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Erica Correa and Lizzy Caston Talk Squatter Restaurants, Economic Development, and the Street Fare Derby

Mr Okra at Jazz Fest.
Mr Okra at Jazz Fest.
Photo: flickr / infrogmation

Erica Correa and Lizzy Caston are the rockstars behind New Orleans Food Trucks, a website devoted to New Orleans' mobile food culture, including but going well beyond just food trucks. Caston was the driving force behind Food Carts Portland, a similar site devoted to the food cart scene in Portland, Oregon. When she moved to New Orleans in 2009, she and Correa partnered to provide a similar resource in the Crescent City. They quickly realized, though, that mobile food in this city is so unlike that of other cities that New Orleans Food Trucks would have to be different as well.

As busy as they are with this weekend's Street Fare Derby, a celebration of mobile food at the Fair Grounds, Correa and Caston took the time to sit down with us and talk about mobile food in New Orleans, economic development, and where their work is taking them.

So how did the website, New Orleans Food Trucks, come about?

Lizzy: When I got down here from Portland and started working with Erica, she was like, “Oh you do this food truck thing? We need those here in New Orleans.” And I was like, “Go for it,” and so we [Food Carts Portland] partnered with Erica. We’re under a banner called Food Cart Nation, so we have an LLC and everything. And we just built the site and you know, it’s going slow, it’s a volunteer effort on our part, but just like with Food Carts Portland, from day one we’ve got media attention. We’re on the cover of the alternative weekly, they wrote about us. But it’s really been slow and steady. The scene here’s a little different.

Erica: Yeah, very different. It kind of started on Facebook, a page saying that we need more food trucks, and that’s where we got the name New Orleans Food Trucks. It’s still relevant because we still need more. But then along the way we realized why we don’t have more and why New Orleans is not like other cities.

So how is New Orleans' mobile food culture different?

Lizzy: Here’s the deal: the regulations in the City of New Orleans are some of the most excessive in the nation, and I know this because I work nationally. They limit it to 100 permits. There are more [mobile vendors] than that, we know that. And there are many people operating through loopholes, let’s put it that way, operating with catering licenses, off private land, setting up in the backs of bars. Here it’s not so much about food trucks as it is about underground dining. It’s really much more cutting edge than just the food truck. We own this term, you can say we invented it: the term ‘squatter restaurants,’ they’re like pop up restaurants. They’ll go into an abandoned bar kitchen and set up in that bar. So there’s a few examples of that.

But aren’t those restaurants completely above board, operating legally and normally? Like it’s just a bar with food.

Lizzy: Well it’s really co-branding, it’s a separate establishment within bars that are already established. That’s why I call them squatter restaurants, because they come in and they squat.

Erica: And the background behind that is that they’re not able to operate in other ways. They may have a truck but they’re having issues with permits.

Lizzy: Keep in mind, though, that street food is in New Orleans. You see it at fairs and festivals and you also see it at second line parades. Some of these are third-generation people selling, for example, sausages at second line parades. New Orleans has always had street food, it just doesn’t have that gourmet cart scene in the same way that other cities do. But it’s actually more interesting here to me, than it is in a place like Portland where it’s more typical.

So while in other cities food trucks have a kind of trendy cache, here, it’s different?

Lizzy: Well New Orleans, you know, is always different. [laughs]

Erica: New Orleans is always kind of behind.

Lizzy: Not even behind, just different.

Erica: Well, I’m talking specifically about trends. New Orleans is way behind when it comes to food trucks as a hip, you know, scene. But the cooler aspect of that is that it’s really already here, just in a different form. Like you go to a bar that looks like it’s about to fall down and it’s like the best Korean food you’ve ever seen. So in some ways we’re behind the trend, in other ways ahead of the trend. To me, that’s the coolest part of it.

Lizzy: And also just the discovery of it. I mean, it’s really underground here. Like for a long time, every national media business thing was like, “Twittering taco trucks: Mobile food is using Twitter.” They don’t do that so much here. Like there’s a few that do, but not much.

What about the evolution of your work from the Food Carts Portland-style resource for finding food trucks into more an advocacy group?

Erica: It definitely started as like, "We’re going to be a guide." We started in November 2010 and in this last year or so, or even in just the last six months, there’s been a learning process where we've realized that we don’t actually know where the trucks are [because they’re operating underground]. And sometimes they don’t even know until the last minute. And it’s just different here.

Lizzy: There was a controversy recently, where they’ve been selling food along second line parades for generations, and there’s no permit the city can give to allow that legally, so the city said they’re going to start cracking down on these vendors. And you don’t mess with second line parades in New Orleans. And people are like, “We’d love to be legal, if we had a way we could do it.”

Erica: And that’s the other side of it. The vendors operating underground might not want to be that broadcast.

As you move forward with this advocacy component, what is the goal? What could the mobile food culture look like here?

Erica: The biggest thing, for me, is the permitting process needs to be ripped open and publicly addressed. And for us, moving into more of a nonprofit role, supporting food trucks and mobile food however we can.

Lizzy: Yeah, that’s the big one. The ordinances just need to change. But here’s the thing you have to understand. Food? That’s like the cherry. Food trucks are really about economic development and urban vibrancy. They create small, local business owners with very little resources. The city doesn’t need to invest $25 million in a new supermarket with tax credits or public money. Food trucks are low risk, if a location doesn’t work, you can move. And New Orleans has a huge problem with food deserts, huge areas where people don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Mr Okra is a perfect example of this: Food trucks can bring healthy options, affordable food options to underserved neighborhoods. That's a cheap way to do it. And the other thing is, they act as a way to help prevent crime. When you have that many positive uses, that many people out on the street, there's not going to be drug dealers running around the corner.

Erica: That's a big thing that we're working on, a big part of what we do.

Lizzy: And it can bring bricks-and-mortar attractions, bring in complementary businesses. It can really add to what we in urban development call a catalyst to development. It’s a good temporary, affordable , low-risk way to bring urban vibrancy to an area that really needs it. And that’s really the heart of it, to support small business owners and small businesses, nurturing culture and nurturing urban vibrancy, and then the food is like the cherry on top.

So it’s more than just a resource telling you where to get a burrito when you’re drunk?

Lizzy: Even that, that’s economic development too. [Laughs]

Erica: I will say that we have focused a lot on that in this first year and like I said, we’re learning as we’re going. And once we get past the festival, we’ll start doing more [in terms of the advocacy].

How does the Street Fare Derby fit into that?

Erica: The Derby is part of that awareness, just building awareness. The Derby is something we’ve talked about since the beginning; we just wanted to do something like that.

Lizzy: It’s just about building awareness around it, and getting them excited about it, and getting people to think about what they’re eating and how. And really just connecting customers with vendors.

Erica: And it’s just building awareness for the vendors, having them all in one place. Maybe something will grow out of that.

When is it?

Erica: Saturday, September 24th, 12:30-6. Kermit Ruffins will be there, Papa Grows Funk will be there. 15 food vendors, arts and crafts. Kids under 12 get in free. And if you purchase tickets online before the event you can get $5 off.

· New Orleans Food Trucks [Official Site]
· Street Fare Derby [Official Site]
· All Food Trucks Coverage on Eater New Orleans [-ENOLA-]