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The Tucson Food Truck Roundup is Hittin' the Streets

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The Tucson Food Truck Roundup gives "chefs on wheels" a chance to flaunt their cooking talents. Chain restaurants better watch out--these food trucks swoop in "guerrilla" style.

“At the Roundup, there is a dissolving of borders. A culinary dissolving,” said David Aguirre, director of Dinnerware Artspace and co-creator of the Tucson Food Truck Roundup. “Everyone can be sitting at the same table and eat different foods simultaneously. The neat thing is you don’t have to be restricted by a certain menu. It’s a different way of eating.”

Baja Tacos truck chef, Carlos Maldonado, agrees. 

“It’s amazing to get together with 20 food trucks and see that all the families and people have a chance not to go to a big restaurant,” he said. “Just to go and support the local businesses, I think that’s amazing.”

The Food Truck Roundup began in November 2011 under the watchful eyes of co-creators Aguirre and Julie Ray. Since then, there have been six Roundups throughout the Tucson area. (Click here to see some of the fun.)

“We were curious to see what would happen with the trucks here,” Ray said. “We were curious to see if everything would melt together.”

Planning for the first Roundup took a mere week and a half. Aguirre and Ray wanted to plan an event for the community that would bring people together in a way that cities outside of Tucson were experiencing.

“I’m a doer, and I said let’s do it in ten days, and [Julie] was hesitant,” Aguirre said. “The first one blew us away.”

Ray first became acquainted with food trucks several years ago when she saw the trend happening in different cities, including events in Los Angeles and Portland. Portland sported food carts in pod arrangements, with a “mixture of different cuisines.”

Aguirre did most of his research in Austin, where he discovered permanently-parked food carts serving food to customers. From about 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., these carts saw a rush of patrons. But, there was nothing quite like the Roundups in Tucson.

“Our roundups are guerilla,” Aguirre said. “We swoop in, do our thing, and leave.”

Aguirre’s job consists of everything from top to bottom. In addition to fundraising for Dinnerware Artspace, he hires and manages staff, chooses each Roundup’s theme, consults with each food truck—the list goes on.

Ray is in charge of promotion and marketing, and uses different outlets to reach Tucsonans.

Marketing generally consists of Facebook page promotions, word of mouth, an extensive email contact list, and partner support. Through the hard work, the Roundups have met success.

There are lots of reasons for this success. For one, the truck owners have formed friendships and healthy competition amongs one another, thus fostering “buzz” about each Roundup event. There is also a community interest in such an innovative idea.

“There’s a fascination with food trucks right now, and the economy is still in question,” Aguirre said. “I love going out to restaurants to try new foods, but it costs $60 for two of us. The Food Truck Roundup is about $20 for a family, and you can see friends and try anything from Cuban to Chinese food.”

“It’s a new way of dining,” Ray said. “When you bring trucks to an outdoor venue, people can mingle and interact in a way you can’t at a restaurant. Everything is designed around the food itself.”

Truck owners are always asking when the next Roundup will be.

“It’s a wild herd out there, looking for grazing,” Aguirre said. “It’s the new version of what theater drive-ins have been.”

Aguirre says he chooses locations based on the people in living in the area, and whether there is a business partner available to help advertise the Roundup.

 The most recent Roundup was Marana’s Monday Movie Nite on Feb. 6. The trucks parked in the lot of the Tower Theatres in Marana, and the theatres allowed Roundup goers to bring food into the movies. Around 500 people attended.

 The idea is to attract businesses that could be doing better commercially, and to see whether the Roundup partnership could be a fit.

“I created a new family, and I’m head of that family, for the night anyway,” Aguirre laughed. “I’ve learned truck names, names of owners.”

Some truck owners have day jobs, and a number of them are easing their way into the food truck business. There are many families involved in operations, and some trucks are run by couples, such as Jane’s Rolling Wok.

Every truck pays a percentage of its sales for rent in individual contracts with Aguirre. Food trucks can make anywhere from $150 to $1500 a night.

But the best part? The “chefs on wheels” bring together a blend of diverse, appetizing foods.

Food truck MaFooCo is one of the most popular vendors. “Their success is from having unique food with a twist—you can get things like Korean tacos. And the owner is great at marketing. He has a Facebook page, he has promotions, and he knows how to build excitement,” Ray said.

Jamie’s Bitchen Kitchen’s Cuban sandwiches are a favorite, and Animal Farm’s grass-fed, “very unusual” burger is delicious, Aguirre commented.

And it's the unique and unconventional foods that attract customers most.

“Some of the newer trucks are run by young guys who have new ideas,” Aguirre said. “The variety attracts young people. All of them are inventing new ideas and making adjustments to their menus.”

Robdogs makes an effort to attract a range of customers through their vegetarian options. In addition to Sonoran hotdogs, the truck offers a soy burger and different trimmings to really stand out.

“We’re original, as authentic as you can get it,” said Rob Ballesteros, Robdogs truck chef. “You can taste everything from the beans to the onions to the yellow chili pepper.”

Get a glimpse of Robdogs here.

D’s Island Grill Ja.’s jerk chicken sandwich is a favorite, and foods like Guatemalan chocolate crème brulee, southwestern barbeque, and roasted corn are options for hungry people.

“I love Planet of the Crepes, but I’m looking for a new [truck],” said Crystal Lyons, a regular Roundup attendee. “I want to try everything. Right now I’m eating curry goat from the Jamaican place. We already had a fresh pizza and [my son is] eating a German meatloaf sandwich.”

“It’s a gathering of independent chefs on wheels, out there in the wilderness, doing their thing,” Aguirre said. “It gets the public together for one big taste test.”

The variety of food is far-reaching. See food truck options here.

“We sell seafood tacos and we try to bring the food from Ensenada, Mexico, so we do our fish tacos and shrimp tacos exactly the same way from Ensenada,” Maldonado said. “We deep fry our fresh tilapia in a beer batter, and they’re delicious. They’re delicious.”

Aguirre praises the Roundup’s accomplishments. He even believes it trumps the Street Eats Food Truck Festival in the Phoenix area.

“There was an entry fee of $10, and the thing was disastrous,” he said. “There were long lines of unhappy people. It’s a mistake to think that food trucks are the same thing as fast food. There are actual chefs in the trucks, and it’s not like fast food—it takes time to make.”

The food trucks are going to be busy this year. Aguirre has plans to swoop into the downtown area, Oro Valley, and Eastern Tucson. He even wants to invade Phoenix.

The Roundup is working with organizations such as the Humane Society in order to gain more contacts. With cross-promotion, it works in both organizations’ benefit.

The goal is to eventually have four Roundups a month. Plans are underway to work with the Tucson Museum of Art mid-March, and there is talk of a possible gathering near the Marriott on the University of Arizona campus.

Already, people have contacted Ray to set up events and catering of food trucks for their personal use.

“There’s been a lot of media coverage,” Ray commented. “The trend has hit the mainstream.”

Next up, the Food Truck Roundup will be visiting the Benjamin Plumbing Supply parking lot on Sixth Street on Feb. 19. The theme is “Lips are for Eating.”

“They’re all very grateful for what we’re doing,” Aguirre said. “And we’re just going to get bigger.”



If you want to see a list of some of the food trucks, click here.

If you want to take a dive deeper into the life of the food truck Robdogs, click here.

If you want to see a picture slideshow of the Roundup, click here.

Written by Lauren Inouye You are reading The Tucson Food Truck Roundup is Hittin' the Streets articles

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