Food Truck Roundups are an Expanding Tucson Sensation

March 7, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Back in November, David Aguirre tried out a culinary arts experiment. What would happen if you collected a half dozen food trucks on the tiny dirt parking lot outside Dinnerware Artspace, 119 East Toole Avenue?

Food Truck Roundups fill the entire Benjamin Plumbing parking lot.

This would happen on a Monday evening, a time when Toole is not exactly jam packed. Promotion for this so-named Food Truck Roundup was almost entirely by Facebook.

Would anybody show up?

What happened was some 500 people crowded the Dinnerware premises inside and out during the course of the evening, and several food trucks ran out of food with an hour still to go.

An instant phenomenon was born in Tucson, joining the original gourmet food truck phenomenon sparked in Los Angeles in 2008, and since inspiring food truck pods in Portland, Oregon. New food truck clusters have sprouted in several other cities, including Boston, St. Louis and Minneapolis. There is a Philadelphia Mobile Food Association.

In Tucson, six trucks grew to 13 trucks and then 27 trucks in barely two months. Many of these food trucks were younger than the Food Truck Roundups – mainly because mobile chefs scout out Roundups before showing up the next time with their newly outfitted truck.

Each Roundup has a few new trucks making their maiden voyages with a massive crowd. At the same time, Aguirre quickly started getting calls from folks wanting to bring the food truck circus to their parking lot.

Bookmans Entertainment Exchange has staged a roundup on its own. Aguirre right now is collaborating with the Tucson Museum of Art to bring a half dozen trucks to the Artisans Market on March 16, 17, and 18, and Tower Theatres at Arizona Pavilions in Marana put on its first two roundups on February 6 and March 5. Some 1,000 northwest siders showed up March 5.

Food Truck Roundups are catching on at Tower Theatres too.

“Marana doesn’t get much, but I’ve got this huge parking lot,” said Pattie Thomas, executive assistant at Tower Theatres. “I love the way it makes our parking lot come alive. I was hoping to make it a dinner and a movie. We give discount movie tickets, and you can bring your food truck purchase into the theater.”

Megan Craine, special events and membership manager at the Tucson Museum of Art, tracked down Aguirre to stage a mini-roundup for the upcoming Artisan Market.

“We needed food for the Artisans Market,” Craine said. “Why not bring in food trucks? They’ve got a great following.”

TMA has space for only six trucks. Aguirre thinks he may rotate in different trucks on different days.

Aguirre welcomes these evolving expressions of the mobile culinary arts scene. And, yes, he firmly classifies it as culinary arts, and the truck bosses proudly refer to themselves as chefs, rightly so, as the food quality easily matches any restaurant in town.

“I’ve been asking myself ‘What’s the opposite of the Roundup?’ That would be a single truck in a neighborhood space,” said Aguirre, Dinnerware’s long-time executive director. “Why? Because I need to explore one end to the other. The middle is the Artisan Market, six trucks over multiple days.”

Thus was born the Neighborhood Chef one-truck event on March 1 at the historic Ralph’s Service Station in the Armory Park Neighborhood. Jamie’s Bitchen Kitchen ran out of food – and she’s a Roundup veteran since the beginning and knows how to stock her truck.

Aguirre was as much surprised with the success of the one-truck event in Armory Park as he was with the first Roundup.

“I heard this a lot: ‘I haven’t seen you in ages,’” Aguirre said about neighbors coming together. “This was like coming to the kitchen. They would text someone and someone else would come.”

Aguirre wants to do a second Neighborhood Chef event later in March in Barrio Viejo at the community garden at 7th Avenue and 19th Street. The chosen truck may be asked to incorporate produce from the community garden.

Aguirre collaborated with graphic artist Julie Ray for more than a year to develop the Roundup concept. Ray launched a Tucson Food Trucks Facebook page and asked for food trucks and people to show up for a roundup.

Tucson Food Truck Roundups started on November 14 with six trucks at Dinnerware Artspace with two more Roundups in rapid succession on December 5 and 20 with about 13 trucks. The Roundups moved to the Benjamin Plumbing Supply parking lot on January 9 with about 20 trucks, growing to 27 trucks for January 29 with a similar number on February 19.

The Downtown turnout has swelled to some 1,200 to 1,300 foodies each time. The next full roundup at Benjamin Plumbing is on April 1.

“Last night somebody used the phrase ‘roach coach’ with me,” Aguirre said. “There are no more roach coaches. This is a change that is happening. It’s become trendy. The food has gotten so much better. Now it’s gourmet food, more health conscious food is available.”

Food trucks have been around forever in many big cities, including the ubiquitous Sonoran hot dog and taco trucks pitching camp along Tucson’s streets, or “out on the prairie,” in Aguirre’s words.

Food trucks across the country in the past two years have triggered quite the media buzz. Just this month, Pultizer Prize winning Los Angeles-based food journalist Jonathan Gold wrote about food trucks in Smithsonian magazine.

This modern, gourmet food truck craze stems from a single truck in Los Angeles: Kogi Korean BBQ To Go, launched in 2008 with a Twitter feed announcing its location of the moment. By early 2009, Kogi had become a media sensation.

“The food-truck phenomenon exploded in cities across the United States last year thanks largely to the success of Kogi,” Gold wrote. “His success has inspired fleets of similar trucks, with followings for their sushi, dim sum, Brazilian barbecue, Greek sausages, red velvet pancakes, Vietnamese sandwiches, cupcakes, Indian dosas, Filipino halo-halo, Texas barbecue and any of a hundred other things… Who knew that the cult of tacos al pastor would become a nationwide sensation?”

A similar variety exists in Tucson, including German sausages, Vietnamese sandwiches, pizza, several variants of barbecue, cupcakes, pastries and Planet of the Crepes – the truck behind the Roundup’s road trips to Marana.

“It’s a funny story,” said Thomas at Tower Theatres. “At least I think it’s funny. My husband and I wanted to eat out one day. We didn’t like the restaurant we went to. We went to Yelp. I found Planet of the Crepes. I love crepes. I found out they were a food truck.”

The Thomases tracked Planet of the Crepes down at a Food Truck Roundup in December, and six weeks later had the Roundup in Marana.

“We went down and checked it out and had a blast,” Thomas said. “This is so much fun.”

Most of these food trucks have staked out feeding grounds around the city to serve diners beyond the Roundups, but the Food Truck Roundups have become the biggest income source of the month for many.

Aguirre is working toward creating a structured calendar of food truck events so that these mobile chefs can have a reliable income point each month.

Which brings up the question: What about summer?

Don’t even think that Food Truck Roundups will fold up tents for summer. Aguirre’s imagination is already at work.

“So far we’ve done only one meal,” Aguirre said. “Let’s shift this. We might do breakfast events. For me, when summer comes, ‘Oh, good, now we can have some fun.’ I’ll come up with new events.”

Aguirre moved Dinnerware Artspace out of 119 East Toole in December. Right now, he’s looking for yet another home for the vagabond Dinnerware.

In the mean time, the Food Truck Roundups are his pet project.

“I’m just doing what I’ve always done,” Aguirre said. “I’m just doing what I think needs to be done. Those chefs are culinary artists. I just help them find a way to show their stuff. That’s what the roundup is: an art gallery. What I do is exhibitions. The Roundups all have exhibitions titles. Nobody else in the country is doing that.”