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Mobile trucks pave a new food culture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 3, 2011 - St. Louis food culture is experiencing a taste of something new, and it's not being served at a table, but on the pavement. Armed with truckloads of food and legions of Twitter followers, Pi On the Spot, Sarah's Cake Stop and Cha Cha Chow have initiated St. Louis into a food truck culture that reigns in other major cities.

Chris Sommers, owner of Pi Pizzeria, operates four successful Pi restaurants, but going mobile seemed like a lucrative option after he spent time in San Francisco, a city with a large food-truck culture. The inspiration was similar for Sarah's Cake Shop & Catering Co. in Chesterfield, according to Jeff Pupillo, partner and co-owner. Jill Umbarger, co-owner and Pupillo's sister, had seen other trucks in her travels and knew St. Louis could support something similar.

"We wanted mobile," said Linda Jones, one of the chefs in the Cha Cha Chow van. Unlike Pi and Sarah's, Cha Cha Chow does not operate a brick-and-mortar store. Food preparation is done in a kitchen space, but all of the food is made fresh daily on the truck. While Cha Cha Chow specializes in gourmet tacos, its menu includes burgers and sandwiches.

These businesses say going mobile has benefited them as well as their customers. "We know we have guests in places we don't have restaurants," Sommers said. Bringing the product to their consumers allows the trucks to reach out to existing customers and serves as a low-risk way for new consumers to try the food. Sommers also uses his truck as a business development tool to determine potential sites for future Pi restaurants.

What to Try

Pi on the Spot:

Pi's deep-dish cornmeal crust makes their pies unique and balances the toppings with a nice crunch. The tomato sauce is vibrant and aromatic and pairs perfectly with the other toppings, particularly sausage and pepperoni.

Cha Cha Chow:

The Yucatan pork taco is deliciously smoky, with a subtle kick from poblano pepper and the salsa verde. The chefs (and their customers) recommend the beef short ribs. All sauces and rubs are homemade and the food is cooked fresh.

Sarah's Cake Stop:

The popular snack cake cupcake is decadent in chocolate, topped with a light-as-air whipped chocolate icing. Pineapple chardonnay is moist and the cake has a pleasant zing. As for the brownies -- a chocolate peanut butter pretzel brownie can't get much better.

The food truck owners also collaborate with ideas and locations. During a recent Friday lunch rush, Sarah's Cake Stop and Cha Cha Chow were parked side-by-side outside of Wells Fargo Advisors, a popular spot for the trucks (Pi frequents this location on Tuesdays). Other popular places include Barnes-Jewish Medical Center (Pi's Friday spot) and various street corners downtown.

Pupillo said his truck has standard locations it goes to throughout the week, but is always willing to try new spots. Much of the demand for new places is dictated through social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. The interactive nature of these websites allows consumers to suggest new locations for the trucks to visit. "We're happy to give (a location) a shot if we do believe we can hit what we consider our minimum or break-even point," Sommers said.

Social networking also allows consumers from areas the trucks may not visit to know where to find their favorite food. Pupillo said Sarah's Cake Stop has been visited by people who have come from as far as Union, Mo. He fondly referred to some of the truck's most loyal customers as "stalkers," and greeted many of these customers as they made their way to the truck recently.

Customer loyalty and camaraderie among the three trucks have made many spots a huge success, but the trucks aren't welcomed everywhere with open arms. Last week, Pi On the Spot was blocked from selling its pizzas in Edwardsville, even though they were met with enthusiasm from customers during a Jan. 19 visit. The trucks have also experienced issues in Clayton, Webster Groves and on the campus of Washington University.

Though enforcement comes from the cities, the food truck owners believe the pressure to keep their trucks out of certain areas stems from complaints from other restaurants and businesses. "They think we have a competitive edge," Pupillo said of brick and mortar restaurants, but the trucks face issues of their own, including where to park, getting permission to park in certain locations and occasionally having to adjust their location schedules on the fly.

Municipalities and counties, however, do have to ensure that health codes are met and may have license and fee structures that food trucks need to know about and comply with.

Jones said the Cha Cha truck tries to be respectful of business owners and not park in front of other restaurants. Pupillo called it the "gentlemen's rule," and said that all three trucks are mindful of where they park. "We try to make friends, not enemies," Pupillo said, and part of this strategy includes collaborating with and promoting other restaurants.

To combat these issues, the food trucks are working with the mayor's office and the street department to rewrite the ordinances for food trucks in the city of St. Louis. "St. Louis city wants to make it friendly for trucks," Sommers said. Food truck owners cite St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay as a great supporter of mobile food. Indeed, some city corners have long had more traditional food trucks. On his Twitter account Thursday Mayor Slay posted, "No Pi Truck allowed near your workplace in Edwardsville or Clayton? It and you are welcome in DT #STL."

Despite setbacks in some municipalities, the food trucks are looking to the future and the expansion of their businesses -- and not just in this area. Sommers said he's willing to do another Pi On the Spot in Washington, D.C., where a new Pi restaurant will open in the spring. Cha Cha Chow's owners will soon send their van off to Miami for a week to receive kitchen updates, including a fryer so the chefs can serve fries alongside their burgers. Sarah's Cake Stop isn't going elsewhere for changes, but has recently added brownies to its line-up and may consider pies and other treats in the future.

"We hope people keep embracing (food trucks)," Jones said, and the owners welcome the addition of more trucks to the line-up. Unlike Cha Cha Chow, if food truck culture were pushed out of St. Louis, Sarah's and Pi would be able to fall back on their permanent locations, but for the sake of the city, they hope this won't be the case.

"Food trucks create excitement downtown," Pupillo said, "we're all trying to support our city."

Erika Miller is a senior at Saint Louis University. 

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