Jonathan Gibbons, owner of french fry vendor Fryborg and a newcomer to the New Haven food truck scene, bustled about his mobile kitchen on Thursday, flinging bacon bits and ruby tomatoes onto a mound of hand-cut crispy fries embellished with swirls of mayonnaise. For the finish, he impaled his BLT fries with a plastic fork and handed it to a customer with a smile in a manner typical of the Elm City’s street food culture — quick, no-fuss and friendly.
A proliferation of new food trucks hit the city streets this past year, including Fryborg, Mrs. G’s Vegan Cuisine, Szabo’s Little Red Seafood Truck and the Sugar Cupcakery & Bakery. Mostly offshoots of local restaurants seeking to expand their customer base, the trucks contribute to New Haven’s vibrant foodie culture by offering gourmet on the go, using high-quality ingredients and forging “intimate” relationships with their customers, Gibbons said. Food carts, such as those operated by Tacuba Taco Bar, have existed in New Haven for decades, but the latest batch of food trucks are comparatively upscale, a trend that owners said may have begun with Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro’s Cheese Truck in 2010.
“People are changing the way they think about street food,” said restaurateur Arturo Franco-Camacho, who first brought Tacuba Taco Bar carts to New Haven 16 years ago. “They used to be too scared to eat from a food cart, but now they embrace it.”
Food trucks owe their popularity in part to social media, which plays an integral role in helping owners “stay in touch with customers” by informing them of trucks’ locations and special dishes daily, said Tom Sobocinski, co-owner of Caseus. Rated one of New Haven’s top 10 culinary retailers on Yelp, Caseus’ Cheese Truck has accumulated over 3,400 Twitter followers and 2,700 Facebook likes, even attracting customers from out of town.
Dan Szabo, owner of Szabo’s Seafood Truck, who also posts daily on Twitter, said he sometimes feels like “a deer in the headlights” when he opens up before noon and “20 people have already lined up” for fresh lobster rolls and clam chowder. The truck, affiliated with Szabo’s Seafood Restaurant in Fairfield, Conn., opened last November and now has up to 60 steady patrons daily, which has encouraged Szabo to expand. He said he hopes to refurbish a schoolbus by ripping out all of the seats and installing a mobile kitchen inside, parking it permanently in a local lot.
As the city’s food truck culture has continued to grow, owners have collaborated to increase their sales by parking within the same vicinity. Gibbons claimed to “piggyback” with Michael Debonte, operator of the Sugar cupcake truck, which won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and opened in April. Debonte said the variety among the food trucks works in favor of their businesses.
The city’s flourishing food truck industry, however, poses a threat to local small businesses, said Tony Schaffer, owner of the Four Flours Cookie Truck.
“The retailers pay rent and taxes, so it’s important that they don’t get overwhelmed with too many trucks,” said Schaffer, who is also a member of the Town Green’s Special Services District. “The city needs to exercise a sense of control with these trucks, but I also feel that there is room for them.”
Food truck owners said they are well-received by the Yale community, but students said the price of venturing out of the dining halls can deter them from frequenting food trucks.
Madelaine Taft ’13 said some members of her friend group are especially fond of particular street food, but that dining halls are more convenient and, as an off-campus resident, she finds that cooking for herself is cheaper.
Though Josh Eisenstat ’15 said he usually eats in the dining halls, he has relished his visits to the Cheese Truck.
“I wish they had a [meal] swipe at food trucks,” he said.
Another recent entrant into the New Haven street food scene is Nuts 4 Nuts, a New York City-based food cart chain, which opened its first two Connecticut locations in the Elm City.