Keep on Truckin’

The food truck phenomenon has brought great food to the street corner, and a host of questions about how the trucks fit with city regulations and brick and mortar restaurants.

Written by Richard James

Photography by Chuck St. John

Cheese expertly grilled and a truck. What could be more simple?

So thought Paget Pizitz and Harriet Reis when they decided to team up and create the food truck, Melt, even though neither had ever been behind the wheel of a rolling restaurant. Reis spent a decade helping to operate Ocean and 26 restaurants. After retiring from the restaurant business, Reis focused her efforts on raising her two teenage boys, Will and Peter.

Pizitz, a certified matchmaker and former recruiter in New York, has never even worked in a restaurant, though she has always been obsessed with food, cooking and restaurants. “One thing I loved, and was never disappointed in, when I returned to Birmingham to live was the food scene and the restaurants. I admire it so much,” she says. She saw the Spoonfed Grill operation and “was just invigorated.” Pizitz and Reis met through their work with Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Why grilled cheese? “I have never met anyone who said ‘I don’t eat grilled cheese.’ Harriet thought of grilled cheese. Harriet was making lunch for kids and her son said, ‘Mom you are not a great cook, but you make a great grilled cheese.’”

A food truck was born. The pair combed through E-Bay looking for food trucks. They travelled to Miami and purchased a used truck that they customized for Melt and even outfitted it with surround sound. Reis and Pizitz contacted Ronald Sarni, who runs 10 food trucks in Boston, who helped them get off the ground with menu design and logistics. Menu items include a Caprese Grilled Cheese, The Southern Comfort with cheddar, pulled pork, Southern- style BBQ sauce, grilled onion, bacon, grilled sourdough, and a brie cheese melt with brie, apple, and ham on ciabatta. They hired Joey Dickerson as the chef on the food truck and put together plans to open a catering operation, Two Cheesy Chicks Catering.

Melt is the latest entry in the blossoming food truck business in Birmingham. Jason Parkman, who founded the casual burrito shop, Lunar Coyote Mexican Grill, was a pioneer in the food truck business in Birmingham with Spoon Fed Grill. He teamed up with Michael Brandon as executive chef to create a tantalizing menu of fresh ingredients that traverses the world of cuisine from Latin to Asian to American and French, even Japanese. Live satellite TV and radio entertains diners while they wait.

The range of food truck options has expanded a great deal since the first trucks began to roll in Birmingham. Fresh Off the Bun serves a balance of  fresh herbs, meat, tofu and a mix of Vietnamese and Cajun spices for a quick and healthy meal. Founded by Tosha Tran, Fresh Off the Bun offers a mix of Vietnamese, French and Cajun influences: delicious Bánh mì (sandwich on a baguette), Spring Rolls, Pho (noodle bowls served in the winter), Vietnamese Tacos, and Salads all from freshest of vegetables, herbs and meats.

“My love of Vietnamese Cuisine (many consider to be of the healthiest cuisines in the world) has fostered a passion for cooking and eating right. As a mother of two children in Birmingham, I have noticed the choices of fresh foods on the go are limited. Fresh Off the Bun was created to bring Birmingham a healthy alternative that doesn’t skimp on flavor,” Tran says.

Co-founded by Chad Schofield and Mac Russell, Shindigs is another popular food truck. The founders have a deep background in the restaurant business and have turned their truck into a popular outpost for fresh local food as well as catering.

Some brick and mortar restaurants have branched out into the mobile world. Cantina, the popular Pepper Place restaurant , has an equally popular food truck. Dreamcakes, the ultra popular Homewood cupcake bakery, also takes it product to the streets with a cupcake truck. Slice Pizza & Brew, the Lakeview pizza spot founded by brothers Jeff, Jason, and Chris Bajalieh, has also branched out into the truck business and even started a 7,000 square foot warehouse near Pepper Place to serve as a food truck staging area.

“It is like having a whole other restaurant on wheels. It is great business and branding for our restaurant,” says Jeff Bajalieh.

Their attorney and partner David Donaldson has been at the forefront of what has become a brewing controversy between the city, brick and mortar restaurants and the food trucks about where the trucks can serve customers and for how long. The debate has been on and off again since the fall.

The food truck advocates oppose the current draft ordinance which they say undermines their ability to operate in such a drastic way it will drive them out of business. A few of the elements of the legislation would restrict operation within 230 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant; only allow trucks to serve customers for two hours in the morning, two hours at lunch and two hours in the evening; and restrict trucks to operate only in certain geographical zones.

The food truck operators have come back with their own suggestions and the whole issue appears heading to some kind of showdown in the coming weeks. “I feel like I straddle both worlds. I think we can come to terms  that will make sense to both side,” Jeff says.

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