When was the last time you saw a Furby? How about someone rocking a Justin Bieber haircut, or wearing Google Glass?
It’s been a while, right?
These were all trends that had their day. They all blew up, touched our lives for months, maybe even years, before fading back into the obscurity of memory and VH1 specials.
Now, when was the last time you saw a food truck in Baton Rouge?
It probably wasn’t so long ago. Maybe you were stumbling out of your favorite bar, only to find some angelic presence leaning out of the side of a truck, offering a heaping serving of cheese fries or nachos. Or you may have been out in downtown Baton Rouge on your lunch break, where you and a hundred other hungry worker bees braved the Louisiana sun for a plate of slow-cooked barbecue.
Food trucks were supposed to be another trend, like acid-washed jeans and boy bands, that pop up every now and again and later on are remembered as a marker of a period gone by.
But in Baton Rouge, at least, that’s not happening. Food trucks are sticking around, finding new ways to make themselves relevant in a city that wants to view itself as modern but remains resistant to change.
Nationwide, the origins of the food truck trend are hard to pin down. New York and Los Angeles can each lay claim to be the starting point—L.A.’s Kogi sparked a movement in the early 2010s with its Korean fusion menu, while New York’s tradition of hot dogs and Middle Eastern food served from carts on street corners is also owed plenty of credit. But whatever the beginnings, food trucks became a cultural phenomenon around 2011, when brightly-colored trucks began serving up hot meals — often with the help of social media
—in cities all around the country.
Mark Zweig, owner of Baton Rouge’s Ninja Snowballs, said that’s when the food truck craze hit the capital city, too. He didn’t own the truck then; Ninja Snowballs, along with fellow Baton Rouge food truck mainstay Taco De Paco, were founded by entrepreneurs Jared Loftus, John Snow and Josh Ford, he said. The two trucks, supposedly the first ever running in Baton Rouge, have passed through a number of owners since then, but the food truck scene has grown into a burgeoning community around them. At least 15 vendors now sell a variety of cuisines to sidewalk customers across the city.
What has allowed food trucks to survive and thrive where other ill-fated trends haven’t? Taco De Paco owner Jeff Landry said the answer is down to the flexibility and mobility trucks grant to business owners.
“We can accommodate anyone and everyone, any day of the week,” Landry said.
Working at an outdoor movie screening for families, Landry served his basic menu — nachos, tacos and burritos topped with chicken, beef or fish. But he explained that at the private functions that make up much of his business, he is open to expanding his menu to fit in more exotic options. A local television personality whose party Landry was catering requested grilled lamb, ahi tuna and steak tacos, Landry said.
And the small size of his operation compared to a traditional restaurant keeps things fresh. Landry said he usually picks his ingredients up, day-of, at grocery stores or big-box retailers, avoiding the wholesale suppliers most restaurants use for their staples.
“Every week is different,” Landry said. “It keeps me on my toes, but it’s been a fun endeavor.”
If he sounds relaxed, it’s because he’s finding running a food truck less stressful than his last job, where he was the head chef and operator of a full-service Italian restaurant in Sandestin, Florida. He returned to Baton Rouge, having graduated from college and culinary school here, to live closer to his mother after she became ill.
He now takes his show on the road wherever it’s wanted, which can lead to a wide range of venues. Taco De Paco can usually be found outside The Radio Bar on Government Street at least once a week, but that’s as close as it comes to a regular gig. In June alone, the truck catered weddings and charity events before a weekend-long residency at the 13th Gate haunted house.
But for some of Baton Rouge’s food trucks, their regular schedule is their bread and butter.
TaylorMade Concessions is one of several trucks that can be found downtown almost every weekday, catering to hungry office workers. Like a few of the others that line up on North Street, TaylorMade serves up barbecue and Southern classics like rice and beans with cornbread, but relies on a constantly rotating menu and a strong social media presence to keep customers coming back.
Owner Rivers Taylor posts a montage of all of the day’s offerings on the truck’s Instagram account hours before it arrives, drumming up anticipation before the breakfast rush. His is the only truck on the block that serves breakfast, he noted proudly, and loyal customers swear by the chicken and waffles.
Further down the street, Port Allen barbecue restaurant Cou-Yon’s runs a trailer that reliably draws the longest lines come lunchtime. It’s one of a few trucks in Baton Rouge that use an already-established brand to draw customers — Cupcake Allie and Kolache Kitchen also rent out mobile kitchens.
Krystal Coon, one of the truck’s operators, said they get the same downtown foot traffic as other trucks, but the Cou-Yon’s name alone brings in customers.
“Yeah, we get people from the office buildings around here, but people come from all over Baton Rouge so they don’t have to fight the bridge.”
In an industry that gives businesses flexibility to avoid the problems of their traditional competitors, it seems fitting that a food truck made Baton Rouge’s infamous traffic work for it. But that’s just one other way they’re bucking trends.
Photos by Emily Brauner and Greta Jines.