by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, LLCC Value Added Local Foods program
The allure of food trucks and street food transcends cultures across the globe throughout time. Motorways and parking lots are filled with sweet and savory crepe stands in Paris; skewers of anything imaginable – spiced beef or chicken, sausages, hot dogs, shrimp, cubes of fish and even a non-melting cheese – hot off the cart in Buenos Aires; and pork satay grilled over charcoal in Thailand.
The history of the American food truck dates back to the end of the 17th century when street vendors were first found selling food from push carts. The 1850s to the 1950s introduced dining cars on cross country trains, Chuck wagons, U.S. Army mobile canteens, Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobile and everyone’s favorite – ice cream trucks.
According to mobile.cuisine.com, it was the recession of 2008 that ignited the food truck industry’s rise we know today when new vendors recognized changing consumer preferences that favored unique, gourmet cuisine at budget-conscious prices. “The food truck scene is here now in Springfield,” according to Justin Cooper of Cooper’s StrEATside Bistro, who is looking to expand the food truck business he and his wife Kendra started in 2013 through either a brick and mortar location or another food truck to keep up with demand.
Cooper fortuitously combined his culinary education with experience from a job building fabricated trucks and a passion for creating ever-changing menus featuring fresh, local food grown by area farmers to start his food truck. The mobility of the food truck allows Cooper to put his culinary skills and creativity to use by developing menus based on what’s coming out of the field each day and featuring a variety of cuisines from Mexican tacos to their signature American hand-cut fries. More recently they are gaining fame for their Pork Bahn Mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich served on special bread, made with marinated grilled local pork chop, fresh pickled carrots and cucumbers, cilantro and spicy mayo. Kendra said that “customers are more willing to try new foods because of the taste and quality of the local ingredients prepared by Chef Cooper.”
Food trucks are showing up more and more at unexpected places. These kitchens on wheels can accommodate the needs of any catering situation. The Coopers whip up fresh, local food at two Springfield farmer’s markets, during lunch at state agencies, or at private events for individuals or organizations such as weddings, reunions, happy hours, graduations, birthday celebrations, golf outings and more.
Events featuring multiple food trucks thrive across the country in various forms and have morphed locally in past years. Atlanta, Ga. hosts the Food Truck Park and Market daily on a rehabilitated old hotel site that includes three acres of green space for families to picnic, play Frisbee or bocce ball, and experience foods and drinks as a community. More than 40 food truck vendors rotate each day with an average participation of 15 vendors.
Food truck parks like the one in Atlanta inspired Katie Davison, MacArthur Boulevard Association board member, to create Bites on the Boulevard, a food truck meet-up event in Springfield last year. The event runs monthly in the summer this year after an initial one-time event in August 2015 shocked event organizers by attracting approximately 2,000 people. Davison explains, “Bites on the Boulevard is a neighborhood event that showcases Springfield in a way that is new and innovative, and shows that we have the amenities of a big city.” In addition to several food trucks, the meet-up offers music, beer, shopping and tables to enjoy the evening. It’s a gathering place for a diversity of people to visit with neighbors and meet new people, something Davison describes as heartwarming.
The number of food trucks fluctuates between five and seven each month with the last meet-up this year happening on August 9. Brooke, an event attendee, said, “I love that I can walk here, it’s great for the kids, and it’s a fun event to look forward to every month.”
Organizing Bites on the Boulevard is a true community effort with area businesses pitching in to provide tables, restrooms, music and line stanchions, and ACE Bike Shop monitors a bike parking lot so residents can come to the event car-free. The event then gives back to the community through the Clean Up, Green Up grant program which uses funds raised at Bites on the Boulevard for beautification and landscape projects for MacArthur Boulevard businesses.
A new food truck event this year, the Springfield Food Truck Festival, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources taking place on July 23 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, will benefit conservation programs for youth. More than 9,000 people are interested in the event on Facebook, putting an exclamation point on Cooper’s statement that the food truck scene is emphatically here now in Springfield.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.