By Nick Brothers
There’s just something festive about Dickson Street’s newest hot spot, dubbed the Shulertown Community Food Market.
Shulertown is at its best at dinner time. As families and friend groups hang out and chat while sipping a beer on the food court’s patio furniture, names are shouted out from the various mobile restaurant kitchens — each time at increasing intensity as the person who the food is for is nowhere to be found. Amidst the lines of people waiting to order at each truck, people walk their gleeful dogs about, exciting bystanders to pet them. The constant movement keeps the area exciting while remaining laid back. It’s all still novel.
After the Phoenix closed in December 2013, Zac Wooden — local restaurateur and owner of Shulertown — bought the space and had the lot renovated into a food truck court. Located between Jose’s and 21st Amendment at 372 Dickson St., the marketplace houses seven — soon to be eight — different local food trucks each with their own distinct personality and food style. There’s also a bar area with an outdoor pool table that features Bottom’s Up beer taps that fill specialty cups from the bottom and seal off the hole with a Shulertown magnet.
“The city had been going back and forth with the idea of food trucks and food truck courts. So when they finally changed some ordinances to allow it, I figured now was the time,” Wooden said. “Alderman Petty was also a big help getting the vision off the ground and encouraging me to do it.”
Since opening up in early June, business has been consistently bustling, with many of the food trucks going strong until 3 a.m. on weekends. The food court closes on Sundays and Mondays, and each food truck runs on their own time frames. Some trucks open at lunch and others only open late at night. Generally, all of the food trucks are open for dinner, as well as the bar.
Shulertown consists of the following food trucks:
- Mama Dean’s Soul Food On-the-Fly: fried chicken, meat, vegetables and various sides.
- Great Dang Pies and Tamales: homemade meat pies and tamales.
- Greenhouse Grille: culinary dishes including fish tacos and the restaurant’s famed black bean burger.
- Wicked Wood-Fired Pizza: 10-inch personal pizzas.
- Burton’s Comfort Creamery: specialty ice cream cones dipped in various toppings or injected with fudge or caramel.
- Baller Foodtruck: fried balls of comfort food, such as macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly. They’re normally open later at night.
Shulertown will eventually include:
- Feltner Brothers: made-to-order burgers.
- Shakedown StrEAT: Philly cheesesteaks.
Shulertown was named after a popular soda jerk who ran a drugstore on Dickson Street in the late 1890s and 1900s. According to research by Tony Wappel, Washington County archivist, “Shuler Town” referred to the 400 block of Dickson Street well after T. Fred Shuler left Fayetteville in 1905.
Cultural Culinary Phenomenon
The amount of food trucks in the U.S. have been growing “astronomically” over the course of 10 years, said John Gaber, professor of public policy at the University of Arkansas. The most recent burst of mobile vendors have been cropping up at the tail end of the economic recession period of the U.S. economy, and most can be found in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and now, Fayetteville.
“I love (food trucks),” Wooden said. “They give variety to a community and allow people to start a small business for a little less than what a brick and mortar would cost. I also think its a great way to test local markets with unique foods and or themes.”
Some of the first modern food trucks in this area came to Bentonville and Rogers in 2010. Crepes Paulette (which is still open) on A Street in downtown Bentonville and the since retired Grateful Kitchen in Rogers were the trailblazers.
Jen Kiple, the owner of Grateful Kitchen who sold organic meals out of an airstream trailer, said she was only able to stay open for a year before closing.
“I think it was just the strangest thing for the people. It was just ahead of its time,” Kiple said. “I think now it’s an idea that its time has come, and it will do well in a college town like Fayetteville.”
Since then, several food trucks have opened up in the Bentonville downtown district within the past four years. Starting with Crepes Paulette, more food trucks such as Big Rub BBQ (which has had their “A-Street Hero” featured in the Washingtonian, a national dining magazine), Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, as well as brick-and-mortar-based food trucks Hammontree’s Grillenium Falcon and Greenhouse Grille. Because of the inventive culinary food they sell and the clientele these food trucks attract, these food trucks have revitalized the square, Gaber said.
In Fayetteville, before Shulertown, Cynthia Morris opened the Yacht Club on College, located at 617 College Ave., and it was the first lot dedicated to mobile vendors in the city in 2012. Hawaiian Brian’s, Bouchee Bistro, Grey Dog Vintage Boutique, Pigmint Floral & Event Design, now all brick-and-mortar storefronts, are all alumni of the Yacht Club on College.
One of the reasons why the mobile trend caught on was the economy forced many Americans into unemployment in the recession, and a popular alternative was to turn to food trucks and reinvent themselves, Gaber said. In turn, food trucks are great for attracting younger creative cooks and chefs to create innovative culinary foods (such as Korean BBQ tacos). While enterprising restaurateurs are taking risks with trendy food trucks, the overhead for a truck is still more affordable than investing in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
For Ryan Burton, a UofA graduate and owner of Burton’s Comfort Creamery, he wanted to change gears and pursue his hobby of ice cream making. After touring 400 shows in two years as a guitarist in christian bands in Nashville, Tenn., Burton was ready for something a little more permanent in his life. So, when the opportunity came in Shulertown, he decided to open up Burton’s Comfort Creamery. Since its opening in early June, business has been pretty good, he said.
“I think food trucks are on the uprise,” Burton said. “It’s a new thing in Fayetteville, but the food truck courts in the bigger cities like Nashville have been pretty successful. They’re killin’ it.”
Another newcomer to the Northwest Arkansas food truck scene in Bentonville is Eddie “The Brit” Lawrence, who owns and operates the Olde English Fish & Chips food truck at 8th and A Street. Lawrence saw his opportunity in the untapped English food niche in Bentonville, and opened up for business in May.
“I’d like to see more trucks involved in Bentonville. It’s a great place to be,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s a great venture for people to get into.”
As far as operational costs go, Lawrence said trucks can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $120,000 depending on the kind of kitchen gadgetry you want. Additionally, there are fewer employees to hire for running a food truck and owners don’t have to incorporate a bathroom or air conditioning, and they don’t have to worry about landscaping. However, the volume of customers a business owner can serve is higher in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Food trucks aren’t going anywhere, either — well, industry-wise that is. The mobile food vending industry rakes in about $650 million in revenue annually, and are projected to quadruple their revenue stream over the next five years, to about $2.7 billion in revenue, according to research by the National League of Cities.
As the trend becomes more of an urban staple, Northwest Arkansas city governments are still working out the kinks for permits, and have made for some frustrations for the mobile vendors. In Bentonville, vendors are required to be powered by electricity, causing vendors to install outlets. However, vendors are expected to be able to pack up and leave within 30 minutes, so permanent seating structures are prohibited.
Earlier this year, Fayetteville city council members lengthened the time that vendors can operate in one spot each year. They also allowed for a limited number of mobile vendors to operate on public property and they enacted new rules for food truck courts such as Shulertown and the Yacht Club on College Avenue.
Why Food Trucks Caught On
1. Great for entreprenuers to start out a new business venture.
2. They provide an opportunity to create new festive environments to underpopulated areas, e.g. downtown squares.
3. They provide a means for more safety on the streets by having more people and eyes on the street, and makes cities like Fayetteville more urban.
Source: John Gaber, food truck expert and professor of public policy at the University of Arkansas.
History of the Food Truck
- It’s theorized that the first food truck started in 1872 in Providence, R.I., by a vendor named Walter Scott. He cut windows into a small covered wagon and set up shop in front of a local newspaper office. He sat on a box inside, and he sold sandwiches with pies and coffee to journalists and pressmen working late. This would become known as the first “lunch wagon.”
- During the expansion of the American suburbs, many of the construction workers needed somewhere to eat, but restaurants were few and far between. To fill this niche, “roach coaches” — the trailers with aluminum siding — became increasingly popular as they drove around construction sites, offering lunches to the workers on lunch break.
- It is believed the trend of the modern gourmet food truck began when Mark Manguera, Caroline Shine and chef Roy Choi established their Kogi Korean BBQ truck in Los Angeles six years ago. They came up with the idea of putting Korean-prepared meat in Mexican tacos and engaged their clientele with social media. The idea went on to recieve national attention and brought about the resurgence of the industry in urban areas across the U.S. This style of food is seen in many food trucks today.
- Crepes Paulette, one of the first modern food trucks in Northwest Arkansas, opens in Bentonville. Grateful Kitchen opens in Rogers later that year.
- The Yacht Club on College, a lot dedicated for mobile vendor use, opens. This is the first instance of an established mobile vendor marketplace in Fayetteville.