Baltimore County is 'wide open' territory for food trucks and entrepreneurs

Keva Andrews doesn't cook dinner for her family on Wednesdays anymore.

For the last month, Andrews, a 45-year-old hospital billing specialist, has been buying dinner from one of the food trucks stationed around the perimeter of an Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department parking lot.

She starts at the Greek on the Street truck, where she gets five orders of lamb chops for herself, her mother, daughter, brother and nephew. The family then circles around the other trucks for more dishes and desserts.

"This is definitely nice," she said.

Andrews was among the customers at a recent "Food Truck Wednesdays," a weekly event organized by Crofton-based H2 Markets, during a time of growing visibility and popularity for food trucks.

Dave Pulford, president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association, said membership has nearly tripled, to about 60 trucks, in the last three years. Television shows such as "The Great Food Truck Race" on Food Network, and the movie "Chef," have boosted popularity.

For the owners, starting a food truck is generally less expensive than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Pulford said.

And there are diverse cuisines — including Indian, Greek, Korean and Italian.

"The majority of trucks aren't selling hot dogs and hamburgers," Pulford said.

Food Truck Wednesdays has averaged 700 to 800 visitors a week since it started in March, said H2 Markets owner Chad Houck. As many as 1,700 people were on hand the second week of the event. The figures are based on the number of cars that park, people who sit and dine in the fire hall and customers each truck serves, Houck said.

"I like the fact they're in one location," said Brian Beall, a 43-year-old police officer from Arbutus. He ordered a gyro from Greek on the Street, while his 5-year-old daughter, Anna, got pasta bolognese from Pasta La Vista Baby.

Prices in the Arbutus lot are varied. A pulled pork or chicken sandwich from Kommie Pig costs $8, or $12 with two sides. A 5-ounce crab cake from Jimmy's Famous Seafood is $13, while the 8-ounce portion is $20. A 6-inch funnel cake is $6 from Funnel Fare.

Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said she was approached by Houck about bringing a similar event to Catonsville, but they couldn't find a large enough staging area.

"That's a large parking lot in Arbutus," she said. "We just don't have that area here, currently."

She said the need for food trucks in Catonsville would depend on what the vendors offered.

"We have such a wonderful variety of restaurants already, I'm not sure there's a need for a food truck to set up," she said. "We really do have something for everybody."

In Arbutus, Vince Barnadae, a produce manager at a Giant grocery from Catonsville, said he wants to see more food trucks in the area, though he's not sure how well they would fare on Catonsville street corners because of established restaurants.

As his family scouted the parking lot for their dinners, Barnadae, 52, ordered jumbo shrimp and hush puppies from the London Chippy truck.

"I don't eat fast food, but this is good food and fast," he said.

Baltimore County says there are 109 mobile food units registered with the county; it doesn't break down the number of trucks vs. carts and past year numbers aren't available, said Monique Lyle, a spokeswoman for the county health department.

Food trucks must comply with review and inspection parameters, such as the menu, types of food preparation and equipment, Lyle said. Trucks are inspected between three times per year and at least once every two years.

The owner of Jurasic Pork, Tony Harrison, said oversight is a good thing. To do business in Baltimore County, he said he had to install a fire suppression system and new three-compartment sinks in his truck. He has set up in Catonsville for about two months.

"From my experience in Catonsville, it's a tight ship," he said. "People can count on quality food."

He believes Catonsville has become a quality food-oriented place in recent years, as more "foodies" have moved into town.

"An elevated product that's original can do well," he said.

Cary said chamber of commerce members have yet to express enthusiasm or any issues with the presence of a food truck on Frederick Road, a thoroughfare with independently owned restaurants and few chains.

"Small restaurants are always concerned about competition," she said. "Can they look past that fear and look at it as a positive thing that would bring more people to Catonsville? I don't know."

Truck owners say while the Arbutus event has been a hit, there aren't many other day-to-day opportunities, such as driving to a large office park or an intersection with heavy foot traffic, in Catonsville and Arbutus.

Rosa Gargano, who has owned food trucks for two years, including Wanna Pizza This and Pasta La Vista Baby, said she primarily takes the trucks to Anne Arundel and Howard counties and Baltimore City.

She said Food Truck Wednesday has been "a great experience" and she enjoys the family friendly atmosphere of Arbutus.

Some have decided to keep their trucks in park, rather than drive, more often.

Stephanie Greco and her husband, Dominick, started Get Food Go in August 2013 at the Halethorpe MARC commuter rail station. The truck, which offered breakfast during the morning commute hours, lasted about five months, she said.

"Nobody would change their routines," she said. "It just wasn't worth it for us."

The following spring, Greco brought her truck to Heavy Seas brewery for its new taproom. After regularly parking there, Greco was asked if she could build a new truck that would serve pizza and pretzels. The Grecos built the bus, known as Pieces of Eight, to exclusively operate at Heavy Seas.

As the bus was gaining popularity and taking up resources, the Grecos decommissioned the Get Food Go late last year.

She said she doesn't miss being on the street.

"Sales are consistent," she said about the bus at the brewery. "Out on the street, you could have a bad day or pick a wrong spot you think is banging and do hardly anything."

When Mark Wieland started his portable business, Wieland's Barbeque, in April 2016, his goal was simply to stay in business after a year. The fact that he grossed about $200,000 in revenue was beyond his expectations.

When he wasn't moving from place to place, he set up shop outside a storefront along Frederick Road that later became Rooster & Hen Market.

After two months, he expanded his weekly Sunday operation to a second day, Wednesday. In early May, he added a third day.

Wieland noticed he wasn't always successful when he was on the road. He said many customers who weren't familiar with what he did were either too timid to give his $10 and $11 sandwiches a try or would ask for menu items he didn't have, such as french fries or cotton candy.

Last year, he took part in Frederick Road Fridays, a weekly community gathering sponsored by the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, but he said the experience was hit or miss. He'd have to cook ahead of time to prepare to feed a large crowd, but on days when the weather or the entertainment were bad, he'd leave breaking even or losing money.

This year, he decided not to take part in Frederick Road Fridays. His newly established third day of operation at his storefront is Friday.

As he reflected on his first year in business, he thought he'd be traveling more often, but he says it's been better to present his business as a brick and mortar spot. He said he'll occasionally take his truck to scheduled events, but he'll rely on staying put for income.

"I think of it more as a restaurant jacked up and has wheels on the bottom," he said. "We can cruise it around, but basically it's staying."

Wieland said he was asked about taking part in Food Truck Wednesdays, but he declined because Wednesday is a day he's at his storefront.

"If it was Tuesday or Thursday, I'd love to do it," he said.

Despite his struggles on the road, he believes Catonsville is a good spot for food trucks. One truck he has seen make local appearances is Jurasic Pork.

"I'd rather see a taco truck than another barbecue truck, but that's his business," Wieland said.

Harrison, who lives in Catonsville and has worked on food trucks since 2002, said he wouldn't operate his truck on Wednesdays or Sundays in Catonsville, as not to "mess [Wieland] up."

Finding spots to take the truck in Catonsville has been trial and error for Harrison. On a recent Friday, he parked on Frederick Road, in front of Salem Lutheran Church, with the hopes of getting about 50 customers.

He said he enjoys seeing the immediate reaction of giving food to patrons, compared to when he owned a restaurant and had to be more behind the scenes.

Baltimore County law says he has to be parked at least 200 feet away from a restaurant, but he's not intimidated by parking his truck near them.

"I like the competition," he said. "If you're really that worried, make your food better."

Mehr Lamba, a 22-year-old student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studying social work, was excited to have the truck located within walking distance of Pottery Cove, the Catonsville shop where she works.

While she said she was excited to see the truck there and wants more trucks to come by, she doesn't know if Frederick Road, the neighborhood's main corridor, would be big enough for more than one to be parked.

"I just think they're awesome," she said. "They're a little bit like a local business, but they drive places so I'm down for that, but it doesn't feel open enough to have food trucks.

But Pulford, of the food truck trade group, said there's potential in Baltimore County for growth, as he believes Baltimore City has made it more restrictive for food trucks to operate in recent years. As a result, owners began looking toward the suburbs, including Owings Mills, Columbia and Anne Arundel County, to conduct business, he said.

A bill was approved by the state legislature in April that allows for a licensed food truck to obtain a reciprocity license for counties within 90 miles of where the truck is based, meaning a truck licensed in Baltimore City can operate in Baltimore County by simply paying a fee, submitting a form and following the rules.

"That county's wide open to us," Pulford said. "As long as they're licensed."

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
66°