We’re trying something new at our Placemaking workshop later this month, having lunch catered by The Whey Station, a gourmet grilled cheese food truck. Although this will be the first time we incorporate a food truck into one of our events, we’ve wanted to do so for a while now. That’s because not only are they a delicious caravan of culinary delights, they’re also a great example of how entrepreneurial small business owners and placemaking can create positive economic and social changes in our downtowns.
Admittedly, food trucks can be controversial. There are those who say they’re a passing fad that has already peaked. Others argue a plethora of food trucks disrupt brick-and-mortar restaurants, luring patrons away. And of course there’s the whole issue of regulating them, determining who can station themselves where, for how long, and trying permit the whole thing.
Still, despite the critics, we’ve seen firsthand that these foodies on four wheels can have a positive, significant and fast impact on an otherwise downtrodden area. For example, CMSC’s offices are located about two blocks from the Colt complex. Over the last few years businesses and residents began to take root in the renovated buildings. The Urban Gourmet, a food truck owned by Charles Williams, a former chef at the Simsbury Inn and Avon Old Farms Hotel followed when over a hundred jobs were added to the South Armory. After him, Cafe Colt, a bricks-and-mortar business, arrived. “Competition is good,” said Mr. Williams, in a Hartford Courant article heralding Café Colt’s arrival. “We’re doing different things.” From our own experience walking over for lunch, he’s right. Rather than having only one dining option available in the complex, now there are two. And there are plenty of employees there to serve both the food truck and the café. Plus, having all these people on the street brings a sense of security, interest and vitality to the area.
There are other examples of the impact food trucks are having on our downtowns. In Middletown, Main Street’s north end is experiencing something of a resurgence thanks to trendy new restaurants and shops. Rather than compete with each other, they work together, supporting each other’s businesses. For instance, Krust Pizza Bar features desserts from neighbor NoRA Cupcake Company. And several of the businesses jointly host a First Thursday event that encourages patrons to visit multiple locations. The inaugural event had a pop-up store at NoRA’s and an East Coast/West Coast beer-off, with Krust featuring beers from one side of the U.S. while Eli Cannon’s Tap Room featured beers from the other. Meanwhile NoRA’s (whose confections are quickly becoming legendary) has supplemented their storefront with a cupcake truck, making stops at nearby anchor institutions like Middlesex Hospital. Recently NoRA and The Whey Station teamed up to promote each other on social media, encouraging passerby to enjoy a grilled cheese for lunch then grab a cupcake for dessert.
In this way food trucks are providing tangible benefits to our downtowns: drawing people to our Main Streets who in turn are attracted to neighboring businesses; reinforcing existing businesses and growing their patronage; and adding to a sense of place and contributing to the liveliness and vitality of an area. This has been shown not just in Connecticut but across the country in places like Washington, DC, Larkin Square in Buffalo, NY and San Francisco.
For our part, we’re excited to bring a new, dynamic element to our workshop that will get people moving and talking. Giving the participants in our workshops a taste of the vibrancy our downtowns offer is just another way we’re helping to reinvigorate our communities.