The season of food trucks has arrived, and it does so at a time when the motor of the local industry is positively purring.
As of April 24, 594 food trucks were licensed with the city of Denver, officials said, more than triple the 158 trucks on record with the city in 2014. At least 270 trucks have applied for licenses in Denver every year since 2015.
There are many potential reasons these kitchens on wheels are rolling into the summer with such momentum. Denver’s population has grown by more than 100,000 people since 2010. And the city’s easy-to-navigate regulatory structure earned it the No. 2 spot on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s recent “Food Truck Nation” list of most industry-friendly cities.
Civic Center Eats, which brings a food-truck caravan downtown three days a week, returns for a 13th season this week with an expanded rotation. If that doesn’t work for you, hit just about any craft brewery in the metro area on a given night and you’ll find at least one.
For Jorge Dominguez, owner of last year’s Civic Center Eats sales champion, Arepas House, the most tantalizing thing about food trucking is the business model makes money and makes it fast.
“It’s so profitable as a business,” Dominguez said last week in advance of his third Civic Center Eats season. His Venezuelan fare will be available Tuesdays and Thursdays this year. “It’s a business that you don’t need a lot of money to start, but you recover your money so quick.”
Owners can get their trucks started for around $50,000 to $60,000, National Food Truck Association board member John Levy said in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report.
“Owning and operating a food truck does not necessarily require an expensive degree, family connections or English language skills,” the report said. “You just have to stand the heat.”
Dominguez, a former telecommunications entrepreneur in his native Venezuela, said he did market research before deciding to start a truck. Following in the footsteps of other successful Civic Center Eats alums, he is now preparing to open a brick-and-mortar version of his restaurant. It should open in Edgewater in 2019, he said.
In the meantime, he is investing in improving his mobile experience. This year, Civic Center Eats diners can order from his website ahead of time and pick up their meal for the window.
“Customer service is everything,” he said.
For Dominguez, customer service also means cleanliness. He and his crew spend hours each night cleaning the truck after outings. He invites diners to climb aboard if they want a close-up look at the cooking process or to see how well-maintained the truck is. Arepas House doesn’t operate in the winter, Dominguez said, because cold weather presents too many health challenges, such as making it harder to carry hot water required for hand washing and cleaning.
Food trucks have had an unsanitary reputation in the past. The nickname “roach coaches” is still tossed around. City health inspectors say it’s true food trucks receive more violation notices than brick-and-mortar establishments in Denver, in part because of the complications of being on the road. If a truck doesn’t have its water heater running, that is a considered an “imminent health hazard” that triggers an immediate shut down of food handling until the heater can be warmed up. If food on board a truck was prepped at a private kitchen and not a commercial kitchen, that’s a violation that will lead to a temporary shutdown, too.
As the industry has grown, Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment has ramped up education and outreach efforts to food truck operators, including by creating an annual symposium. Records indicate compliance is improving. City inspectors performed 517 routine inspections on food trucks in 2016. Those turned up imminent health hazards about 17 percent of the time. Last year, the city performed 717 inspections and turned up such hazards less than 15 percent of the time, officials say.
For Joseph Knoblich, cleanliness isn’t a concern. Just abide by the city’s checklist and you’ll be fine. He should know. His Chuey Fu’s truck, which dishes up a blend of Latin and Asian cuisine, has been rolling since 2013 and spun off two physical locations with a third on the way.
Knoblich has done Civic Center Eats for five years. He used to be there twice a week but this year he’ll only hit the park on Tuesdays, making room for other operators.
“Share the wealth, you know,” he said.
He says the regulatory environment across the state has gotten much better since he started. He’s still holding out hope that jurisdictions will come together to figure out a uniform sales tax collection point someday. But the industry has been good to him.
“I’ve always been able to do all the good events and things like that,” he said. “I’ve been really lucky. I’m happy to offer help to other trucks.”
If there is a downside to the industry’s growth in Denver for Eric Lazzari, it’s that it has required him to get better at juggling. Lazzari runs Civic Center Eats on behalf of the Civic Center Conservancy. He developed a schedule this year that will work in 82 trucks — drawn from more than 120 applicants — sharing just 25 slots each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through Oct. 4. This is the first year the event will have seasonal slots, creating opportunities for more trucks. Some will work May and June, others July and August.
“The variety and the eclectic nature of it, I believe is its biggest draw,” he said. “It’s fun to play a part as Denver’s food scene has grown.”