Ground was broken on July 14 for Square 46, which will house Clark Gaines’ White Star Market, a gourmet food hall that will have space for up to 10 vendors. Photography by Collin Richie
During the heyday of the food truck movement in Baton Rouge, mobile kitchens parked along downtown streets or rounded up in empty lots as aspiring chefs dished out food to eager customers lining up at their windows.
Today those roundups seem to be all but over, and many popular vendors have stopped rolling or moved on, leaving the Capital City to wonder if the food truck frenzy was just a fad. Yet those in the industry say the movement is still alive, but refocused, as vendors move toward more catering and event-based business.
Meanwhile, an appealing new trend in dining has popped up in cities across the country and will soon make its way to Baton Rouge: gourmet food halls. The planned mixed-use development Square 46 on Government Street will be home to White Star Market, an upscale food court similar to the popular St. Roch Market in New Orleans. White Star will feature 10 food vendors, each serving a different delicacy, and a full-service bar.
“Food trucks made a splash four or five years ago in Baton Rouge,” says Jay Ducote, local food blogger and Food Network Star finalist. “But I think there was always a problem with the business model because it was so dependent on pedestrian traffic and a vehicle that runs.”
Plus, in a city like Baton Rouge, food trucks can be particularly hard to sustain due to few densely populated areas with heavy foot traffic—not to mention the notorious heat in the summer.
“I don’t think food trucks are going away. There are determined business owners that will make it work. I think events are where it’s at.” —Micah Martello, St. Roch Market chef, White Star Market tenent and owner of Fete au Fete food truck
Ducote, who will be a vendor at White Star Market, says the gourmet food hall may be the answer to questions about the food truck movement. It’s taking the idea of the food truck roundup and making it a permanent indoor structure.
“I really think it’s a successful model and something that will have more longevity than the food truck model,” Ducote says.
While never interested in opening his own mobile kitchen, Ducote was immediately drawn to the food hall, which solves many of the problems with food trucks. It’s similar to a restaurant, but several chefs are able to lease space in an incubator-like setup, where customers have their pick of different culinary offerings.
“What draws interest to White Star is it has a food truck feel with a modified menu, quick service and similar price points,” says owner Clark Gaines. “Plus, we’re indoors.”
One of most appealing aspects of the food halls, especially for aspiring chefs, is they offer a communal kitchen so vendors can share infrastructure costs, Gaines says. The kitchen will be located in the back of the 5,900-square-foot market, with seating inside for customers.
So far, seven vendors have signed on at White Star: Ducote’s Gov’t Taco, Jesse Romero’s Robear Ln., Michael Mangham’s Another Silver Spoon, Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar, Micah Martello’s Fete au Fete, Reve Coffee Roasters, and Chow Yum Phat.
“Once we announced, we were flooded with requests,” Gaines says, adding that he gets a few requests every week for the three remaining spots.
At White Star, chefs can prove new concepts without the expenses and risks of opening a restaurant—or a food truck for that matter, which also can be costly and is often impacted by external factors like the weather, location or vehicle trouble.
While food truck owners admit to the challenges of operating a mobile kitchen, some maintain the industry is still trucking along, with new vendors joining the market and becoming more strategic about how and where they do business.
John Snow and Jared Loftus cofounded the Taco de Paco and Ninja Snowball food trucks when the movement began around 2010 in Baton Rouge. Snow, a management consultant and vice president for Emergent Method, also headed the Baton Rouge Mobile Food Vendors Association. Although their trucks have since been handed over to new owners and the association is no longer active, Snow disagrees that the food truck industry is in decline.
“Decline may be a strong word,” he says. “It’s more shifting and repurposing itself.”
Snow and Loftus were among the first to launch food trucks as the industry took off in Baton Rouge. Food trucks were innovative and exciting, Snow says. But as with any new venture, the newness eventually wears off.
Some big players in the industry left after a few years, either to another city or to a brick and mortar location, like Nick Hufft with his Curbside Burgers restaurant under construction on Government Street. Snow says it’s often the natural progression of food trucks to introduce a new concept, build up a customer base and eventually gather the confidence and money to open a restaurant.
As for the food truck association, Snow says its purpose was to provide a consolidated front to promote and establish the brand and to speak for food truck owners if faced with regulation attempts. Since it has served that purpose—it successfully thwarted regulations on food trucks proposed by the Metro Council in April 2012, among other initiatives—the association has become inactive, he says.
Another factor that plays into the changing food truck industry is the difficulty of running a mobile kitchen, which looks simpler than it is. If a tire blows out or rain is in the forecast, it can greatly impact a vendor’s ability to make money on any given day.
“You have a kitchen on wheels,” Snow says. “There is something inherently complex in that statement.”
When the food truck fad died down in Baton Rouge, so did the roundups. The regular meet-up of trucks is not so regular anymore, so street food vendors have had to become more strategic to stay alive. Most owners are turning to events, catering and partnerships with businesses where they can park for lunch or dinner.
Taco de Paco’s new owner, Jeff Landry, says his truck mostly serves private events but also goes downtown for lunch and to businesses like Radio Bar for dinner. Landry bought the truck in early 2016. Because he and his wife operate it, they pay only food and operation costs. The taco truck serves lunch two to three days a week and dinner three to four evenings a week. They sometimes team up with Red, White & Que, a barbecue food truck that began rolling in 2015.
“Everything has been real positive,” Landry says.
Mark Zweig is just as optimistic about his truck, Ninja Snowballs, which mostly does events and catering as well. Even though food truck roundups have ended, Zweig says, he is busier than ever and had to add a second Ninja Snowballs truck this year.
“We’re doubling business almost every year,” he says.
Trucks that serve one main product—and one that doesn’t have to be cooked on-site—often have it easier than others. Allie Bookman, owner of Cupcake Allie, says her food truck does well, but that may be because it offers only cupcakes. Mobile kitchens that have a brick and mortar location also seem to have an advantage as well, such as Chicken Shack Express and Kolache Kitchen’s The Rolling Pin.
Bookman says not many staple food trucks are left, and it’s unclear which are still rolling. She hopes to go back to the days of food truck roundups, but they would need strong leadership to head it up.
Neal Ashby, owner of Pullin’ Pork food truck, agrees that the main food trucks that started the movement have gotten out, and the industry is declining. While he still runs his truck, mostly for events and catering, he says it’s a difficult and inconsistent business, especially because he has another job.
Micah Martello, a chef at St. Roch Market who also secured a spot at White Star Market, has experience in both food trucks and food halls. He started his truck in North Carolina and brought it to New Orleans in 2015, but he says the concept isn’t as popular in Louisiana because there are so many good restaurants here. Martello doesn’t think food trucks are a lost cause, though, and plans to bring his truck, Fete au Fete—also the name of his food hall restaurants—to Baton Rouge.
“I don’t think food trucks are going away. There are determined business owners that will make it work,” he says. “I think events are where it’s at.”
Like other owners, Martello acknowledges the difficulties with food trucks. If you want to convince people to eat out of a truck, he says, you have to be better than a restaurant.
At gourmet food halls, on the other hand, Martello says he can be a chef without the hassle of running a restaurant. Chefs can start a business with a lot less capital, turn profit faster and try out new concepts whenever they please.
“The market concept for me, I love,” he says. “From a customer’s perspective, it’s the ultimate in food. You don’t have to wait around. It’s casual. There’s everything you want.”
The concept may be just what the Capital City—Martello’s hometown—needs to fill its appetite for non-restaurant dining options.
“I think Baton Rouge is really hungry for this,” he says. “No pun intended.”