A fleet of gourmet food trucks is about to hit Denver
Should we go get a horn? Dukes of Hazzard or something?" Josh Wolkon, the owner of Vesta Dipping Grill and its younger sibling, Steuben's Food Service, is chatting with Steuben's executive chef, Brandon Biederman, and Biederman's wife, Emily, while they stand in front of a garage that's the temporary home of the Steuben's Food Truck.
"Just give me access to the stereo," says Biederman, rubbing his hands together and shifting his weight from one heavily tattooed leg to the other. "I can't wait to get this thing on the road."
Everyone's in good spirits, even as Anthony Fox tinkers with the massive grill, which is currently suspended by a forklift in the middle of the truck's interior. Fox and his company, Phoundation for Change, are in charge of the extensive green conversion of the mobile kitchen, fitting the truck with solar panels that will power the generator, and a system that will allow the vehicle to run almost entirely on fryer oil.
Biederman and Wolkon purchased their truck a year ago, after long conversations at the Steuben's bar turned into a journey down Federal Boulevard for tacos and some research on where they could buy an old lonchera, Denver's original street-food icon. The first guy they asked was a vendor who happened to have an extra truck in his backyard, and nine months and several convoluted, bilingual negotiations later, the 1987 diesel Mack was theirs. In December 2009, Fox and Keith Marcy, who makes a business of building out mobile-food vendors, took over, gutting and transforming the truck that once hawked tortillas stuffed with sausage and tongue into a tricked-out portable purveyor of Steuben's burgers and fries.
"If I do this again, I might start with a new truck," says Wolkon, grinning. "Converting this thing has been an undertaking."
Maybe so, but Wolkon and his wife, Jen, have made a practice of drawing from the past to create something new. They opened Vesta fourteen years ago in a restored LoDo warehouse, integrating inspiration from the vestal virgins, who guarded the religious hearth in ancient Rome, into the industrial urban roots of the space. The result was a dimly lit, cavernous dining room, where diners would sit in wooden booths, sipping Chardonnay and sampling chef Matt Selby's sauces.
Five years ago, Selby joined the Wolkons in their second venture, Steuben's, which channeled its namesake — a Boston nightclub of the 1940s that hosted such notable customers as the Rat Pack — and other hometown restaurants of yore into an irrevocably hip American comfort-food spot that brings together every slice of the Denver social scene. Wholesome families fill the bouncy booths, inhaling fried chicken and Coke and mac and cheese; twenty-somethings in skinny jeans and flannel shirts, Ray-Bans shielding their eyes from the sun after a night of heavy drinking, put down morning-after Monte Cristos and cans of fries; online daters meet at the chrome bar, cutting the tension with a few stiff, pre-Prohibition cocktails.
Steuben's has become a Denver staple, a hometown restaurant in its own right, and now Wolkon thinks it's time for a new endeavor that will engage another cross-section of diners in a playful fashion. "I didn't want to open another restaurant yet," he explains, "but I wanted to do something fun."
If all goes according to plan, the Steuben's Food Truck will make its grand debut on June 7 at Vesta's Plates for the Peak fundraiser, where it will face the wrong way on Blake and entice charitable eaters and lucky passersby with the promise of gravy fries. From that day forward, the contemporary mobile kitchen, bright blue and swathed in neon signage, will cruise the streets of Denver, using Twitter to disclose the locations where it will supply social networkers with burgers and fries, burritos, such daily specials as lobster rolls, and Steuby Snacks, an homage to classic street food of yesteryear that comprises fried pork, sugar and hot sauce, served up in a paper cone.
And Steuben's isn't the only group steering into a gaping hole in the Denver dining scene. Until last year, street-food options were scarce, save for the taco trucks along Federal and a few carts on the 16th Street Mall. But then people started hearing about the immense success of food trucks in cities like Los Angeles and Portland, and now concepts hawking everything from banh mi to cupcakes are navigating the challenges of mobile vending, hurrying to hit the hungry market (see story below).
"In Portland, these things have actual communities," observes Wolkon. "All these trucks and carts hook up at the same location and bring people together to eat. And there's this buzz that comes from a crowd of people showing up at a random spot and talking to each other while they wait in line. That's cool. We want to bring that here."
Besides, misery loves company as entrepreneurs try to decipher Denver rules. "The system just isn't set up for mobile food," says Emily Biederman, who helps with behind-the-scenes details at both Vesta and Steuben's and is taking on the truck's hefty catering schedule.
The health-inspection rules are straightforward enough, at least for vending within Denver's limits, but after city officials give the vehicle their approval, it will have to navigate the city's parking system. "Meters are off-limits, we know that for sure," Wolkon says. "But it seems like as long as we can get approval from private property owners, we can use their land." He laughs. "I guess we'll figure out pretty quickly what we can and can't do."
And Wolkon figured out early on what he wanted to do with the truck. "Initially," he says, "we were just trying to figure out what we could do as a restaurant to help revitalize some of the parks around here."
So he got in touch with Lindy Eichenbaum, a former mayoral staffer who's now director of the Civic Center Park Conservancy. "Civic Center Park is located at the convergence of the cultural and commercial sector of the community," says Eichenbaum, "and it's stunning. But it's been underutilized, which has led to more illicit activity and bad perceptions. We're trying to generate daily use of the park to restore, enhance and activate it."
Part of that effort is Civic Center Eats, a farmers' market turned outdoor food court that runs at lunchtime every Tuesday from June 15 through August 31. The Steuben's Food Truck will be part of that group of vendors, which will also include the Denver Cupcake Truck and Pinche Tacos. Wolkon is working with the Conservancy to establish a daily presence at the park as well. "We thought about doing a permanent structure like Danny Meyer's Shake Shack," Wolkon says, referring to the famous stand in New York City's Madison Square Park, which doles out burgers, fries and shakes, "but there were restrictions on that. So we figured, why not a mobile presence?"
Why not? "People will come to the park for delicious food," says Eichenbaum. "Until we open kiosks, the food trucks are a natural fit."
Now that the project is in motion, the Steuben's partners have found a whole new world opening up. "This is one part charity and one part an expansion of our sustainability initiatives, but it's also a great marketing and catering tool," says Wolkon. "And it's fun."
Once the truck hits the streets, Brandon Biederman will spend a month working out the angles of prepping, cooking and vending, devoting all his time to the truck until he feels comfortable turning the keys over to Laura Grannan and Mike "Doc" Noe, longtime members of the Vesta and Steuben's family, who'll be tasked with managing Facebook and Twitter (follow it at Twitter: @steubenstruck), navigating the roads, controlling the crowds — and handing out the grub. "With the kitchen fixtures in that thing, we can pretty much do anything off our menu," Biederman says. "Probably not fried chicken, though. Except for special events."
And balancing those special events with spontaneous road navigation may be tough. "We've gotten a lot of catering requests already," says Emily, "but I won't book anything until the truck is on the street."
In the meantime, Fox is re-securing the grill and agreeing to deliver the completely finished vehicle in a few days, ready for the health inspector and equipped with a cheat sheet that explains how everything works. "Just not during rush hour," Brandon Biederman says. "I'm not ready for that yet."
But Wolkon's ready to bring his vision to the community in a completely new way. "The food-truck phenomenon is really about direct interaction with the culture of a city," he says. "It's about bringing people to spaces they wouldn't normally dine."
Get ready, Denver: The truck stops here.
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