Her electric blue truck has a fresh coat of paint, the interior is sparkling clean, and all systems are go. Heather Zoller is ready to hit the road in the next few weeks with her Z Food Truck, the newest entrant in an industry that has exploded locally and nationally in the past few years.
Heather, a self-taught chef with a love of food and hospitality and an appreciation for food that “will fill you up without weighing you down,” has always been drawn to the restaurant industry, but at the same time wary of staff management, overhead, and other complications that come with running a brick-and-mortar establishment.
A food truck, with its mobility, flexibility, and staffing simplicity dictated by its tiny footprint, seemed to be the perfect fit for Heather’s lifestyle. She found her truck in Ohio, already outfitted with professional grade appliances that would be the envy of most home kitchens, and drove it back to Rhode Island.
Her menu of salads and wraps is a deft blend of old standards with enough twists to satisfy someone with an adventurous palate. Her Philly cheesesteak is updated with a smokey chipotle sauce; flavor profiles run the gamut from falafel to fajita to a caprese with roasted red peppers and pesto aioli. Daily specials and your requests are welcome, too — if Heather can make it from what she has on hand, she will.
Heather will be driving into an fleet of competition, including established, popular vendors like Billy’s, Rocket Fine Foods, Mijos Tacos, Mama Kim’s Korean Barbecue, and Plouf Plouf. But that’s part of the beauty of this corner of the food service market. The flexibility that is the hallmark of food trucks allows for a festive, the-more-the-merrier approach to drawing customers. It’s what makes food truck festivals, and other events that invite several trucks to participate, so successful. Many trucks’ focus on a certain regional or ethnic cuisine mean that customers are greeted by a wide variety of options when trucks congregate in one area, or event.
Licensing of food trucks varies from town to town, which can cause some challenges for vendors. While state health licensing is state regulated and to the same standard required of all food-service establishments, permission, as well as where a truck can park and sell remains a somewhat contentious issue for some communities. While Providence permits food trucks to operate in several locations throughout the city, and you will find them in numbers migrating between Kennedy Plaza and College Hill, other towns are less eager to roll out the welcome mat.
While all towns in the area welcome food trucks under the umbrella of special events, and Barrington is looking into the possibility of establishing a park on the site of the former police station on County Road where food trucks would be welcome on a regular basis, most towns, like Bristol, restrict them.
According to Bristol Town Councilman Halsey Herreshoff, the Council has been reluctant to welcome food trucks. “We owe respect for Bristol establishments serving food over those from here or elsewhere wishing license to roam our streets selling food,” says Herreshoff. “Bristol has fine restaurants and quite sufficient coffee/snack places; they are a vital part of our citizen service done by hard working owners and employees. So, why sponsor outside competition?”
While an argument can be made that restaurants that pay property taxes on their buildings and employ residents are contributing more to the community, an argument could also be made that that approach simply favors larger businesses over sole proprietorships. But should a businesses’ contribution to the tax base justify preferential treatment on the part of local government?
Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the RI Center for Freedom & Transparency, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, thinks this is a big problem across a number of industries in Rhode Island, and it is impacting our ability to prosper. Stenhouse’s organization will discuss licensing practices at length in a soon to be released non-essential spending report.
“It is common insider politics in Rhode Island for incumbent professionals to use regulatory boards to prevent newcomers from joining their ranks by demanding steep fees and rigorous educational requirements, squelching competition and protecting their own turf,” said Stenhouse. “These crony practices often result in fewer choices, higher prices and poorer quality for consumers and usually do not result in enhanced public safety.”
As for Heather and the rest of her fellow travelers, they will continue to do what they do best and bring their delicious offerings to communities where and when they are welcome, often en masse, and generally with great results. “I’m looking forward to offering a satisfying, affordable experience,” Heather says. She is looking forward to giving back to the wider community as well, pledging 20 percent of profits to charity; the National MS Society being the first recipient of the Z Food Truck’s first month in business. The regulatory process is the last thing on Heather’s mind as she looks forward to her opening. She just wants to get her new business inn the road, for one reason: “I like making people happy though food.”