, it’s kind of tough to navigate downtown at night. But some places are just opening their arms to it, I get calls quite often, and I think as time goes on, maybe sometime next year in the summer, I think a lot more businesses are going to open up to it.
Jeff: You have to be willing to work very long hours to be able to support yourselves, especially in our case where we make everything fresh to order; so we spend more time prepping, cleaning, buying supplies and dealing with the government than we do selling the product.
Q: What’s the parking situation like in Huntsville and do you need a special permit to park or is it a free for all? Any really popular and good areas to park that you’ve noticed so far?
Vonda: Well when they first started out it was just a permit, and then Downtown Inc had the festival, so long as you had that one permit you were okay. Then at one point they switched back and said “No… when you apply to Church Street you need a permit for THERE,” they didn’t charge us they made us come out and get one.
I think the best places that we have Concerts in the park is Brahan Park near downtown, during the summer and spring they have concerts; I think that Downtown is the most popular, but always when they’re having some kind of festival or something. Otherwise it’s sort of a hit or miss crowd down there, never know if you’ll get a busy Friday or slow.
Jeff: There are special permits that you have to buy for the Downtown area, and they tell you where you can park, but we haven’t been involved in that (again we stick with that convenience store and private events). I know a lot of the truck owners like to go Downtown, evidently they do very well down there. Of course the other thing they like to do is getting invited to Redstone, can do very well at lunch.
Q: Does Huntsville have any particularly unique food truck codes or regulations compared to other cities? Are there any that new owners should make sure to pay attention to that might be easily overlooked?
Vonda: From the research I’ve done, I think they’re all about the same, think they’ve been reaching out and drawing from other states, keep trying to stay on that standard. Redstone Arsenal has opened their arms, but you have to get different permits and different health codes and inspections if you’re gonna go out there. But I think it’s pretty streamlined.
Jeff: From what I’ve heard, there are more stringent requirements here as opposed to other places. My advice would be to develop a good contact with the Health Department.
Q: Are there any groups, organizations, websites, or other resources new owners should look into when they start moving into the city?
Vonda: Arts Council does a lot with food trucks, a lot of the businesses are trying to bring them in. I reached out to different trucks and the people that were already doing it about starting up.
Jeff: There’s AL.com, the online version of the Huntsville Times, we had an event advertising with our food and that really increased our business.
Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite aspects to owning a Truck, either in Huntsville or as-is?
Vonda: My favorite is seeing the people eat the food and just enjoying it, enjoying being out and talking. Least favorite is all the hours! I don’t think people realize how many hours it is, all the prep time and setting up and breaking down, especially with a full time job. But I really enjoy talking to people, reading their reviews, and getting a lot of joy out of that; I work full time for Nasa as I said, but I’m ready to jump over that line and do this.
Jeff: My favorite is people enjoying my food and getting to work with my daughter. The worst is dealing with the regulations, codes, and permits you need to operate the food truck.
Q: Finally, is there any last thing you’d like to say about Huntsville, or a piece of advice or two you’d like to give to upcoming interested Food Truck owners in the area?
Vonda: I think Huntsville has a lot to offer, we’re not invaded with a bunch of Food Trucks right now, if you have something to offer to it right now then bring it on. Huntsville’s a nice little town.
Jeff: If you meet the requirements and are willing to work the long hours, there’s a lot of opportunities out there.
OTHER LOCAL LINKS
Rocket City Food Trucks – a great directory of trucks that features real-time tracking in the Huntsville area
A big thank you goes out to both of these trucks for helping us out with this article, and as always good luck in the coming years. For those obsessive entrepreneurs in the Alabama area, feel free to take their advice in looking towards Huntsville as a potential starting point; it may need to iron out some kinks, hopefully the commissary kitchen situation can be solved or at least loosened in possibilities. Until then, though, have a good winter and good luck!