It's lunchtime on Thursday in mid-May at Curbside Cuisine, and where up to seven food trucks once congregated regularly, now only two vendors man service windows. Brightly painted signage and seating elements can't make up for an expanse of empty pavement, sadly strewn with cigarette butts and random trash, including the same broken glass I'd walked my dog around the day prior.
What happened to our cool culinary spot? The music, the corn hole, the diverse and gourmet eats?
Turns out Curbside's closing at month's end, and that lack of truck participation we've recently witnessed has turned into apparent apathy as a swan song. Curbside's most recent manager Steve Cedre says while summers were stellar, winter months at the hub were "atrocious for everybody." Speaking as the owner of his nearby shop, Urban Cyclery, he believes "not enough people are coming downtown" to shop.
Many trucks that formerly showed here are alive and well, mostly parking at breweries these days. But Curbside has clearly had it — an incubator light left on too long. Still, the hub proved valuable for a time, and its legacy may lie more in what comes next rather than what it aspired to at an old auto garage belonging to the neighboring YMCA.
Amy Sufak of Red Energy PR, speaking for the Y, says its involvement with Curbside over the past three years "was a great partnership. The Y was happy to provide the space to the trucks and community." Sufak says Curbside reps notified the Y at May's beginning that they would not be signing another year-long lease. She confirms that the Y does have "longer-term" plans to develop the lot as part of a larger, regional campaign of upgrades and maintenance projects across facilities. But no timeline has been set at 225 N. Nevada Ave., so expect to see an empty lot for some time to come.
Curbside volunteer board member Mark Tremmel of Tremmel Design Group views Curbside, which gained nonprofit status under Pikes Peak Community Foundation's umbrella, as a successful "experiment." It brought brief life to an otherwise vacant lot. Under the Colorado Springs Urban Intervention banner, and in the spirit of tactical urbanism, Curbside's founders played off the "food court concept" of strength in numbers for the trucks. Though he credits former Garden of the Gods Gourmet owner Sandy Vanderstoep and Altitude Land Consultants' John Olson for conceiving Curbside, Tremmel was involved in the early planning for our yet-to-emerge Colorado Springs Public Market.
In a way, Curbside was discussed then as a baby step toward the Public Market. And when the Public Market finally finds its financial footing and launches, a new food truck hub may be one component, depending on location.
With Curbside's closure this month, the organization does officially die or goes on ice. "But we could put it back together quickly," Tremmel says, noting "we might lie low for a bit, until we're needed again." (OK, Batman.) Or, Tremmel believes there's an entrepreneurial opportunity for an individual to become a "broker" for the trucks, as he says the board often received calls from folks trying to book trucks for events. If united elsewhere or at least grouped somewhere on social media, they could use a leader who could monetize the effort.
Andres Velez's Piglatin Food Truck is second only to Macos Tacos for longevity at Curbside, having joined in August 2013 and rented through this March. Velez also served on Curbside's board, and says overall Curbside was a good deal. For $400 a month, he got power, water, trash-and-recycling services and visibility on a busy corner, plus he saved money he'd have spent on generator fuel. He also liked that he could prep on his truck versus having to haul food from a commissary, which saved time.
Velez says in the early days, "there was a lot of community and direction behind Curbside; the trucks were involved and excited about the corner." But the attrition that took hold over time largely boiled down to poor communication and perhaps excessive expectations on the vendors' side, as he sees it.
"Some owners felt they'd be getting more marketing services," he says, and one didn't even host his own Facebook page — social media being critical to mobile businesses. Velez says others were supposed to send the market managers their schedule ahead of time, to be posted to Facebook. But many failed to do so consistently, shooting themselves in the foot and poorly serving their potential customers, who like myself on several occasions, checked social media some days, only to find no information. Someone with a limited lunch hour can't risk a walk without reward. The most recent posting on Curbside's neglected Facebook page is from Nov. 3, 2015.
Piglatin now parks with Potato Potato off Boulder Street, in a lot next to Ohana Kava Bar, as Velez decided to split early to try and establish a new location. He knew all along of the Y's eventual plans to expand, and ultimately Curbside did act as a nice springboard for him; he landed a spot last year on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Now that Curbside's leaving, a question persists about where the trucks will be able to park downtown, since a current ordinance prohibits parking at meters. Many vendors perceive this as unfriendly to trucks, though brick-and-mortar operators classically find mobile businesses to be a threat to their livelihood. Velez shares two instances in which he claims prominent restaurateurs managed to nix truck participation at community events. He then directs me to a recent Baltimore Sun article that details a lawsuit between two food trucks and that city over a 300-foot buffer rule enacted in 2014 (no parking within that distance for anyone selling the same product), which plaintiffs allege violates their constitutional rights.
Sarah Harris, director of business development and economic vitality for the Downtown Partnership, says other cities have approached food truck ordinances in different ways, and each community has to decide what makes the best sense for them.
"We always want to be nimble and adjust as the marketplace changes," Harris says. "You never want to over-complicate policies. We want to make sure there's a balance between what's in place and what businesses need." And over the years, she's heard a need for this change.
City Councilwoman Jill Gaebler says she, the city clerk and city attorney, prompted by and along with members of the Downtown Partnership, already have drafted tentative language to modify city code to allow food trucks to park at meters in certain areas. A public-input meeting at City Hall (2 to 3 p.m., Thursday, May 26) will allow for tweaks as needed, and pending at least three City Council meetings needed to enact legislation, a new ordinance could be in place by summer's end (unfortunately, too late to capitalize on the season's foot traffic).
"Food trucks are just one of the many attributes of a thriving downtown," says Gaebler. "But they need to be mobile, and go to where people are at a given time. We will be sensitive to restaurants. For example, we probably won't allow meters on Tejon, because it's too busy and many restaurants feel it's unfair competition."
But spots near the Courthouse, side streets and around the Pioneers Museum and Acacia Park could be ideal for truck congregation, she says. Like Curbside, this too will be an experiment.