As a new ordinance could change the way food trucks work, meet some of the city’s mobile chefs
Although it’s a far cry from cities like Portland or Austin, Texas, the food truck culture in Lexington is gaining some legs, or some wheels, in this case.
What was once funnel cakes and hot dogs at fairs and carnivals has turned into gourmet grilled cheeses, butternut squash fritters and a diverse buffet of other foods, representing cuisines from around the world, now becoming more and more visible throughout the city.
But the road to local food trucks’ ability to function in Lexington has been anything but well-paved, as a complex tangle of regulations from numerous city departments makes operating a mobile kitchen difficult – especially if paperwork isn’t your forte.
“I have learned every lesson in this business the hard way,” said Sean Tibbetts, who has operated his food truck, Cluckin Burger, in Lexington for the past two years. Tibbetts is the director of the Blue Grass Food Truck Association, a group consisting of now 12 local food truck operators, which formed a year ago to help mobile food vendors negotiate the bumpy path of legality and maintain a unified voice while lobbying for changes in the law that would make it less onerous to operate.
But not everybody is so keen on the idea of making it easier for food trucks to operate in Lexington, especially in the downtown area, where some restaurant owners maintain that food trucks operating nearby could threaten their businesses, while skirting the sizable investments that brick and mortar establishments have to make to their properties.
Then there are other brick and mortar restaurants, such as Thai Orchid and Glen Creek Brewery, that have gotten into the food truck game. “Some of the restaurants are really embracing the food truck scene and see it as a good opportunity for their restaurant and their brick and mortar operation,” Tibbetts said.
Recently a Food Truck Work Group was formed within the city to hear from food truck operators, brick and mortar restaurant owners, health department officials and other stakeholders. The hopes are to streamline a new ordinance specifically geared toward food trucks that all parties can find, at least somewhat, agreeable before the next outdoor-eating season rolls around.
While most of the push back for food trucks seems to be coming from downtown, Tibbetts says that’s not the only area local food trucks would be interested in posting up.
“Fayette County is a big county, with lots of business districts, lots of parking lots, lots of places that may or may not sale food at certain hours of the day,” Tibbetts said. “That’s what we want to make sure when we’re drafting this ordinance – we’re going to provide to the entire county, not just the downtown district. While downtown seems to be the most contentious and the most vocal, we just want to remember that there’s all kinds of customers all over the city that can be served by this ordinance, and it’s not limited to that two-mile-square radius that is downtown.”
Tibbetts is very encouraged by the headway the food truck industry has been making recently, especially compared to the bleak situation operators faced just over a year ago.
“It’s taken a good year, and we’re still not where we want to be,” Tibbetts said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting really, really close. We’ve got some trucks that are really excited and are trying to make that their business model and are working that industry full-time.”
Meet some of Lexington’s food truck operators and the diverse food they bring to the city’s culinary landscape.
For Sean Tibbetts and his wife, Amanda, the idea for their food truck, Cluckin Burger, started as a “drunken dream,” Tibbetts remembers with a laugh. The couple was vacationing in Jamaica, hanging out on the beach, and developing a severe taste for the island’s ubiquitous cuisine of jerk chicken. When their vacation was over, Sean was so smitten with the chicken, he didn’t want to leave the spicy dish behind.
“I decided I had to figure out how to do that back in the States,” he said.
The process of concocting an authentic jerk sauce back home turned out to be more tedious and time-consuming than expected. It took Tibbetts over three years, and lots of trial and error, to come up with the recipe used for Cluckin Burger’s sandwiches.
“I tortured all of my friends and family at every cookout we went to where I was making all these different kinds of chicken burgers, experimenting with jerk sauces,” he said. “Some of it was way too hot, some of it had no flavor at all.”
To help get the recipe just right, Tibbetts made several additional trips to Jamaica for research and even apprenticed under an island jerk chef.
Tibbetts’ food truck has been in operation for two years (three counting an ill-fated first year that was shanghaied by a dilapidated trailer; since then, the couple has operated out of an old yellow snow cone trailer that has been converted to meet their needs), and during that time the food truck’s menu has grown to include other sandwiches, such as buffalo chicken and chicken cordon bleu.
Cluckin Burger is actually a return to the food industry for Tibbett, who once worked as a local restaurant consultant for 10 years before taking on his full-time job as the IT director for the Army career and alumni program at Fort Knox, and the customer interaction he experiences while operating his food truck is the aspect he finds most rewarding while on his moonlighting gig.
“I love being out and meeting people and talking to people,” he said. “The level of customer interaction there is just unprecedented from any other business I’ve ever been in. There’s just nothing like when somebody tries their first Cluckin Burger and they come back to us two or three times and tell us that it’s just the best burger they’ve ever had.”
Tibbetts likes that sensation and affirmation so much, the ultimate fulfillment for he and his wife’s “drunken dream” is to one day be able to operate Cluckin Burger full-time.
“If we could figure out how to do it, even if it was 80 hours a week, I think we’d still both be in love with it,” he said.
– Robbie Clark
Fork in the Road
Though he once tried (unsuccessfully) to break away from it, Mark Jensen was born into the food industry, with parents who started a family restaurant in Vermont that has now been operating for over 50 years.
“After my mom gave birth and was discharged from the hospital, she was right back on the line – I was a baby in a bus tub bucket on the prep counter in 1964,” he said. “My dad taught me what it meant to work hard and to be in the restaurant business; by the time I got out of high school, I swore up and down I would never ever be cooking again.”
Despite the demands of the industry, Jensen rekindled his love for the line soon after graduating from college, when he scored a job working in the kitchen of Vermont’s Shelburne Farms, a historic landmark, cheese producer and “bastion of organic farming.” The experience and education played no small role in formulating a philosophy about food that Jensen continues to honor, in his catering practice and in his mobile food company, Fork in the Road.
“It really hit home that if you take care with where you get your primary ingredients, and then step back and treat them simply to let them shine, it makes for a great dish,” he said.