When Christian Faulconer opened a Sweeto Burrito in Provo last summer, he joined a very short list — basically, a handful — of food trucks in the area.
Now less than a year later, Provo’s food truck landscape has changed drastically. The Provo Food Truck Roundup, at the Startup Building parking lot in South Provo, drew a dozen local vendors and hundreds upon hundreds of patrons this past Thursday evening.
The people have spoken, and they want food trucks.
Primed to blossom
“The consumers have been excited about it,” Faulconer said. “Most of the local governments have been open to it. When you compare that to what I’ve read about in other cities — there are exceptions — but Provo and Utah County is right up there. Provo specifically is really at the forefront. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say even nationally, we’re in the top tier of food truck communities.”
Bold words, especially for a food truck community that was practically nonexistent a few months ago. But considering the number of food trucks in the area — at least 20, according to Faulconer — it’s remarkably robust per capita. The fact that this boom happened during Utah Valley’s long and rather harsh winter makes it even more intriguing.
The Roundup, for example, started this past December. There were only a couple food trucks at first, and a modest turnout of a few hundred people over the course of the night. Anders Taylor, who helps manage the Startup Building, is one of the event’s co-founders, along with Faulconer. The Startup Building hosts wedding receptions and other events, which would occasionally incorporate food trucks. Taylor had seen food truck roundups in his hometown of San Francisco, and thought a similar event at the Startup Building would be good for everyone involved.
“It just kind of turned into something that was mutually beneficial,” Taylor said. “It was good for us, because we could get more people into the Startup Building and let them see what was going on, and it’s good for the food trucks because in the winter time it’s nice that they have a place inside that people can eat.”
As mentioned, the event’s popularity quickly ballooned. Taylor said the growth has been pretty organic: The event does a little marketing through social media, but word of mouth has been the driving force. For people to visit the roundup, though, there has to be food trucks, and local entrepreneurs have met the demand. Why here, and why now? According to Taylor, it’s a perfect matching of marketing techniques and consumer habits.
“A lot of these food trucks, they advertise pretty much exclusively through Instagram and Facebook,” he said. “I think Provo is a pretty young community and you have a lot of students and a lot of tech-savvy people. So I think food trucks can be pretty successful here.”
While the roundup has helped grow this niche, it’s only a part of the picture — these vendors get business all week at a variety of locations. Sam Schultz, who owns Sammy’s restaurant in downtown Provo, also consults The Mousetrap Truck, a new food truck that serves gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. He said the freedoms of a food truck probably attract entrepreneurs that might not be interested in running a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“There are pros and cons,” Schultz said. “Having a food truck definitely lowers your overhead. You don’t have rent, unless you carry a loan on the truck. With a restaurant, you have to be open at a certain time at the same location every day. You don’t know how many people are going to show up. With a food truck, you can take a restaurant anywhere that has lots of traffic, and you can hopefully make a lot of money.”
Food trucks can set up shop in places underserved by restaurants, such as business parks or special events. The mobility helps, but it brings a host of challenges, too. The confines of a truck require a separate commissary for food storage and preparation. Then there are the cold and long winter months, when people aren’t as willing to wait outside for their food.
“I think sometimes people get the mistaken impression that it’s actually really easy, when it’s quite a bit of work,” Faulconer explained. “You get the idea that food magically appears and dishes magically get washed, and that all of the hygiene standards are magically met. In order to do all that, which we do, it takes a tremendous amount of planning and effort.”
Not without opposition
This growth of Provo’s food truck scene has undoubtedly been exciting for those involved. Faulconer said Provo’s food truck owners have fostered a “collegial atmosphere” among themselves, offering tips, support and encouragement. The Roundup’s success, he explained, made the food trucks' owners realize how much more they could sell together than apart. Owners of downtown Provo’s brick-and-mortar restaurants, however, generally don’t share the same enthusiasm. Far from it.
Faulconer said many downtown restaurant owners have pushed against this trend. Provo’s city government has made considerable and well-publicized efforts to revitalize downtown, and a lot of these restaurant owners think food trucks are undermining that by drawing people elsewhere.
“I think largely that’s driven by fear and misunderstanding,” Faulconer said. “There are times when if I’m out with my wife, I’d much rather try to sit down and have a full-service dining experience over a truck. And there are times when I want to grab a burrito in a tin foil wrapper and go. They’re rarely competitive.”
The key to reconciliation, Faulconer said, is both sides realizing how they can help one another.
“I think sometimes we have this idea that we’re all fighting for the $18 in one dude’s wallet. And it’s just not the case,” he said. “What we should all be trying to do is bring more and more people downtown so that they’re all bringing their $18. I don’t want to be fighting anybody over one dude’s $18. What I want to do is work together to bring a thousand people downtown. To bring 3,000 people downtown. To bring 10,000 people downtown. Let’s have them all spend their money down here on things they enjoy.”
For now, people are turning out in droves for these new food trucks. But will it always be that way? As for the food trucks’ collective trajectory, opinions vary. Faulconer thinks the local industry will continue to experience growth through this summer, and possibly through the rest of the year, then taper slightly as some vendors discover just how difficult it really is. Schultz and Taylor, though, were a little more generous in their forecasts. Regardless of what happens, Taylor said the roundup and other events like it reveal a changing community — one that desires interconnectivity more than it used to.
“When I went to BYU, I spent a lot of time on campus and my apartment, going to different things. But I don’t think I met a lot of people outside the BYU community,” Taylor said. “But now I just live in Provo and I’m getting introduced to the Provo community. I feel like Provo’s a lot cooler than I thought it was. And I think the Roundup and the Rooftop Concert Series, and all these things that are going on, are great ways to meld students and the city together.”