Monday, June 11, 2012
Patty Pan is getting a tamale cart! I've spent much of the past few weeks brainstorming about logistics, filling out the cumbersome health department application, and driving down to Oregon to order my custom cart. I can't wait.
I've wanted a tamale cart for years; in fact, when I opened my ill-fated cafe a year and a half ago, I really wanted to get a tamale cart instead, but at that point the Seattle health department still wasn't letting you sell any savory food other than hot dogs off a street cart. Because, after all, hot dogs are so much safer than any other kind of food you could cook on a cart (?)
I'm still not quite sure how my tamale cart will fit in with Seattle's evolving street food scene. To be honest, I've been somewhat ambivalent about the recent hype about the rapidly expanding lineup of local food trucks. Growing up in New York, I knew street food as the experience of buying an expedient hot dog, knish, or pretzel from a no frills cart, and inhaling it while rushing down the street, weaving in and out of pedestrian crowds.
I've always thought of street food as a deeply populist eating experience. The gourmet trucks that have been proliferating lately are strange to me. One truck owner I've worked with struts around in a t-shirt that reads, "I'm only wearing this t-shirt because my chef coat is in the laundry."
I spent a night in Portland last week when I drove down to order my cart. I did a lot of walking, and I ate some street food. I learned from the guy who's building my cart that the health department regulations in Oregon are significantly more relaxed than the rules in Washington State. Unlike many of the Seattle trucks I've seen, most of the Portland trucks looked like low-budget ventures.
Peeking in windows, I saw plenty of basic, home-style kitchen range hoods and domestic stoves. The Seattle health department requires you to have all professional equipment. I saw many complex and elaborate menus, and realized that the Portland model provides a relatively low budget opportunity for entrepreneurs with restaurant dreams to get started. On the other hand, some of the Seattle trucks likely required as much startup capital as a small restaurant.
So I'm trying to figure out how a Patty Pan cart will fit in. Our success at farmers' markets has come in part from the fact that we were in the right place at the right time and were lucky to be the city's first enduring, tenacious farmers' market concession. We also do well because our menu is set up to prepare and serve food very quickly during the limited hours when we operate. Oh yeah, and we also provide a great product.
To use a Moneyball reference, Patty Pan has never aimed to be the New York Yankees. We'd rather be the Oakland A's: smart, scrappy, and profitable.
The man I've been working with at the Seattle health department told me that they've gotten very few applications for new kinds of carts since they started allowing foods other than hot dogs. So I'm excited to be getting in on this early. In some ways a cart seems more versatile than a truck: it can operate in a smaller space--even a sidewalk--and it's less of a production to get it up and running on any given day.
We're going to offer plenty of tamale varieties, plenty of different salsas, and also chili. And we'll have griddles that can fit over the burners we use so that the operation can double as a quesadilla cart, but we won't try to sell both tamales and quesadillas at the same event. We want to keep it simple, and leverage our long-time experience in getting food into customers' hands as quickly as possible.
If everything goes according to plan, we should be up and running by early July. Stay tuned.