Reluctance to be first makes food trucks no shows for now

December 4, 2011


Monique Davis, who doubles as owner and chef of Lumpkins Barbeque on Raymond Road, thought about taking her barbecue and Southern cuisine on the road after the Jackson City Council gave the green light for food trucks to operate in the city.

But she’s doing what it seems other potential food truck operators are also doing: waiting for others to go first.

“I’m going to let someone else put their feet in the water first,” said Davis, whose barbecue brisket has a substantial following around Jackson.

Ward 1 council member Quentin Whitwell put a lot of time and effort into crafting the food truck ordinance and getting it a stamp of approval from fellow council members in late summer. He envisioned up-and-coming chefs and area entrepreneurs lining up for permits and hitting the road, just as has happened in cities around the country, most notably Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, and Tampa.

“We need some people to just get out there and do it,” Whitwell said in a late November interview.

Be patient; the trucks will show once the warm weather of spring arrives, predicted Ben Allen, executive director of Downtown Jackson Partners, a public-private marketing arm for downtown.

Chef Tom Ramsey expects one of the first truck-side food vendors to crank up will be Sid Scott and his Gringos Tacos & Tortas. Ramsey, chef at Underground 119 in downtown Jackson and owner of a catering business, has worked with Scott on a menu of Mexican favorites made with all fresh ingredients and is helping him develop an overall concept.

“The plan is solid,” said Ramsey, who also does private cooking instruction.

Scott, whose background is in marketing and advertising, has been seeking start-up capital. “He is raising money for the truck,” Ramsey said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of money but it takes enough that a lot of investors do not want to be the first.”

Ramsey estimates the total start-up cost at about $75,000, with half of that amount going for the truck, cooking equipment and generator and the remainder for inventory, signage, working capital and insurance.

Of course, you can take a less expensive approach, he said. “If you want to bootstrap one all you need is a truck and a day’s worth of inventory.”

But that inventory better be styled to meet the tastes of discerning customers, Ramsey noted. “The trend is to take fresh made food that is simple but delicious. Customers are accustomed to getting good food now.”

Ramsey is betting that if Scott is the first to put a truck on the street, others will join him in quick order. “I think once the pioneers move in, everyone follows.”

That could be true for Davis of Lumpkins Barbeque. “I just didn’t have the time and energy to be the first,” she said.

A key concern, she added, is securing a location with sufficient foot traffic. She is not sure one exists. “Jackson is not the most pedestrian-friendly city,“ Davis said.

Ramsey said he thinks downtown’s Smith Park, sandwiched between Congress and West streets, provides the best opportunity for attracting hungry walkers. “I think Smith Park is the best place. It is really nice that there is a place to walk up to” the truck “and then have a place to sit.”

Fred Garrot, the first business person to get a food vendor permit under the new ordinance, likes Smith Park as well. He plans to deploy a single cart there stocked with gourmet hotdogs and 20 different condiments as a way to raise money for the Animal Rescue League.

But he doesn’t want to share the park with members of the Occupy Jackson protest movement who say they plan to maintain a presence in the park and on the Congress Street sidewalk until at least Dec. 26.

Garrot, owner of Casual Catering LLC, said he is using his time until then to wind down some of his other businesses. “I’m really looking forward to January,” he said.

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