CASPER, Wyo. — Cars filled the parking lot and overflowed onto both sides of West Yellowstone Highway for the food trucks parked at the Tate Pumphouse in Casper. Generators hummed as people lined up for dinner — fish and chips, fry bread tacos, Mexican food, pulled pork, Philly steak sandwiches, — at Food Truck Friday.
Once a novelty, food trucks have become a staple for many Wyoming public events. They can be found on the green grass of Lander’s city park at the annual beer festival, gathered for Buffalo’s Longmire Days and parked throughout downtown Casper during the city’s summer art walks.
What may have seemed like a passing fad is now a $1 billion nationwide industry that continues to grow every year. Multiple cities claim to be the birthplace of the modern American food truck. The movement has inspired books, apps, a Hollywood movie and more than 4,000 business owners to take to the road.
About 250 mobile food units travel throughout Wyoming, including traditional food trucks as well as businesses like shaved ice carts, said Derek Grant, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. Numbers aren’t available to compare across years because of changes in the tracking method, he said. Anecdotally, however, he said he’s seen more food trucks in recent years, including a monthly food truck event in the Cheyenne Depot plaza.
In Casper, a total of 25 mobile food units roam, up from 16 units two years ago, according to the Casper-Natrona County Health Department.
Now, the trucks even have their own event. For a second summer, Food Truck Friday continues to be a hit, as long as there’s good weather, said Angela Emery, executive director of the Platte River Trails Trust, which organizes the monthly event.
People have responded “overwhelmingly,” she said.
“It’s like economics 101, I guess,” she said. “If you have the crowd, the businesses will spring up.”
MORE PLACES TO ROAM
Several of the vendors and diners at Food Truck Friday agreed they’ve also seen a rise in the number of food truck businesses and a demand for their services.
On the Hook Fish and Chips out of Laramie sold out about halfway through the evening. Co-owners Hunter Andersen and Ocean Andrew started the business last year.
“It’s just exploded, and we’ve been very blessed with a great success,” Andersen said.
The business peddles wild Alaskan cod caught by Andrew’s father, who captains The Northern Leader, the largest longlining ship in the country, Andersen said. The batter recipe isn’t written down — it’s secret, he added.
Andersen is studying petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming, while Andrew has a degree in energy resource management development. But they’ve put those careers on hold to pursue their business, Andersen said.
They’ve driven their bright blue truck to towns all over Wyoming and as far south as Lone Tree, Colorado, he said. But they make a point to stop in small Wyoming towns.
“We have found great success going to cities and towns where there aren’t any food trucks or very good food,” Andersen said. “When we go down to Denver or Fort Collins, they’ve been exposed a food trucks for a decade, or like really good food trucks. They aren’t nearly as excited about the food truck revolution or and culture as Wyomingites are or other people who live in rural areas and small towns.”
An influx of new outdoor events in Casper has created a number of opportunities for food truck vendors to sell their goods.
Jeremiah Nation, owner of Grill and Chill, said he started his food truck a year and half ago in anticipation of David Street Station, the new downtown plaza scheduled for completion in August. Its builders and supporters expect the space to host a variety of outdoor events.
Arlene Morris, who helps run Casper’s new Lakota Taco truck with some family members, said her sister was eager to open a food truck after watching “The Great Food Truck Race” on Food Network. Morris has also seen the food truck industry grow in Wyoming. In the past, she used to occasionally see food trucks at powwows.
“But now, it’s like a little town of vending trucks when we go there,” she said.
But the food truck business isn’t easy, and Wyoming’s geography and climate adds specific challenges. The season for outdoor events is short, and weather is always unpredictable, vendors said.
Like on a recent Friday, when a sudden summer rainstorm sent the Food Truck Friday crowd dashing toward shelters and some back to their cars.
Philly Steak N’ Company enjoys successful days, but there are also slow days if the event isn’t right, owner Crystal Corson said.
“Some are really good and some are terrible,” she said. “You have to pick and choose the ones that are for you — that they’re looking for that sort of food. Some are just snack-and-go, and there’s others that want a full meal.”
Hours can be long and busy, several vendors said. Andersen said he worked 115 hours last week inside On The Hook.
Mobile kitchen challenges also include extra prep work, needing electricity or a generator and plenty of propane plus a water supply, said Nation of Grill and Chill. Space rental also figures into overhead costs, as well as food that doesn’t sell.
“Sometimes it’s rough,” Nation said. “It’s a hit or miss with events.”
But for Corson, owner of Philly Steak N’ Company, meeting her customers makes the challenges worth it.
She ran a food truck a decade ago out of a restaurant she owned, before starting a family. She started her current mobile venture after she took over the kitchen at The Beacon two years ago. One of the best parts of running a truck is the opportunity to interact directly with her customers, rather than just cooking their order from a ticket in the kitchen, she said.
“Here you associate with everybody,” she said. “I think it’s more personable.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com