What I’m Thinking About These Days

This is the first in what promises to be an exciting feature on PizzaQuest.com, a series of short personal essays and thought pieces, by many of the people featured in our video webisodes, as well as from other thought leaders in the world of artisanship, culinary and other. These essays are not promotions of the various businesses of the writers but, rather, a peek inside the passion and vision that drives these talented people, what’s burning inside of them, as well as what may be burning inside of you. We’re calling this section Guest Columns but I call it, “What I’m Thinking About These Days.” These essays are just the starting point for ongoing discussion—we want your comments and we’d love for you to engage each other in serious, thoughtful conversation. It’s all part of the quest….

So, to get the ball rolling, in advance of future essays from our special group of contributors, I’ll kick off. Here’s what I’m thinking about these days: food carts!

This is the most exciting food trend I’ve seen in years and it’s only a matter of time before it sweeps the nation.  The city of Portland, Oregon already has more carts than the rest of the country put together, or so it seems (450 was the last number I heard, and that’s up from 240 when I was there back in April—they’re multiplying like bunnies!). But carts are now popping up everywhere, including on all the food channels, and I’m especially hoping to see more carts here in my home town, Charlotte, where the municipal codes will have to change before it can happen like it has in Portland.  In fact, I’ve heard that many cities are stifling the growth of food carts because of their rules and regulations, but really because it’s a frightening concept, and a threatening one to existing brick and mortar restaurants. But cities like Portland and Austin have shown how the cultural identity of a city can be transformed by food carts, and how these carts can serve as incubators for the next generation of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs.

Some food carts and trucks can cost well in excess of $100,000 to get up and running, while mobile pizza rigs, which comprise a growing segment of the food cart phenomenon, are even cheaper at less than $25,000. So, even at the top end, the start-up costs are far less than with a traditional restaurant. But, as anyone who has ever operated a restaurant knows, it takes more than a good idea and great food to make a successful business. It’s really like running a marathon race, and requires endurance and resiliency as much as talent. The operators that succeed and survive will do so because they have a fire in their bellies that allows them to overcome fatigue and roadblocks, literally as well as figuratively. 

But the most interesting thing to me about these carts, whether enclosed in a truck or in the open air as a pizza oven, is how excited the public gets when they discover them. In Portland, where there are so many to choose from, it’s like being a kid in candy store (and there are some candy store food carts!). In cities with just a few carts, it’s like discovering a forbidden pleasure. There’s just something about this food cart movement that has touched a nerve in everyone on either side of the counter. When I stood in line at The Potato Champion in Southeast Portland, waiting for my duck fat French fried potatoes and poutine (don’t get me started on poutine—look it up and get ready to scratch your head in wonderment), the anticipation among the gathered was palpable. I felt like I was having a tribal experience as much as a food experience. And it was like that at all the carts. Those who have already discovered the many incarnations of Korean Taco Trucks that are starting to show up in many cities, who track them down via Twitter at their secret locations (the stealth marketing is to avoid being fined by the local health departments), knows what I’m talking about. It’s outlaw, it’s counter-culture, it’s original and, most of all, it’s delicious. In some ways, food carts are the most authentic expression of the American spirit currently on display in a country that has been crying out for that original spirit and often embraces platitudes and cookie cutter menus instead of authenticity and originality.

So, yes, this is what I’ve been thinking about lately. What do you think about it?

Peter Reinhart, Charlotte, NC




#1 James Whitcomb 2010-12-19 09:59
The attached link comes to mind when you mention food carts. FYI, Elkhart was leading the country with unemployment at the time this cart was introduced. Granted, hot dogs aren't the best example of authentic and original cuisine, but the spirit of community being demonstrated in this example is refreshing.

#2 Rick Theis 2010-12-20 10:01
It was a sad day when you left Santa Rosa. The city and Sonoma County are so backward on food carts. Just last week, their totalitarian regulations effectively shut Bob's Fruit Truck and a tamale cart, both run by Jose Duran and his family. The bureaucrats are simply irrational. Examples of good public policy, such as Portland's and Elkhart, will be appreciated to show local policymakers that it can be done. BRING ON THE FOOD CARTS.
Looking forward to Oakland's Eat Real food cart festival next fall.
#3 Cristina Munoz 2010-12-20 10:08
I encourage Peter Reinhart to come visit the Triangle, where food truck culture is thriving, along with its close relative, farmers' markets. Here's a nice article: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/your-food-is-moving/Content?oid=1496194
We still desperatedly need a mobile churrero, and any cool ethnic truck next each of the major hospitals in the region.
#4 Peter Reinhart 2010-12-20 13:17
I do miss Santa Rosa and am sad to hear about the current bureaucratic short-sightedness. But this is a coming food tsunami, and eventually all cities and towns that take their food seriously (as Santa Rosa and my current hometown, Charlotte do) will realize that they can either be in front of the wave or just play catch-up. I like being in front of the wave but not all administrators operate that way. It usually takes places like Portland, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill (the Triangle), and Austin to show the way. But this one is like the bulls of Pamplona-- it won't be stopped and eventually the obstacles will get out of the way. After all, what better way to create an incubator for entrepreneurs and new business development.
#5 Erik Jacobs 2010-12-20 15:10
Mr. Reinhart,

It appears great minds think alike! For years I've dreamed of the ultimate food truck...and now I'm building it! I am renovating a 1973 Airstream Trailer into a mobile pizza 'stream, with a wood-fired Forno Bravo oven inside.


Your comments about the business are spot on. And I appreciate your understanding of the "tribal nature" of those who willingly wait in line to share in some of the magic. It is a club in which all can be members. The up close and personal is what I crave with the patrons of my new venture. When I owned my restaurant, often times I was too disconnected from those who would visit.

Lastly, let me thank you personally for your books and articles. You helped to fine tune my understanding of breads and pizzas. Without your pioneering work, my pizzas would be far less enjoyable.

#6 Will Fain 2010-12-21 02:06
The Portland scene is still on the rise too. Since you were here in April we've seen more new pizza carts open up:

Pizza Contadino (St. Johns area in North Portland)
Kindle (N. Mississippi)
Slice Brick Oven Pizza (SE Division)

That's a total of seven pizza carts in this town (nine if you include the deep dish stall and Tastebud's cart at the PSU farmers market). The quality pizza carts outnumber the quality pizza brick-and-mortars here.
#7 Scot 2010-12-21 09:23
Hey Peter

Love the site. I Consider myself a neophyte when it comes to pizza but I'm trying and I just got my pizza oven built in my back yard which considerably "upped" my game. What I wanted to know is if you could could do some "basics" of pizza in addition to what you are (and will be) doing. Specifically, videos of basic doughs that really get into the details of making the dough. The recipes in your books are the kind of detail I need but sometimes I feel that a video would help me actually see what the dough should look like etc. Hey, and please let us all know if you plan on any more classes for the general public. Thanks!!!!!!
#8 Peter Reinhart 2010-12-21 14:55
Yes, a basic dough mixing video is a great idea. We won't be shooting any new ones for a while but next time we do I'll be sure to throw that into the mix. You'll see some dough being made in an upcoming webisode, in about two weeks, when we take you inside the LaBrea Bakery where they mix the dough for Pizzeria Mozza, but it's more complex than what most of us would do at home. We'll work on it....
#9 Michael Y 2010-12-21 22:11
Hey Chef,

I was lucky enough to be a student in one of the AOS classes that you taught back in 1998. I'm sure you remember me - the brash culinary student -
Anyway, I'm excited about this new venture of yours as I am in the planning stages of adding a wood fired pizza oven to my restaurant. We have been an upscale wine bar & high end restaurant for eight years and I want to move towards pizza and pasta. But I'm not talking freezers and microwaves. I want to focus on amazing pizza and a few pastas done impeccably.
While I am still at heart a hot line kind of cook, you taught me that bread bridges the gap between savory and baking. It made quite the impression!
So thank you, and if you are interested, I will keep you appraised of our progress through this journey as it is likely to be fraught with pitfalls and funny moments.
I may be good for a few questions as well.
Thanks again.
#10 Peter Reinhart 2010-12-22 06:18
Hi Michael,
Yes, do keep us all apprised as things develop. Can't wait to hear more. Also, it would be great if you would post to the Forum with questions, as they arise, so that the collective wisdom of the Pizza Quest community can kick in with suggestions. All anyone has to do to post there is to register with Forno Bravo (our Forum button will automatically take you to the FB site, where FB has graciously given the Pizza Quest Forum a home). I think this section will be a tremendous resource for sharing ideas and also a place where everyone can post about their favorite pizza places.

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