I eagerly anticipated the Mid-Town Food Truck Fest for weeks. Valley View Mall invited food trucks to set up in the south parking lot on weekends throughout the Spring and I noticed they were given prime locations just outside one of the main entrances. This initiative was topped off by the TX Food Truck Fest on Saturday, May 12th. The reviews for that event were very positive, the food trucks busy all day and the event organization right on point.
But now it’s July in Texas and that means HOT with a chance of thunderstorms. Scot Beck, the owner of Valley View Mall, comes up with what sounds like a terrific idea. Let’s move all the trucks under cover and put them in the parking garage – out of the sun and away from any rain that might befall the event. Genius … if it is properly executed.
Let’s talk about what they got right. First, the media blitz on local CBS Radio stations reached a huge audience on a variety of musical formats that reached a broad cross –section of the population . There was a charity benefit involved with the $5 per person entrance fee. And, they promised world class gourmet food trucks and delivered on that in spades. Once again, they drew trucks from the Austin food truck scene, they landed the recently opened Café Con Leche truck that participated in last year’s Great American Food Truck Race, and they had a majority of the best and favorite food trucks from Dallas, Fort Worth and points in between. The food was fabulous, the variety unbelievable and the trucks delivered as we’ve come to expect.
Unfortunately, my anticipation far exceeded the overall experience for a number of reasons. My understanding is that this event was not organized by the same people responsible for bringing us Tx Food Truck Fest. The difference was evident as soon as I arrived.
The choice of location was awkward, located on the west side of the mall, where the most limited parking is available. It appears the intent was to encourage people to walk through the mall to get to the food trucks. It’s a really long walk through a mostly deserted mall. I happened to arrive early and parked on the west side and while I could see the food trucks, I was forced down a narrow walkway lined with temporary chain link fence that felt like a prison yard. The feeling was only enhanced when I emerged and saw at least half a dozen armed security guards around the entrance to the mall. This is not exactly the atmosphere I expected for an event advertised as family friendly.
This event had been in planning for months. It was advertised to start at 5:00 PM on Friday night and I arrived about 5:30 PM. I was directed to one table to buy the wrist bracelet but they were not yet ready to take my credit card. After 8-10 minutes of waiting for them to figure it out, I got the bracelet and then was directed to another table to buy tickets. At least make me feel better about paying to get in and remind me at the point of sale that proceeds, or at least a portion, were benefitting a deserving organization, Dressing for Success. I overheard a number of people who didn’t understand why they had to pay to get in and then they had to pay again to purchase the food. Again, they weren’t set up for charge cards at the ticket table yet and it took another 10-15 minutes before I was able to complete the sale. Meanwhile, the line is building. One patron asked if they could turn in unused tickets since they didn’t know how many they would need and were told, “I don’t know.” Another asked if they would be good at a later event and were told, “I don’t know.” The staff, to their credit, was incredibly humble and apologized profusely. It’s not their fault they weren’t adequately trained or prepped to do their job.
Now I was ready to cruise the trucks, see who was there and decide what to eat first. After just a few steps, I couldn’t help but notice the garage had not been power-washed and the concrete was dirty. I’m somewhat surprised I could tell, considering the lighting was minimal and having another level overhead, I overheard more than one person comment that it felt “dungeon-like.” And it was just enclosed enough to trap fumes from the trucks pulling in, generators running and a general mustiness. It’s pretty important to remember that food trucks are about food and food is about eating. Surroundings are an important part of the experience and these surroundings really detracted from the experience. After all, this is not concession food at the rodeo or carnival; it’s gourmet food that happens to be served from a truck.
The next thing I noticed is that by requiring tickets, they effectively forced the trucks to raise their prices for the event. No longer was an ice cream sandwich from Cool Haus $5.50; now it was $6.00. And the Philly Cheesesteak from Taste of Home wasn’t $7.50; now it was $8.00. I don’t blame the trucks. They provide food made with the highest quality ingredients and quality costs money. You can’t expect them to round their prices down, especially when they’d paid a premium to participate in the event. Dallas truck food is not cheap but usually it feels like a good value for the quality and the quantity. I resented having to pay more simply because I couldn’t pay at the truck at ‘normal’ prices. I finally quit buying because it was too much hassle to figure out how many tickets I needed and standing in line to get them. At least the credit card reader was working when I went back.
Of course, once you got your food, you couldn’t buy beverages from the trucks. No, you had to go to a single confined location back at the front of the garage to buy a drink. Maybe they thought that was okay since the limited tables were set up around the Miller Lite Beer Trailer prominently parked right in the middle of things as you came into the garage but a long way from most of the trucks. I didn’t, especially when I couldn’t buy that signature Nammi Basil Mint Lemonade that I always go for, even if I eat from somewhere else. Or another signature drink not offered, the cool, refreshing Strawberry Basil Lemonade from Semplice Cibo Itailiano. I could have accepted having to buy my drink from a beverage vendor if they had been placed conveniently throughout the area and close to where I bought my food. I’m not sure if they loosened up on the rules, it was a rogue act or I just got lucky. At least I got to try some of the fabulous Cuban Coffee and Coffee Con Leche on Saturday from the Café Con Leche truck. Besides, beverage sales are an important part of the trucks revenue stream and the trucks can’t sell beer or wine anyway.
There were plenty of security guards but there were a number of things that got skimped on: trash cans, tables, and the promised misters. Oh, they were there but no one filled them at all on Friday and most of the ones I saw running on Saturday were filled by the truck owners. At that, there were a few small trash boxes (again the majority of them near the front only) and a limited number of fan-misters; not nearly enough to service the area.
I wanted to get a good feel for the event and I spent a lot of time there over the weekend. Eventually, nature called and it was time to go into the mall for a restroom. On the plus side, the AC was cold but the walk to the restrooms required me to traverse at least halfway across the mall through a gauntlet of trinket vendors. And when I got there, the ‘dirty’ experience continued. My wife said that between the mops laying out on the floor, the trash overflowing and water everywhere on the counters and the floors, she’d have preferred using a porta-potty. When did you ever hear a woman prefer a porta-potty over a restroom?
In my mind, the ‘crown jewel’ was the carnival concession trailer parked at the entrance to the garage. Maybe it was owned by the planner? If so, then maybe that explains why the setting for this food truck event felt more like a carnival concession than a gourmet food truck experience. Thank goodness, the food was the quality experience I expect. And the owners kept up a good face and were the ever-friendly bunch we’ve come to expect in Dallas when visiting a food truck.
I held off writing this article until the event was over. I didn’t want my comments to keep anyone from coming out to the event and patronizing the trucks. Our food trucks are a treasure that I want everyone to experience. I shared my feedback with the owner of Valley View Mall, Scot Beck, privately and before publishing. He asked for a chance to speak with me to explain his side of the story and we’re planning to talk this week. You’ll hear his side of the story in a follow up post in a few days.
Dallas doesn’t make it easy for the trucks to operate in the city. I truly appreciate the businesses that partner with our food trucks to provide locations for them to operate and there are a number of business who are strong supporters. What all of the successful venues have realized is that it has to be a symbiotic relationship; one that benefits both the trucks and the sponsor equally.
Scot Beck admits there were mistakes made and says that he’s committed to making the changes necessary to make the event, now scheduled on a monthly basis, a success.
I hope he does.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.