Alternative dining: from driving food truck to driving New Orleans economy
In New Orleans, food is not just a means of survival; it is a lifestyle. We plan our next meal during the current one, and Friday martini lunches often become a day-long extravaganza.
Given the city's rich, traditional fare and its historical, nationally renowned restaurants, food has always been integrated into our culture. Most recently, a smaller sub-culture has started gaining momentum in the city, ultimately broadening our culinary horizons, changing the way we eat, and also creating new opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.
At least, that is the goal for Erica Correa and Lizzy Caston, the two women behind NOLAfoodtrucks.com.
The website was modeled after Food Carts Portland, a site created by Caston and partner Brett Burmeister in 2007. With an already established food-truck following in Portland, the two developed it as a resource for people to find menus and schedules for the 400 food trucks in the area, which has since grown to 600 trucks.
Correa, who also founded Joy Ride Bike Rentals, saw an opportunity with the small community of gourmet trucks here and approached Caston to help her launch the New Orleans spin-off site in November of 2010. With less than a year since its inception, NOLA Food Trucks has taken off in a way that neither woman expected. It has grown from merely being a guide for food truck whereabouts and menus into a tool for economic development and a local resource for both current and future food vendors. A new collective of street-food vendors that exceed mobile means has been established as well, so do not be fooled by the “Food Truck” URL.
“People are becoming more creative about less traditional routes for opening restaurants,” said Caston, who also specializes in urban economic development.
She explains that the food truck scene in New Orleans is still dramatically smaller than those of other cities, due to city laws and regulations that have become increasingly more strict and controversial since Hurricane Katrina. However, many vendors have found resourceful ways to establish themselves as a result, in a sense making the New Orleans street-food scene cutting edge. This new form of alternative dining includes pop-up restaurants, catering trucks, bike delivery, and kitchen take-overs at local bars.
Although their business has steered away from its original plan, the Food Truck proprietors have become advocates for a growing trend that can essentially create more small business owners, rather than minimum-wage jobs. The need and demand is there, as proven by the many emails the two women receive on a daily basis from people who are interested in owning their own food trucks. They offer advice to these aspiring business owners, but can't do much else because of the restrictions on food-truck permits by the city.
As their second year approaches, they are looking to add a non-profit aspect to NOLA Food Trucks that will allow them to continue their advocacy, as the street-food industry becomes more beneficial to the economic development of the city. The intention is to keep money local and help small business owners by providing resources and advice, create educational and youth training programs, and ultimately work with the city to mitigate the legal requirements for permits.
Both Correa and Caston jokingly call their business “accidental,” pointing out how it has taken shape from a fun food-truck guide to an advocacy campaign. Their first-year efforts and hard work will be evident at the First Annual Street Fare Derby, an event aimed at creating awareness for alternative dining. The event will take place on Saturday, September 24 from 12:30 - 6:00 p.m., with a VIP hour starting at 11:30 a.m. at the Fairgrounds Race Course and Slots. It will feature food from 15 establishments and live music by Kermit Ruffins and Papa Grows Funk.
For the creators of NOLA Food Trucks, momentum is building quickly and they are excited to see that they are making a difference in the city, both culturally and economically. The two culinary aficionados see the food aspect of the job as being, appropriately, the icing on the cake.
Adriana Lopez writes about the entrepreneurial community for NolaVie and Silicon Bayou News. She also showcases local start-ups such as the one profiled here through her non-profit organization GenNOLA. For more information on NolaVie, visit NolaVie.com.