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November 2, 2012 at 6:00 AM

New food truck pod creates community

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Tired of chasing food trucks around town? No trucks with temptingly regular stops near your workplace? If you’re downtown, you can now turn to a new pod of trucks setting up shop at Second Avenue and Pike, with up to three trucks at a time slotted for different shifts throughout the day.

For diners, such pods are a way to find a good variety of convenient street eats. (The starting Second and Pike lineup already includes Danielle Custer’s Mobile Monte Cristo, gumbo and jambalaya from Jemil’s Big Easy, “modern Mexican” from Contigo, and much more.) For food truck owners, the pods are a route to new customers. But beyond all that, it’s a bit of community planning at work.

“Our goal is to try to get more people outdoors and to mingle and have a little more life in the city,” said Stewart Chung, an architect who started up the Buns food truck two years ago and oversees a handful of food truck pods around the city, including the new one, using experience from both his main business and the food truck sideline.

“One of the things about urban planning is, you have to give people reasons to be outside…” he said.

“What we study in schools is, in practicality, parking lots are really devastating for citities…kind of hostile spaces” that pedestrians avoid walking through and where drivers have no reason to linger. “Putting food trucks there certainly helps.”

That sense of community works for the truck operators as well.

When Chung got into the business, there were only about 10 trucks in Seattle. “People weren’t really connecting,” he said. “They kind of knew each other, but there wasn’t much association.”

He set up an online forum now used by 74 trucks, with operators chatting together about fixing equipment, finding new locations, figuring out permitting, and other issues that affect them all, “so any newcomers that come along and have the same questions can go to the forums and look up the conversation and have help.”

Organizing pods of trucks (street food king Portland has big collections of permanent ones) seems at first like it might pit trucks against one another. But Chung said it made good business sense.

“Buns can’t rent a spot by ourselves and park there and expect to do well every day,” he said.

“You have to pay for the whole month, basically, and you don’t want to be in one spot every day of the week…even if they love your food, they’re not going to want to have it every day,” he said. Much better to establish a gathering place where customers know they can find your truck once a week or so — and other interesting places the rest of the time.

He agreed to “take the burden as far as signing the lease” for some rental spots in parking lots, which tend to run several thousand dollars per month, then to essentially sublease spots to other trucks (or arrange to collect payments and pass them on to the property owner). Buns employee Amy Novak does the scheduling, tries to balance the mix of foods, and handles the business end. Not all the locations have worked out — an Interbay location, for instance, didn’t draw enough customers to keep it going, nor did a pod downtown at Second and Pine. (It seems odd to start up a new pod a block away from a failed one, but Chung noted that individual trucks have done well at Second and Pike.)

“It’s not a revenue stream for us, and it’s not a business model, but it benefits everybody.”

Interested? Besides the new downtown lot (check the schedule for details — I see one truck scheduled as early as Friday, but the bulk are coming later), Chung and Novak operate a big pod in South Lake Union and a smaller one in Wallingford. For a great guide to finding food trucks all around town (whether affiliated with Chung’s pods or not), check out SeattleFoodTruck.com for a well-organized and up-to-date guide.

Photo-illustration courtesy of 2ndandPikeeats.com

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