Truckin’ along: Charlottesville’s food trucks lead an evolution in catering

A circling of the food wagons happens daily at the UVA Amphitheater. Staff photo A circling of the food wagons happens daily at the UVA Amphitheater. Staff photo

Tracking down all the food trucks and carts trundling about Charlottesville is no easy task. Go ahead and try with your handy dandy Google. You’ll turn up a lot more people trying to find out how many food trucks there are than you will those who have actually accomplished the feat.

Why is it so difficult? First, the city keeps records only alongside all other “active peddlers,” meaning C’ville’s roving food slingers are mixed in with glass blowers, knock-off clothing merchants, musicians and security guards. Betty Graham, one of the city’s conscientious revenue officers, couldn’t think of any other way to get at the number of rolling restos—the data associated with brick and mortar dining rooms don’t take into account their transient counterparts—so we’re stuck with the unwieldy active peddlers list.

Second, there are trucks that aren’t registered with the city. How do they get away with it? They register with the county or solely with the health department, which is allowed for autonomous mobile food service units such as Renard Turner’s Vanguard Ranch truck. “It depends on the set-up,” he said. His truck amounts to a full service restaurant on wheels, which is on a “totally different level.”

Albemarle County senior permit planner Stewart Wright has access to some of the county-registered trucks and trailers, but unfortunately they’re all “lumped into one database” just as they are in city.

What about the health department’s data? Surely they have good numbers on a group of food service vehicles that are often referred to as “roach coaches.” Maybe. But as of press time, they weren’t able to provide it.

At any rate, using C-VILLE Weekly’s internal analysis of the active peddlers who happen to be slinging grub, taken together with the county’s information and other known trucks in town, we arrive at the following final number of confirmed food trucks: 30.

There are some interesting morsels within that number, but first things first: Is that a lot of food trucks? Anecdotally it seems so. The last time C-VILLE Weekly rounded up all the local food trucks, just less than two years ago, the number was about 12. Pedro Serrano, who operates Taqueria Mi Ranchito on weekends, said he’s definitely noticed an increase in competition over the last several years. While he and his partners started out operating seven days a week, these days it’s difficult to find a good spot to set up shop on weekends only.

“There are more trucks now, but we’ve been in the food business for about two years, and we’ll find a way to get it back up and running,” Serrano said.

If he’s right, Charlottesville will have to continue to outpace other food truck markets. While other cities’ numbers aren’t much easier to come by, and differing laws make an apples-to-apples comparison difficult, tracking sites in a few major areas indicate this town has more than its share of trucks. Washington, D.C., boasts 226 rambling roasters, according to FoodTruckFiesta.com, giving it one for every 2,860 people. That’s only half as many per capita as Charlottesville, which has one for every 1,478 folks. Richmond, which doesn’t have a tracking site but does have the Richmond Food Truck Association, seems to have around 36 trucks, give or take. That makes it a lean street food city indeed, with one mobile eatery for every 5,948 eaters.

This volume would seem a potentially bad thing, not only for brick and mortar stores that have to compete with the lower overhead truck market, but also for caterers, as parties more and more rely on food trucks to bring in grub. But Mark Hahn, owner of Harvest Moon Catering, doesn’t think so. Food trucks may cost less to operate, but they’re subject to the same competition as standing restaurants, and only the best, cleanest operations tend to stay on the road.

As for the catering business, Hahn said food trucks have actually been a benefit in his line of work. They offer synergies in festival settings and often win the gigs that catering outfits are priced out of, such as reunions for the younger UVA alumni and late night snacks at weddings.

“I personally love the food trucks,” he said. “A variety of choices is always a good thing.”

No, Hahn didn’t say all catering operations should feel the same way, but he emphasized the expertise of food trucks isn’t necessarily the same as caterers. Where food trucks offer a certain vibe and cool factor, catering companies offer a service beyond making and selling food.

“We’ve seen a lot of positive effects from the growth of the food truck market,” Hahn said.

Food Trucks by the Numbers

Here’s a look at how the active food trucks in town break down.

30 operating trucks

17 percent Dessert

17 percent Fast Food

13 percent Southern

10 percent Tacos

7 percent BBQ

7 percent Gourmet

29 percent All Others

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