Austin's Hottest Startups: Food Trailers, Trucks, and Carts
The mobile food trailer, food truck, and food cart are the new wave of Austin eateries, and they're taking off like gangbusters, accounting for many of the official startups in the Texas capital. According to Tony Yamanaka, who writes the Food Trailers Austin blog, the small town of Austin had a whopping 1,300 mobile food vendors as of September 2010, and it's projected to have 2,000 by the end of this year.
It's an inexpensive alternative to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but it still involves a fair amount of money, responsibility, and headaches. (The Austin Chronicle has a good article about what it takes to set up food trailers and carts in town.) Yamanaka, whose full-time job is marketing coordinator for Austin's Better Business Bureau, tells us about Austin's food trailer scene, how it relates to the SXSW festival, and what it takes for a new mobile food vendor to make it in the city these days.
ISBB: As a blogger, what is your role in Austin's food trailer scene?
Yamanaka: I'm essentially a facilitator for the scene. I help food vendors who are looking for a lot to park in, are throwing an event, want to get the word out about specials, or are looking for a catering gig by promoting them on my site. I also work with the Austin Visitors Bureau, making sure it has posters and flyers that direct people to my website and find food trailers around town, as it's a pretty nomadic scene.
How does Austin's mobile food scene compare to other cities?
Food trailers here are far more eclectic. You could have one devoted to funnel cakes parked next to one devoted to corn dogs and another to doughnuts. People in Austin respond better to niche menus than they do to broad menus serving burgers and tacos and Italian. Also, you get the same food you would at a fancy restaurant but in a casual, more low-key atmosphere that better suits Austin. Like tonight, I could go to the East Side Drive-In, which has eight trailers, TVs with video games, and a bar across the street with live music. Food trailers here are more a destination than just a grab-and-go.
Do Austin's government and small businesses help them out?
The City has listened a lot to the trailers in terms of developing new laws for food preparation and service. The Visitors Bureau is very excited about making the food trailer scene a new tourist attraction, like SXSW or Austin City Limits. As far as businesses, obviously restaurants are not too happy when a food cart plops down next door, and there have been some disputes. But places like bars and beauty salons are happy to let carts park in their lots because it keeps people there.
Food trailers are also getting better at organizing their businesses. They launched the Gypsy Picnic Food Trailer Festival last fall, which had 30 trailers serving $3 servings of their wares, along with live music. They underestimated the number of people who showed up, but it worked well in that it put Austin's food trailers on the map for people who live in the suburbs.
How easy is it these days to launch a mobile food business in Austin?
It's still feasible to launch right now, but you have to have a niche. A new Thai food trailer will have plenty of competition because there are five others already established. But the new trailers I'm seeing now specialize, with a gourmet spin -- corn dogs, chicken and waffles, and ice cream sandwiches. The newest cart I saw offers breakfast sausages coated with different toppings, like pancake batter.
Are food carts getting involved with SXSW?
Yes, definitely. On my blog, I'm listing food trailer locations and events during the festival. I'm also working with an Australian company called iTourU to launch an app at SXSW, a tour of Austin's trailer parks with narration, text and pictures. And food carts are making business deals, too. Friskies, the cat food maker, plans to have 600-pound cheese statues of famous cats at SXSW, and they were looking for a food trailer to team up with. I got them connected to the Short Bus Subs food truck, which is doing a catering event for them. If anything else, SXSW is a lucrative nine days of catering gigs and sales for the food trailer scene.
Photo: Johnce Hall, Mayest Media