by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, August 2011
In the middle of summer on a hot stretch of Central, the hum of generators signals a Pavlovian response. If you’ve been to the Talin Market parking lot on a Wednesday, the sound will stroke your appetite and coax your thirst. Food trucks line the lot like a toy train set, each car serving up something slightly different. Visit the open window of one and get handed a mean slathering of South Carolina barbecue. Another boasts the Texas counterpart. Find fresh veggies and hummus, drunken meatballs, carne adovada and chef salad. Sate a parched throat with homemade lime soda, topped with fresh berries. Crave a little confection? A red velvet moon pie is waiting.
The scene comes compliments of Curbside Cuisine, an assembly of food trucks joined together with a singular purpose: to make Albuquerque a little tastier.
Called a “food pod,” the idea is based off models in cities like Portland. Most of the time, the trucks in such models are stationary, but these ones are mobile, setting up outside Talin on Louisiana and Central every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Food pods not only allow new business owners to jumpstart their culinary endeavors faster and more economically, they also inject them with a dose of instant community.
Callie Tolman is one such pod person. She started her catering business, Make My Lunch, in January of last year. Work has been growing steadily for the do-it-all startup, which also offers meal planning as well as grocery pickup and delivery, but Tolman was looking for a way to nudge that growth even further. She’d been working out of the South Valley Economic Development Center’s kitchen, paying an hourly rate for a place to prep. In October, she invested in a food truck, which she mainly planned on using as a portable kitchen for catering events—one she didn’t have to pay for by the hour. It was Cynthia Beiser who suggested Tolman spring for the truck and Beiser who ultimately formed the pod.
Beiser is the executive director of STEPS (Southeast Team for Entrepreneurial Success), a local organization that helps people start small businesses. Beiser likes food trucks because they serve as a much cheaper alternative to renting space in a building, and she recommends them to many of the food-oriented startups she works with. Businesses can use them the way Tolman does, or they can use them to sell things like crafts or vegetables. “In Portland, people sell organic meat out of pods,” Beiser says. “You could even take a truck to a neighborhood without a local grocery.”
She got the idea for the pod last spring and went to City Councilor Rey Garduño for help, since setting up the pods outside Talin would require a change in zoning. Garduño created the Food Cart Task Force and brought the matter to the City Council and the Environmental Planning Commission, both of which voted unanimously to approve the zone change and support the pod. After a fair amount of organizing, Curbside Cuisine officially opened on March 6.
Tolman’s was one of four trucks that started the pod—along with Oz Patisserie, Marcell’s Carolina BBQ and Bill’s Barbecue. Now somewhere between five and eight trucks line Talin’s lot every week, and at one point there was even a waiting list. Customers have also been growing. On a good day, Tolman says she now gets 30 to 40. Beiser estimates that in the four months the pod has been going, most of the businesses involved have grown by about 10 percent.
That growth comes with a fair amount of effort. Make My Lunch serves relatively low-production, healthful offerings—things like hummus and veggie platters and cheese plates, although there are some dishes that take up to a couple days to make, like slow-cooked roast beef sandwiches. Even so, it takes Tolman 18 to 24 hours of work to prep for each Wednesday. Those numbers are also partially due to the fact that she likes to display clean linens and fresh flowers outside her truck, and in addition to doing laundry and grocery shopping and cooking, she also hauls in chairs every week.
Most trucks bring some kind of seating, and some even set up tents for shade. The do-it-yourself attitude extends to customers, some of whom have gotten in the habit of bringing their own chairs and umbrellas. “It’s a bring-you-own-chair party,” Tolman says. “Like going to the fair.”
Eventually, Beiser would like to see some pods become permanent, creating a sort of town center that also features a stage, colorful swathes of nylon for shade and tables and benches. “I want to watch little old men playing checkers,” she says. In addition to her vision for a popular outdoor space, Beiser wants to set up food pods all over the city, with at least one in each quadrant. She’s already in communication with the city about starting a second, possibly Downtown.
In addition to providing more tasty tidbits to an area, food pods may also help clean up neighborhoods. Since Curbside Cuisine started its weekly event, the transient population in the area has migrated to another location. “We used to have a lot of beggars,” Beiser says. After pausing to contemplate whether the term “beggar” is politically correct, she continues. “We made a pod decision that we would not give anything to them, food or money. That really helped.” She says the decision was a difficult one, because “you want to give people food if they’re hungry,” but the food pod also wanted to create an atmosphere that would be inviting to families. Pod people also do what they can to make the area cleaner, picking up trash and trying to make the lot look cleaner than it does when they get there.
Even though trucks compete with each other for customers, Tolman says the atmosphere is nothing but friendly, with a sharp synergy among the group. “We all work together as a community,” she says. If someone runs out of forks, another person offers theirs. Tolman needs help lifting something? Her fellow truckers are there to help. That philosophy of support is evident in all aspects of the pod. Because there’s overlap between some of the offerings from the trucks, vendors modified their menus to keep options diverse. Tolman also buys fresh baguettes from a nearby Vietnamese bakery, Banh Mi Coda, every week. Sometimes she’ll purchase a special cheese from Marcell’s Carolina BBQ for one of her platters. “If we run out of food,” she says, “we can go into Talin to shop.”
Talin is a big supporter of the food pod. In fact, Victor Limary, Talin’s manager, is actually Curbside Cuisine’s manager now, too. The partnership creates a symbiotic relationship, with Talin bringing in people from an array of backgrounds who might want to stop for a quick bite, and the food pod in turn promoting the grocery store. It all adds up to what Beiser calls a “food community,” which is the ultimate goal of the project.
“We want the community to grow, prosper and change,” says Tolman, adding that the pod hopes to attract more people to the area. “It’s a fantastic collection,” she says. “And we all have each other.”