Food trucks poised to become a downtown staple

James Wachutka, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, serves a customer -- photo by Zak Neumann
James Wachutka, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, serves a customer — photo by Zak Neumann

Tito Francisco and James Wachutka, the co-owners of the Flip N’ Chop food truck, served up lunch outside the University of Iowa Boyd Law Building on a recent afternoon. Francisco flipped dough back and forth between his hands to create the naan bread that would become part of the duo’s tandoori chicken dish, one of three plates on offer that day.

The two have been traveling around the area and serving up their internationally-influenced cuisine for the past year, but the challenges of vending in Iowa City mean they haven’t spent much time downtown.

“We would like to do more in the evening, but it’s hard and it’s kind of iffy to go downtown and find a place without stepping on anyone’s toes,” Wachutka said. “We have a permit, but we haven’t used it very much because it’s just hard to get out there.”

That could change come spring. Iowa City may temporarily open up some new opportunities for local food trucks in 2017 under a 90-day pilot program, allowing trucks to vend in the downtown area during the evenings after many other downtown restaurants close.

“Iowa City is really diverse, with lots of cultural amenities, but it’s falling behind in street food,” Kyle Sieck, the head chef and owner of Local Burrito, said.

Sieck said he has been speaking with the city to try to loosen some of the current restrictions and encouraging council members to consider the food truck pilot program proposed by the Iowa City Mobile Vending Association.

Under the current regulations, food trucks with a permit are allowed to vend from parking areas on city streets, as long as they are outside of the downtown zone and residential areas, and more than 150 feet away from any restaurants. They are currently only allowed to vend until 9 p.m.

“It’s kind of limiting and we want to try something new,” Sieck said.

The proposed pilot program would allow six to 10 trucks downtown from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. The group proposed locations along Linn, Clinton and Dubuque streets downtown.

“I would love to see a line of trucks gathering in Iowa City and in the corridor area,” Wachutka said, adding that some cities have designated areas where food trucks can gather — something that the mobile vending association also encouraged the city to consider creating.

Tito Francisco, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, makes naan. photo by Zak Neumann
Tito Francisco, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, makes naan. — photo by Zak Neumann

“I would love to see that in Iowa City,” Wachutka said. “But there’s a lot of politics, we’re discovering.”

Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said the city council expressed interest in moving forward with the project during the Nov. 1 city council meeting, but that the details — including how many trucks will be involved and the hours during which they’ll be allowed downtown — have yet to be ironed out. He said the goal is to have the pilot program begin in the spring, before the University of Iowa lets out for the summer.

“When we craft the pilot program we’ll have to set up a good way to get feedback from businesses downtown and give it a try and consider any permanent changes,” Fruin said. “One of our tasks will be to work with the downtown district and those restaurants to figure out how to measure the impact, if there is any, on their businesses.”

The current food truck regulations were also developed through a pilot program during the summer of 2014. Before that, mobile vending from public streets was mostly prohibited with the exception of farmers markets and special events. The permitted food carts on the Ped Mall fall under a different set of regulations.

“As a resident of the community, I’m just a fan of the food truck culture,” Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for the Iowa City Area Development Group, said. “I like the variety and the opportunity for folks to test out their product and see if stuff sticks and maybe one day be able to open up a brick-and-mortar location.”

Banta was one of eighteen people to sign off in support of the Iowa City Mobile Vending Association’s pilot proposal.

He said he understood concerns from established businesses downtown about how the food trucks would impact their businesses, but added that the proposal targeted a time when a number of restaurants shut down.

Charles Jones, owner of the Keepin Up With The Jones’s food truck, who was involved with efforts in Cedar Rapids to get a food truck ordinance passed, said it seemed like efforts in Iowa City were more complicated.

“It helps everyone because it makes people want to come and stay downtown,” Jones said of the food trucks becoming more visible downtown.

Under an ordinance adopted in Cedar Rapids earlier this year, mobile food vendors must be at least 100 feet away from the entrance of any restaurant between 6:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. but can operate between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 2 a.m.

For Wachutka and Francisco, a food truck opened up opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible had they needed to raise the capital for a brick-and-mortar location. They bought the truck, which they’ve dubbed Matilda, from a hamburger-selling Wisconsin cowboy and fixed it up over the summer last year — gutting the inside, painting the outside blue and cutting a new serving window.

They’ve been vending for just over a year now and said some of their best experiences have been at festivals like FRYfest in Coralville.

“There was live music and everyone is out and together and at the end of the night, we can kind of step back and be like, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” Francisco said.

The duo also participated in Science Thursday events over the summer that brought food trucks, live music and science-themed activities to the University of Iowa Medical Education Research Facility.

Jennifer Stout with the Office of Facilities Planning and Management in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine said the goal of Science Thursdays was to build a sense of community.

“The idea is to have food trucks to entice people to attend, with live music and a science- or medicine-based activity to help engage people in conversations,” she said in an email. “The hope is that we are creating an environment in which we are encouraging in-person interactions and communication between departments.”

During their afternoon at the Boyd Law Building, Wachutka took orders at the window and helped prep plates while Francisco shuffled skillets around on the small stove and squeezed a number of cuban and BBQ pulled pork sandwiches on the griddle.

Although both men have experience from working in area restaurants, the cramped space of the food truck brought some challenges. They checked off a list of the tasks they share between them: host, server, cook, chef, accountant, marketing director, dishwasher. But they also pointed to the freedoms and the sense of community of the local food truck culture.

“Just the freedom of doing whatever you want to cook,” Wachutka said. “It’s fun, safe, healthy, local. It’s the smallest business you can have.”

They work together to develop new recipes and flavors, including many house-made items like their potato and plantain chips and sauces, and draw from some of their experiences tasting food around the world. Francisco grew up in the Philippines and Wachutka was a self-described Army brat who spent time in London and Germany.

“Our food is international, so we don’t have any barriers,” Francisco said. “The food that we serve has those influences from cultures, from other countries. We change it up a little bit. We improvise. But in a way that people can still recognize the ingredients.”

The two still have their day jobs for now, but hope that they’ll be serving up dishes from their food truck full-time this coming spring — just in time for the Iowa City pilot program.

“We love what we do and we want to express that and share that,” Francisco said. “I grew up with fresh food. If you were eating it, it was butchered and cooked that day. We want to bring that culture here to Iowa and the mobile vending association will do exactly that.”

Lauren Shotwell is Little Village’s news director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 210.

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