Whether it’s at a park, a brewery or even in an empty parking lot, if you live in Albuquerque, it’s likely that you’re accustomed to seeing food trucks.
In Albuquerque, the food truck market is exploding with the city’s Environmental Health Department issuing the largest number of food truck permits on record in 2021.
Last year, the city issued 139 permits for food trucks, up from 2020, during which only 88 permits were issued.
But what is driving this record increase?
Experts in the food truck industry say the pandemic has been a big driver in the boom.
The economic upheavals of the pandemic, uncertain conventional job prospects, a change from indoor dining to to-go models and the desire from an increasing number of people for a fresh career start have all played a role in increasing the number of food truck-based businesses within Albuquerque, according to several industry experts.
The boom might also just be getting started.
“In the next year, I think it’s still going to continue being in kind of a boom mode and then, I think, maybe in the next two or three years, it’ll steady out a bit,” said Suzanne Jones, co-owner of Albuquerque Commissary Kitchen. “But Albuquerque has yet to see that food truck boom that California and Texas, and places like that have seen. It was kind of a small little wave that came this way.”
Jones is a food truck veteran. She opened her first food truck in Albuquerque in the ’90s working at city baseball games.
But in the more than two decades since then, Jones said the food truck scene in Albuquerque has changed drastically, and expanded when it comes to city regulations and diversity of food offerings.
Jones said that, of the 15 to 20 food trucks operating out of her commissary, about 10 of those opened in the past year, and she’s regulary receiving calls from people interested in jumping into the business.
“I’d say most of the calls that we get are from new people wanting to start up a food truck,” she said.
A pandemic push
For Noah Argeanas and his partner Jenny Potter, the pandemic acted as a push toward opening up a food truck last year.
Argeanas, who has about 20 years of cooking experience as a Naval cook and at Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe, said he had been looking to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant before the pandemic upended those plans.
“I was looking for a way to still do that and then, for me, the option was a food truck, which is kind of a stepping stone,” Argeanas said.
He said opening up a food truck allowed him to be in control of what he was serving, while also navigating the uncertainty of the restaurant industry during a pandemic.
However, his first attempt did not go as planned.
Argeanas’ first foray into food trucks last summer was a short-lived concept selling New Mexican breakfast foods — a market he found to be over-saturated with options, and a type of food that made it difficult to find places to park and serve.
Several weeks after opening, he decided to shutter that venture and start anew, landing on serving Japanese-style curry instead.
This new concept, Katsu Kare, proved to be an instant hit, he said.
According to Argeanas, the truck has amassed a following since opening in the late summer.
The food truck currently operates about five days a week at various breweries around the city.
Lucky Goose owners also entered the food truck business thanks to the pandemic.
Owners Rafael Guillen and Melissa Timmons said they came to Albuquerque from Los Angeles with dreams to open up a food truck after business at Guillen’s solar company declined during the pandemic.
Owning their own restaurant had been something they had discussed, but the timing was accelerated by the pandemic.
“The reason we came back to Albuquerque to do it was because the startup costs here are a lot lower than they are in Los Angeles, and then because we do vegan or plant-based burgers and fries,” Guillen said. “That’s not something that really exists here.”
The couple spent nearly a year perfecting their vegan burger recipe, first selling it out of a concessions stand in Los Lunas before debuting the Lucky Goose food truck last summer.
Guillen said they had underestimated the work involved in operating a food truck, but the local vegan community has embraced their business to the point where Guillen and Timmons are looking at opening a brick-and-mortar location much sooner than anticipated.
Jones said that, as one of the larger commissaries in the city, she often receives phone calls from people looking for help getting their business off the ground.
With those calls, she usually walks the hopefuls through the various steps of getting started since she said it can be hard for would-be entrepreneurs to find all the resources they need in one place.
She said she has seen an increase in interest to the point where her commissary is currently full, but is in the process of expanding.
Other programs that work with up-and-coming food truck owners have also seen an increase in inquiries.
Camille Vasquez, South Valley Economic Development Center manager, said more people have reached out to the center over the past year looking for commissary space or help.
Currently, the center has six food truck clients, three of which opened in the past year.
Food trucks have always been of interest to students at the Street Food Institute on the Central New Mexico Community College campus, but this past year has brought a renewed interest in the concept, according to executive director Tina Garcia-Shams.
She says that some of the interest stems from COVID-19 since the public was more comfortable going to get take-out from places outdoors and food trucks allowed celebrations to take place outside in a safe manner.
“So many people have turned to food trucks as a way to both have something different in that it’s cool … at their wedding, but also as a way to have something safe so that their guests feel … safer than going into a hotel ballroom or into an enclosed restaurant,” she said.
As a nonprofit organization dedicated to training those entering the culinary profession, Garcia-Shams said the organization’s programs can sometimes serve as a wake-up call for those wanting to enter the profession or can reaffirm a person’s desire to pursue their career.
Allure of being your own boss
Michael “Mo” O’Donnell, interim director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, said that, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a national trend of people starting their own businesses.
He said people start businesses for a variety of reasons, but, lately, many have largely reevaluated their relationship to work and have sought nontraditional employment opportunities.
“I think some people are taking a greater risk now in the sense that they’re saying, you know, ‘I’ve had this dream that I’ve wanted to be my own boss or own my own business … or do something I’ve never done in the past,'” he said.
Starting a food truck could also be an easier step into the food industry rather than jumping in and starting a standard brick-and-mortar establishment, O’Donnell said.
He also said that it seems as if there are less costs associated with starting a food truck and, during the pandemic, food trucks may also just be a more attractive option for customers wary of dining in.
“Basically, it makes it more attractive because people are looking for alternative options, I think, for places to eat,” he said.