Hunger growing for food trucks in Hampton
Andrea Castillo Contact Reporter email@example.com
Success of food truck rodeo in downtown Hampton may mean more opportunities for growth
After spending 10 years or so working in the corporate world, Tekso Shin decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his parents, who owned a sushi and Korean restaurant in Baltimore for two decades.
In July, the Hampton man began operating a food truck called Loopy's, where he sells Korean and multi-ethnic comfort food such as bulgogi, kalbi and jerk chicken.
"I grew up eating all types of foods from different countries," Shin said. "I couldn't eat Korean food every day. I couldn't eat a cheeseburger and fries either. I just like to mix it up."
Shin is one of the local food truck vendors participating in the Hampton Food Truck Rodeo. On Oct. 11, the city and partnering organizations Downtown Hampton Development Partnership and gourmet food truck network Eat the Streets 757 hosted the third of those since late August.
In addition to the food trucks, which are set up near the Virginia Air and Space Center, patrons can play giant versions of Jenga and checkers and take $1 carousel rides.
"Anything that generates traffic, more foot traffic … is good for downtown," said Hampton assistant city manager Laura Fitzpatrick. "The food truck event is an opportunity to bring people to downtown Hampton that might not have otherwise visited."
Another event is in the works for Oct. 25, which makes up for a food truck rodeo planned for Sept. 27 that was canceled because of weather.
Organizers said the first event Aug. 30 drew about 2,000 people, and the Sept. 13 event drew about 1,500 to 1,700.
On Oct. 11, the event had a "disappointing" turnout, at just 600 or so, said Cassandra Ayala, the founder and co-owner of Eat the Streets 757.
Ayala said that may be because people prefer to stay in and watch football on Sundays, or because organizers need to put in more effort into letting people know they're happening.
"Getting the word out is always super difficult," she said.
In addition to the efforts of event organizers, many rely on Facebook, Twitter or other social media to reach potential customers.
"Social media is key to food trucks," said Jacob Harver, owner of Virginia Beach-based Bro's Fish Tacos which sells on the Peninsula about once or twice a month. "We'd die without it."
Fitzpatrick said the response to the food truck rodeos may prompt city leaders to look at existing rules for food trucks in Hampton.
Vendors at the food truck rodeos in Hampton are considered temporary food service establishment, which are covered under special events permits, said Hampton spokeswoman Robin McCormick.
"We'll evaluate and see where we go from here, but the response has been very positive," Fitzpatrick said.
Currently, Hampton does not have a set-up like Newport News, where food truck vendors must pay an annual fee to operate in the city and get a guaranteed spot in return.
In summer 2014, Newport News passed an ordinance that restricted food trucks to the downtown area near the shipyard. In February, the city allowed food trucks to set up shop at Oakland Industrial Park as well.
On Tuesday, Newport News City Council approved changes to the ordinance that allow vendors to get permits to serve only one meal a day, as opposed to all three, at a lower annual fee. The amendment does not increase the number of assigned vending spots or their location, keeping in place a buffer zone around several downtown restaurants and convenience stores.
Shin welcomes changes that would make Hampton and Newport News more food-truck friendly cities.
"We're trying to generate a food truck scene," said Shin, who also sells items from his food truck on shipyard property several times a week. "It's improving, but I think it's improving very slowly."
Over time, Ayala has seen other cities in the region make changes that are more favorable to food truck operators and thinks Hampton is taking a step in the right direction.
On the Peninsula, Ayala does see new potential for food trucks in Newport News once Whole Foods opens. The store's Virginia Beach location hosts food truck events regularly and have been popular.
"I think it would be a fantastic crowd," she said.
Ayala said she'd like to see cities seek input from vendors when making rules for food trucks, arguing that required fees in some cities can be cost-prohibitive for many vendors, who also become frustrated with rules in place involving zoning and other matters that many see as a hindrance to their business, she said.
"They're making progress and want to make progress. All cities do," she said. "It just takes time."
Food trucks have gained local popularity in recent years after taking off on the West Coast, with the movement's origins often attributed to the launch of Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles in 2008.
Eat the Streets 757 has worked with cities and companies all over Hampton Roads, including Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, and will work with Jamestown's Bountiful Brews and Bites in November.
Ayala said she is excited about food trucks having another foothold in the area.
"It's kind of like putting a playground together with a food truck," said Ayala, who owns Puerto Rican food truck Sofrito and co-founded Twisted Sisters Cupcakes.
Out of the 25 food truck vendors within the Eat the Streets 757 network, Ayala said only three are based on or near the Peninsula: Loopy's and Stuft in Hampton, and Poor Boys Burgers in West Point.
The rest are based on the Southside, although about half of the 25 are licensed to operate in Newport News, Hampton or both, according to Ayala, who said there are other food trucks on the Peninsula not within the network.
Many of those vendors obtained licenses in hopes that food truck events hosted last year at Newport News' City Center would happen again this year but have not, Ayala said.
"When an event is big enough and worth it, we definitely go out there," Harver said.
The events offer something for everyone, Ayala said.
"It appeals to the foodie who wants something new and different and unique, and it appeals to families because everyone can get something different," she said.
Eating from food trucks also offer patrons a different atmosphere than a restaurant would, Shin said.
"It's not just about the food," he said. "It's more of a social and cultural event, eating outdoors ... It allows people who may never cross paths to potentially cross paths, meet different types of people, (see) different culture," he said.
Though visitors to downtown Hampton may initially be drawn there by the food trucks, local businesses are getting a boost as well.
While officials don't have specific figures measuring the impact of the food truck rodeo on local businesses, "restaurants and retailers notice a marked difference between a normal Sunday and when there are food trucks," said Debra Freeman, the marketing and communications director for Downtown Hampton Development Partnership.
"We'd, of course, love to see it grow," Freeman said of the food truck rodeos. "People come out not only for the food trucks but to enjoy stores and restaurants, our waterfront. This is really a springboard showing off what we have here."
Freeman has been told that the Hampton Food Truck Rodeo is "Hampton Roads' best-kept secret."
"We don't want to keep it a secret," she said. "We want people to come out and see what we have."
Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.
Want to go?
Hampton Carousel Food Truck Rodeo
Hampton Carousel Park
602 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton
12-4 p.m. Oct. 25
Visit ets757.com or hampton.gov for more information.
By the numbers
Attendance at Hampton Food Truck Rodeos
Aug. 30: 2,000
Sept. 13: 1,500-1,700
Oct. 11: 600