What do food trucks and art have in common? In Tucson, as it turns out, quite a lot.
Although art may not be the first word that comes to mind when you come across the Tucson Food Truck Roundup, David Aguirre, director of the roundups, says that the whole event emerged out of a love of art. It all started when the grant funding for the nonprofit Dinnerware Art Space, which promotes contemporary visual arts in southern Arizona, ran dry. Inspired by the food truck roundups sweeping across the nation and determined to keep the art space alive, Aguirre devised a new plan: Organize food truck roundups at places and events that promise to draw a crowd and ask for a percentage of each food truck’s profits to keep Dinnerware’s doors open.
The rules of participation are simple: Any truck in the roundup must be locally owned, noncorporate, and must agree to donate a percentage of its profits (calculated based on an honor system) to the Dinnerware Art Space. In exchange, Aguirre scopes out potential roundup sites, generates buzz on Facebook for each event, and navigates the sometimes delicate relationships with venue owners, other nearby food businesses, and neighbors. As one roundup-goer said, “It’s like a rolling food court in the neighborhood.” Another seasoned attendee said, “I tend to follow the food truck round-ups wherever I know they are going to be. It makes for a more entertaining dining experience with so much variety and the freedom to select whatever you want to eat.”
With nearly 16,000 Facebook fans and new roundup events popping up each week, Aguirre’s plan has generated a veritable food truck revolution in Tucson. Pima County is currently tied with Los Angeles for the number of mobile food businesses per capita, with roughly one vehicle for every 1,000 residents. And although “dogero” push carts and mobile food vendors have long been a part of Pima County’s foodscape, serving cheap fast food to blue- and white-collar workers alike, the roundups have taken Tucson’s food truck culture to a whole other level. As Aguirre testifies, there is something special about taking a dismal place such as the lackluster parking lot at the corner of Stone and Toole Avenues downtown, transforming it into somewhere people want to be, and then just hours later, like magic, letting it disappear once more, returning the parking lot back to its dusty solitude.
Think food trucks are for just hot dogs or tacos? The 20-some mobile food vendors that gather at the roundups offer menus as varied as the colorful trucks themselves. Mafooco offers Mexican Asian fare (famous for their kimchee quesadillas); Hellfire Pizza Co. spins “punk rock pizza”; Seis Curbside Kitchen draws inspiration from each of Mexico’s six culinary regions; Twisted Tandoor sells Indian cuisine with a twist; Kadooks presents Costa Rican fusion; Pin-up Pastries pleases the sweet tooth with homemade whoopie pies. Most of the food trucks are family businesses, run by husband-wife teams, father and sons, or mother and daughters.
One chef took up the mobile food business after the 2008 economic crisis left him without a job. He now runs his truck with the help of his father and says, “I don’t mind the competition with the other trucks. I designed my menu to be different and besides, the round-up brings more customers to my window.” Indeed, this rolling business is thriving: In just a few hours at a Himmel Park roundup on Sunday, his truck sold over 400 tacos and an untold number of sandwiches.
While food trucks in general offer an attractive way to become food entrepreneurs without the overhead or employees of a landlocked restaurant, the roundups are a critical boon to these independent mobile chefs. Although the work is not easy, the mobile kitchens allow owners to craft their menus as they please, attend the events they choose, and take the time to greet and converse with their customers. Still, it is a “feast or famine” business, one that requires making calculated bets on how much food to prepare and when to show up. While some vendors stay afloat through the roundups alone, others rely on at least one family member with a day job to maintain a basic lifeline of insurance and income.
Beyond just offering a huge variety of sweet and savory dishes, the food truck roundups have proven to be a useful conduit for generating positive changes that ripple throughout the community. Earlier this year, for example, the Humane Society hosted a Food Truck Roundup as part of an effort to place 72 cats in new homes. Within three hours, all of the cats had been adopted, plenty of food sold, and they were able to cancel the second day of the event.
While many of the mobile chefs may source their ingredients at transnational superstores and the events generate their fair share of trash, Aguirre is determined to continue expanding the innovative and “green” aspects of the roundups. This fall, for example, in collaboration with the Community Gardens of Tucson, they will hold their first “Neighborhood Chef” event in which the food truck chefs will prepare meals using items directly from the community gardens, making the total distance between the farm and table all of 50 feet.
In a sense, the roundups function as a new kind of “alternative food network” in Tucson, generating a critical mass of consumers and providing a network of mutual support that allows for a very different kind of eating experience, one that is eclectic, casual, and socially dynamic.
Almost two years after the first event, business is booming for the Tucson Food Truck Roundup, so much so, says Aguirre, that “the question is no longer ‘How is Dinnerware going to pay the rent?’ but rather ‘How am I going to find the time to put on another exhibit?’”
For more information, visit TucsonFoodTruckRoundup.com or follow the roundup on Facebook. ✜
Laurel Bellante is a Ph.D. student in geography at the UA where she studies the foodways and agrarian changes across the U.S.-Mexico border.