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New 'food truck row' has slow but steady start

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2012 - If you drive around 13th and Market streets in St. Louis, it becomes evident that "food truck row" is off to a slow start. Most days, few trucks are parked in the spaces  set aside for them by the city, although the occasional truck can be seen staking out the area. Several food truck vendors concede business at food truck row is slow now, but they see promise in the future and are hopeful that business will boom.

Last month, St. Louis designated an area on 13th Street between Market and Chestnut streets as "food truck row." The area provides a space for food trucks to come together in one spot, with the hope that more business will arise.

Kara Bowlin, spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay, said this spot was chosen because it was "off the beaten path of bricks-and-mortar restaurants," and the nearby offices and City Hall would bring in business. Bowlin said this area is also convenient to jurors who do not have many other options in the area.

Bowlin said she believes food truck row is going very well, and it seems as though there is always a healthy line when the trucks are there.

"There are lots of underserved people in that area," she said.

The Curbside Cookery, run by Tammy and Dave Johnson, has only been in business for a few weeks, serving grilled sandwiches and burritos. Tammy Johnson said they went to food truck row; and although it was slow, she hoped that business would eventually pick up. The spot has seating and shade, which makes it an ideal location for food trucks, and she added that the jurors and City Hall workers have nowhere else to eat if the trucks are not around.

"It needs time to establish," she said. "It will take a little while but it will be a great spot once it is."

Husband Dave Johnson said a lot of the trucks in business for a long time don't want to go there because they know it's slow.

Dan McKean is also new to the food truck business. His truck, the Cheese Shack, has been in operating for two months. McKean, an electrician for 25 years, said he was always interested in cooking, which inspired him in his endeavor to start his food truck, which serves gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

McKean said he has had a good start and everything is going well so far, but finding parking on a daily basis is a struggle. But at food truck row, parking is not a problem. McKean said he has been to food truck row once. He said that it was not very busy, but it wasn't slow either.

"It's a good idea, but I don't know if it's the best location," McKean said.

His best business, he said, comes from areas such as Citygarden, near Nestle Purina in the LaSalle Park neighborhood, outside of hospitals and on Food Truck Fridays in Tower Grove Park.

McKean said he is looking to expand into St. Louis County, but he would make an effort to be at food truck row one day a week if business picked up.

"Hopefully, more trucks going to that area will give it more notoriety," he said.

Go Gyro Go has been operating in St. Louis for almost a year. Owners Nick and Laura Cowlen serve Greek gyros. Nick Cowlen said the food truck business has been better than they forecasted, and he cannot keep up with the demand. He said he and his wife went to food truck row one time, but they plan to return. He said business was a little slow.

"It takes time to build up an area," he said.

Go Gyro Go travels around St. Louis on a three-week rotation to different areas such as Broadway and Locust, Citygarden, Wells Fargo Advisors in Midtown and Earth City. Nick Cowlen said many trucks in St. Louis work on a rotation similar to theirs.

Nick Cowlen believes food truck row will take pressure off other areas that may have too many trucks.

The city of St. Louis, Nick Cowlen said, has been great to work with. It has been fair and helps the trucks as much as possible.

Food trucks have seen an increase in popularity, which leads to greater demands and longer lines. Jessica LaBozzetta, a special events coordinator at the Nine Network of Public Media, said she frequents food trucks, especially Sarah's Cake Stop and Sweet Divine.

"I'm addicted to food trucks," LaBozzetta said.

Having lots of food trucks in one place is a nice way to try different types of food, she said. She added that while the lines at a Food Truck Friday event can be long, on a normal day, they usually are not.

Many food truck vendors work hard to keep customers' wait short.

Nick Cowlen said Food Truck Friday is a unique event, and the growing popularity has caused the long lines and waits. On a daily basis though, Cowlen said he believes the waits are reasonable. Waiting a few minutes for your food is a part of the food truck experience, he said.

"Most trucks do what they can to expedite service," Cowlen said. On busy days, he said he adjusts his staff and prepares more food at the beginning of the day.

"My goal is to never sell out," he said. "I don't want to leave a customer hungry."

Tammy Johnson said she tries to be speedy. She said she understands that most people only have 30 minutes for lunch and they cannot wait 20 minutes to get their food. She said her husband worked previously in the food business for Dominoes and Papa Johns knows how to work quickly.

McKean said he keeps waits short as well. He said the average wait at his truck is six to seven minutes. For events such as Food Truck Fridays, McKean said he has extra staff to keep up with the crowds.

Click here to find food trucks' daily locations.

Josie Butler is a Beacon intern.

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