“Already we have a problem. All of the meters are bagged, and a couple minutes from now, there will be 30 trucks trying to get, like, six spaces,” says Arcane Kitchen’s Lucas Ballweber.
He’s caught in a game of musical chairs that the food trucks play every weekday morning in Minneapolis.
As early as 8:15, the trucks start circling the downtown hub, eyeing the few prime spots near 6th Street and 2nd Avenue S., the current food-truck hot spot. It’s a fierce game, with blown red lights, pauses at green lights, growled exchanges with cops and the occasional extralegal maneuver.
His seat belt is a must for Ballweber (alone in the truck at this point, he won’t call in his crew until he nails down a spot), who says, “it can get crazy.”
It’s not exactly the Wild West; Wyatt Earp didn’t have to plug his meter every two hours or deal with a light rail train in the middle of his territory. But maneuvering for a spot can be dicey, especially because both 6th and 2nd are rush hour lanes, where parking is prohibited from 7 to 9 a.m. and where, if you’re aced out of a spot, you may miss the lunch crowd entirely.
Ballweber’s three favorite spots are 2nd Avenue, right in front of Capella Tower on 6th, or wherever the hibachi trucks are. “Those guys kill it every day,” he says, “so if you park next to them, you’re good.”
But all summer, there’s been a lot of construction near the magic corner. And today, a couple of primo meters have red bags over them, indicating no parking.
That might explain why a food truck buddy recently greeted Ballweber with this: “Welcome to hell!”
“This is the worst way to start your day, ever, having to deal with all of this circling and the construction and the meters,” says Ballweber, who wakes up around 5 to do food prep, then heads downtown to start driving in circles, his knee bouncing and fingers drumming the whole time. “I have the worst ADD ever. I can’t stay still.”
He sets his smartphone for 8:59 so he’s poised to pull to the curb immediately after the rush hour restrictions end.
Phil Gaffney knows the feeling.
“You kind of hang out in a particular area, waiting for the time, watching the lights, timing it,” says Gaffney, owner of MidNord Empanadas and co-vice president of the Minnesota Food Truck Association. “Once that light turns and it’s time, you beeline it to your destination, hoping you don’t get cut off by a car or another truck.”
Wanting to turn west onto 5th Street, Ballweber is redirected to continue north on 3rd Avenue by a traffic cop, which means his downtown circle has gotten a block larger.
No biggie — there’s still time — but it gets him started on rule-breakers.
“It’s pretty shady, some of what goes on. I’ve seen dudes blow through red lights, cut off light rail trains, just sit at green lights, waiting. We’re all here to get the same spots,” says Ballweber, whose truck debuted in April 2017 in the western suburbs. He shifted to downtown just this year. “I’m too new at this to pretend I know what all the problems are, though.”
Max Cervantes does know what those problems are.
A license inspector for Minneapolis, he’s charged with keeping food trucks in line, which sometimes finds him on street level, telling early parkers to move along. Sometimes he observes from a less conspicuous perch in the skyways, where he can monitor behavior — and issue citations that cost food truck operators $200 and up.
“We like to start with education, obviously. Because food trucks do have a mobile license, they are required to follow all traffic laws and parking regulations. So we’ll remind them of that,” Cervantes says. “If education doesn’t work, violation notices are sent out, and it can escalate from there to citations and, ultimately, adverse license action.”
Food truck owners say following the rules puts them on a razor’s edge.
“We like to follow [the rules] as closely as possible, but you have to get scrappy to get a spot,” Gaffney says.
“Every day, I get scared about this. If you’re not nervous, it means you don’t care,” says Ballweber, who has been cooking for 21 years and would like to launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant eventually. “The food part, I have dialed in. It’s: Is it going to rain today? Can I get a spot?”
Missing out on a parking spot has consequences for food trucks.
There’s a reason the city has 150 licensed food trucks, and it’s not just because it’s fun to dish up Moroccan sloppy Joes (which Arcane Kitchen sells) in a sweltering, tiny truck: money.
At a St. Paul Saints food truck rally, Ballweber says, Arcane moved 174 baskets of food in 47 minutes, a gross of nearly $2,000 in less than an hour.
But if you don’t hit the hot spot?
A few years ago, Gaffney joined a handful of other trucks in moving from the previous food-truck hangout on Marquette Avenue to the current one. He figures he lost as much as $15,000 while waiting for patrons to get used to the new location.
“We might not get a spot. So many meters are bagged and I’m seeing so many trucks today.” Ballweber is cruising east on 6th Street. “If that happens, I guess I will go eat some pho, sit it out and wait for tonight.”
There are tricks to securing a spot, says Gil Gaitan, owner of Sasquatch Sandwiches, but he’s not sharing them.
Some trucks that miss out on lunch spots have a Plan B: “obstruction permits,” which allow them to pull into bus lanes after buses finish using them at 10 a.m. Some trucks opt for Marquette Avenue, where it’s gotten easier to park, while others try the Commons park area, where they’re not subject to rush-hour restrictions.
Otherwise, it’s time to forget serving lunch and start thinking about the evening meal. Trucks also can make arrangements to serve at craft breweries or special events, including weddings.
Gaffney is intrigued by the possibility of establishing a bunch of trucks as late-night dining options but also wonders, “Are people going to do lunch and late-night? Do they want that kind of a schedule?”
But, this summer morning, nobody’s thinking about late night. They’re all thinking about the next 15 minutes, when they hope they’ll be gliding into that perfect parking spot.
Once again circling his block, Ballweber is heading north on 3rd, trying to make a left turn onto 5th along the light rail line, but a traffic cop waves him off. He’d forgotten to turn on his signal, which could spell doom as the minutes count down: “Oh, no. That might have been it there,” he says. “We might be out of luck.”
“When in doubt, follow a city guy,” says Ballweber as he pilots Arcane Kitchen behind a city of Minneapolis vehicle. A line of food trucks do the same, cutting south on an alley between Marquette and 2nd. It’s a maneuver that may save the day.
“A minute ago, I thought I was going to be screwed, but now I can cut off a bunch of these other trucks and get a space. What we did just now put us in a good place,” says Ballweber as he inches between stopped cars on 6th, between Marquette and 2nd avenues, right in front of two other idling trucks.
After a quick trip around U.S. Bank Plaza, Ballweber turns to go south on 2nd and sees a line of trucks starting to park. He lays on the horn and glares as he drives by them.
“This is insane! 8:52? I hope every one of those guys gets a ticket. 8:52? Come on! That’s not even close to 9,” he says. “And if they don’t follow the rules, they’re forcing every one of us to break them, too.”
Today, that’s an empty threat. There’s no way he’s going to risk getting a citation: “I’m just going to keep driving. They can’t give me a ticket for driving.”
Actually, the tickets can be confusing, Gaitan says. He hasn’t been cited, but he has received warning notices and says it’s not clear to him what he did wrong: “I have no problem with a fair parking ticket, but if you look at this last violation notice I got, [Cervantes] sent me three full-sized color photos of me, just driving in a lane full of food trucks. I wasn’t parking. It says I was ‘pulling in to park.’ ”
Gaffney is OK with the photo tickets: “They send the pictures to you, time-stamped, with a picture of your truck parking before 9 and it’s, ‘Oh. Yeah, you got me.’ ”
“This is really a crapshoot. I could park,” says Ballweber, pointing out available spots in front of Capella, but it’s four minutes away from being legal.
“I could … I could … No. I’m going to go around the block one more time. It’s not worth getting a ticket and wasting a whole day of sales.”
There’s a bit of irony in food truck musical chairs, and it’s this: Food trucks need other food trucks. A food truck area won’t work unless there’s a critical mass of lunch options. But is there a magic number of trucks? Or a magic system?
Gaitan points to Portland, Ore., and Chicago as places that have had food trucks for longer and have perfected their systems. (Minneapolis first licensed food trucks in 2010. Since then, licenses have increased 14-fold.) He wonders if the city would ever dedicate an entire block of parking to food truck slots.
As it is, Gaffney is thinking about giving up on 6th and 2nd altogether, but he knows that would be a risk — and a hard sell.
“You’ve always got to be looking for the next spot,” he says. “But it takes a grouping. It’ll take five, six trucks to commit. And getting five or six trucks to commit to a 20 percent sales cut for a while is challenging.”
“The fate of the gods!” hollers Ballweber as he slides into a space on 6th, in front of Capella Tower, with MidNord Empanadas right behind him. “Second-favorite spot! And we did it legally.”
Now he’s ready to call in his employees, tweet and Instagram his location to social media fans and, most important, get cooking.
But, wait. What’s this?
A construction worker breaks the bad news to Ballweber and Gaffney: They can’t stay in those spots. They’re part of the construction site today. Instead of cutting them loose, the worker leads the two trucks to two prime parking spots that had been hooded. He lifts off the red “No Parking” hoods.
Ballweber and Gaffney have won today’s installment of food truck musical chairs.
As he unpacks his gear and takes a moment to come down from the parking frenzy, Ballweber exclaims: “I got the moneymaker spot!”