Seattle Food Trucks Go Brick and Mortar
If you plot its weekly stops on a map, you’ll notice that Marination Mobile’s food truck bypasses Capitol Hill entirely, a detour owners Kamala Saxton and Roz Edison say is no accident.
Brick-and-mortar restaurants proliferate like crazy on Capitol Hill, thanks to population density and a high concentration of food enthusiasts on a budget. But while these people are precisely the type to line up for food-truck fare, it’s nearly impossible for Marination’s “Big Blue” to find a place to operate on Capitol Hill, because city laws generally restrict food trucks to private property—and private lots with sufficient space for a food truck in a good location on Capitol Hill are mighty scarce.
Despite this and other formidable limitations, an estimated 132 full-menu food trucks roam our local streets, according to Public Health–Seattle & King County. Dining options range from pulled pork sandwiches at Maximus/Minimus to ice cream cookie sandwiches and bake-sale-inspired fare at Street Treats. The big-name trucks tend to keep regular schedules at the same locations day to day, whereas smaller ones are more hit or miss. For patrons, finding either type of truck requires a working knowledge of Twitter or Facebook, or at the very least an Internet connection.
Skillet Diner’s executive chef Brian O’Connor and ownerJosh Henderson
It’s been nearly four years since Josh Henderson launched Skillet Street Food in its signature silver Airstream trailer and helped unleash a trend in Seattle that has rolled across the nation. It seems that food trucks are here to stay. No farmers’ market or outdoor festival is complete without at least a few trucks dishing out artisanal ice cream or fusion tacos, and the city is now poised to implement special curbside zones reserved for food trucks in dense commercial areas, including Capitol Hill.
This spring also brings what may be the next chapter in the evolution of Seattle’s culinary streetscape. Two members of the old guard in the mobile food brigade are taking up permanent addresses just six blocks apart on Capitol Hill. Saxton and Edison are parlaying Marination Mobile’s beloved Hawaiian-Korean marriage of cuisine into Marination Station above the QFC store near the busy intersection of East Pike Street and Broadway.
Henderson is taking his burgers, bacon jam and poutine into Skillet Diner, a sit-down restaurant in the Chloe apartment building at East Union Street and 14th Avenue, just around the corner from the new Marjorie. Both businesses are banking on the assumption that their clientele will still hanker for their street fare, even when the novelty of curbside service is stripped away.
Until the food trucks came rolling into town, owning a restaurant was considered the pinnacle of success in the food industry. But in a world where restaurants shutter each week while thousands of diners line up to order from a truck, is making the move to bricks and mortar still an improvement over a kitchen on wheels? A rolling restaurant requires relatively low overhead, and its mobility generates instant social media buzz as followers search for its whereabouts daily. As well, the trucks’ cool factor traditionally made mediocre fare more forgivable, while an enterprising operator could earn rave reviews and a golden reputation (even have his or her food appear on the cover of this magazine) without facing hassles like seating, missing flatware or dirty dishes.
The biggest reason for moving indoors is the most obvious one, says Saxton. “We’d like to see our customers a little drier.” It’s also tough to turn a profit in colder months—or on the rainy days for which Seattle is famous.
The new Marination Station overlooks the Shell gas station where Big Blue used to dispense late-night fare until last summer. The day-into-night schedule was grueling, Saxton says, and the noise and lines wore on the neighbors.
Marination Station’s Kamala Saxton and Roz Edison on Capitol Hill
While lease disputes are a major cause of restaurant closings, Saxton is still willing to test those waters. Besides, the livelihoods of truck operators are just as tenuous. “You could be somewhere for three months, then the building owner or landlord can say you can’t be there, or raise the rent. We don’t want to operate [entirely] on that ad hoc level.”
Food truck purists can breathe a sigh of relief, though. This brick-and-mortar migration won’t send Marination’s Big Blue or Skillet’s Airstream into retirement. Saxton says it’s bad business to disappoint legions of Twitter and Facebook followers who clamor for spicy pork tortas and kimchi quesadillas. Henderson, too, considers his truck to be a powerful branding tool. He’s even parking it near his new restaurant location on Wednesdays so passers-by will begin associating the corner of 14th Avenue and East Union Street with Skillet. “We have to keep it,” he says of the Airstream. “It’s street cred.”
Still, anyone entrepreneurial enough to launch a food truck is likely to one day want to expand, as Saxton and Edison did soon after launching their truck in June 2009. They considered a fleet of Marination Mobiles, but faced some daunting logistics. Locking down six locations to visit each week is tough, says Saxton. “Finding another six [for a second truck] would be an incredible challenge.”
Henderson made the move toward a more traditional sit-down restaurant after briefly operating both a takeout window and a second Skillet truck in 2009. Expansion brings a certain level of sanity, he says. “I don’t want to be on a truck every day for the rest of my life,” he says. A successful food truck, he notes, serves just a few items, and does them well. A restaurant menu provides more range—and Henderson has always liked dabbling in weekly specials, such as beef cheek tacos and baked ziti.
It’s a model quietly pioneered by the local taco mini empire, Rancho Bravo. Owner Freddy Rivas stationed a taco truck in Wallingford in 2007 after starting in Kent in 2002 and then plying his trade on the Eastside for several years. Facing the same parking difficulties Marination has experienced, he instead took over a former KFC franchise on Pine Street in Capitol Hill and created a bustling stop serving some of the best tacos in the city. The walkup counter and paper plates still reflect Rancho Bravo’s street-food roots.
“A truck is a good way of letting people get to know you,” says Rivas. But a restaurant means bringing in crowds year-round and having access to more kitchen implements. In fact, the absence of a fryer in his Wallingford trailer means none of the flautas and other crispy items that are offered on Capitol Hill. So Rivas is taking over the former Winchell’s right next to his Wallingford trailer. When it opens in June, the seating area will be more limited than at his Capitol Hill restaurant, he says, to keep the focus on the high volume of carry-out crowds.
It remains to be seen whether diners will continue flocking to Marination’s and Skillet’s mobile units once their food is available in stationary locations. There are plenty of other trucks on the street vying for discerning curbside patrons who no longer are impressed by any old sandwich or slider dished out of a gaily painted vehicle.
Saxton doesn’t seem worried. She sees Marination Station as an extension of a brand and a convenient option for Marination Mobile’s customers. “We’re still street food,” she says, “just simply moving inside.”