Misc

On Food Trucks and Mediocrity

The reluctant appearance of warmer weather in the Capital District means that lunch options for downtown Albany workers expand dramatically. Food trucks line West Capitol Park, and the weekly farmers market on Empire Plaza adds another batch of trucks and food vendors to choose from.

I was feeling summery and inspired this week to do a feature on the trucks of West Capitol Park. But after the first one, I realized something – I really never enjoy these particular trucks that much. They’re passable, and there’s a certain freshness to the first few weeks of spring when I can emerge from my office and order lunch in the sunshine and sit on the fountain to eat without a care in the world. But if I’m being completely honest, the food isn’t anything spectacular.

Exhibit A is this grilled chicken sandwich from Michele’s Charcoal Pit (the Triple S: ‘shrooms, swiss, and stout beer mustard). Michele’s always has one of the longest lines, and that’s not because of slow service. I’ve always found that they churn out their grilled burgers and sandwiches pretty quickly. So it’s safe to assume that this is one of people’s favorite truck options.

Grilled Chicken Triple S from Michele's Charcoal Pit
Grilled Chicken Triple S from Michele’s Charcoal Pit

This sandwich was messy. And not in a good, scrambling to get every last drop kind of way, but instead like there was an entire bottle of mustard only on one half of the sandwich, and I needed to eat it with a fork and a knife by the time I got a chance to sit down. The lettuce and tomato I ordered was MIA, and the sweet potato fries weren’t even remotely crisp.

The point here isn’t just to bash Michele’s or its neighboring trucks. I decided to squash the rest of the feature because I wanted to avoid an all-negative complaining piece. So instead, I tried to reflect on the state of food trucks in the Capital District – why aren’t they better?

Last fall I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Austin, Texas, which is truly a hub for fantastic food trucks. Almost everything we ate came off a truck. We’re talking about delicious breakfast tacos with eggs and salsa verde, barbecue ribs and brisket carved right in front of you, and creative taco combinations served alongside open seating bars. It really opened my eyes to what could be possible.

So what’s wrong with Albany? Why haven’t we caught up yet? I offer a couple of theories.

  • Maybe we make it too hard for new food trucks to open up shop. I’ve heard the red tape/regulation argument from a few folks, and I obviously don’t have any first hand experience to back this up. But it’s certainly possible that onerous requirements coupled with high costs of doing business could deter new competition from coming into the area. I’ve also heard that there’s not enough authorized zones where the food trucks can operate.
  • Maybe I’m biased against local food trucks because the batch in West Capitol Park is fairly mediocre, but there are other good ones out there that I’m missing! I have always wished that new faces would appear on the lineup outside the Capitol. I assume that the regulars are somehow grandfathered in and get to return every year if they wish, but maybe some new blood would push the quality up through competition. Plus a rotating list of trucks would be more interesting.
  • Maybe there’s something about the physical location of Albany that’s not conducive to food truck success. One of the obvious differences between here and Austin, beyond sheer population size, is the climate. A food truck isn’t going to have much luck operating in winter, and that could both deter new businesses and cut into the profits of the existing ones.

Let me know below – is there another reason I’m missing for why our food trucks don’t really push the culinary envelope? Am I being too harsh and missing some great ones?

Maybe it will just take some time for a better truck scene to develop. I’ll be waiting.

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7 thoughts on “On Food Trucks and Mediocrity

  1. I think it does have a lot to do with that regulation you mention. The food trucks at the Capitol park need a permit, which carries over year to year. So the only way for a new truck to get in is if an existing truck bows out.
    Aside from that, there aren’t many spots for food trucks to set up in Albany. There was a trial run at Washington Park last year – I never heard any follow up to that.
    There’s the Fork In the Road events downtown, but even those options have been meh. The events are great and I hope they inspire more trucks, but for now, they aren’t anything amazing.
    The trucks that set up right on the plaza are a little better – Capital Q is usually up there.

    But I agree, it seems like we’ve missed the food truck renaissance around here, and I think a big part of that is regulation that gets in the way of competition/innovation.

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  2. I agree with the above comments. Here in Latham at the Airport Park…with so many businesses around…we have no trucks…but very close we have Galleria 7 off of Rte 7, which is a indoors food court, similar to the Troy Kitchen. This new concept seems the way to go and get around the issue with regulations.

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  3. The other issue at play here is a talent crunch.

    We have talented chefs and cooks in the Capital Region, but there aren’t enough of them. So here, relatively junior people can move up in the ranks faster than in other markets, as kitchens try to hold onto as much talent as they can. It causes all kinds of challenges.

    I think it’s junior staffers, fed up with their lack of forward momentum, who often start food trucks in larger markets. Of course the added barriers to entry here don’t help. Neither does the limited competition. Nor the willingness of locals to eat mediocre food.

    Great post.

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  4. I too have been exasperated with the food truck scene here. While the food is ok, it’s all just so pedestrian and lacks creativity (with the one possible exception being Slidin’ Dirty).

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  5. The food trucks I’ve tried have also been mediocre at best. Perhaps our Fork in the Road food truck Friday night in downtown Albany will provide a different experience as it matures, however my trip wasn’t an experience I look forward to repeating. Not only was there way too much ridiculously greasy food, but there were long lines and disappearing dishes. So waiting in line for ten minutes and watching the staff erase the dishes you wanted to try was no longer funny after the third one.

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  6. I think it’s the nature of food truck trendiness. When people are willing to stand in long lines outdoors and pay the same or more for the same meal they’d get in a sit down place with a kitchen and a prep area, and put up with a more limited menu, what’s the point of trying harder?

    I’ve been to some great food trucks in Austin as well, but there’s a lot more competition there. You have to be actually good, not just slinging hash out of a box on four wheels.

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