Taylor Jackson speaks in a confidential but no less clear voice, as if everything he tells you is not only of the utmost secrecy, but also of the utmost importance. It doesn't take very many words for you to lean in anxiously and start believing, with mischievous relish, that Jackson has tapped you as a co-conspirator in some rebellious enterprise, that you are being recruited into the crew of a "guerilla gourmet food truck," a 1981 Chevy Grumman Stepvan that flies the Empanada Intifada logo like a pirate ship running up the Jolly Roger ("intifada" refers to uprising among Palestinians and Arabs on the Gaza Strip beginning in 1987 to protest Israeli occupation).
As he talks about the rise of pedestrian and food truck culture in New Orleans, you get the sense that he's hit on something revolutionary, a vision, as he describes it, of New Orleans as a "walkable city," a modern city borrowing some elements from Portland and Austin, but maintaining its essential peculiarity. Then again, maybe it's just the mustache.
Jackson started Empanada Intifada in 2010 with his roommate Eric Lind as a way to shed the cocoon of a cubicle job and get back to working with his hands (he'd previously spent a summer picking cantaloupes with migrant workers for 12 hours a day, an experience he admits was "fun" only in retrospect). Last week, he sat down with Eater to philosophize on the unstoppable rise of food trucks in New Orleans and the sometimes maddening inertia that keeps the city from granting new mobile vending permits. The advent of food trucks in New Orleans, however, like all revolutions, can't be stopped now that it's started rolling, and Jackson thinks it's only a matter of time before New Orleans culture adopts the food truck as its own.
Tell me about how you got started with the food truck.
I got here and I got a job doing what I'd been doing before, which was nonprofit consulting work?very fast-paced, high stress office work, sitting behind a computer 60 hours a week. After a while I realized that it was hard on my body and my soul wasn't in it anymore, so I decided to do something that would let me be on my feet and work with my hands. I had experience with that sort of work?I worked on a farm one summer picking cantaloupes with migrant workers, which is not like a vacation at all, but it was still kind've fun. Mostly in retrospect.
So I started renovating a food truck. My best friend from college [Eric Lind] and I jumped out to Georgia and bought this 1981 Stepvan for $1600 and brought it back here. It broke down twice along the way. Luckily, the first time it happened right by the largest junkyard in south Alabama, or at least the self-proclaimed largest junkyard in south Alabama. We fixed the truck, headed down here and spent six months getting it to basic food truck operating level, where we had the bare essentials?oven, dishwashing sink, handwashing sink, and a stainless steel table to do prep on. Since then, we've been splitting time between actually working on the truck and doing gigs with the truck. I still do consulting roughly 10-20 hours a week.
So you're hoping to transition to full-time food trucking?
There's an intermediary stage on the way to my bigger vision?there's a stage where I do nothing but the food truck, and then there's a stage where more people are brought in and there's more creative life brought in with those people, and I get to take a step back as a result of that. But yeah, right now I'm at the beginning of the period when I do the food truck.
I've heard rumors that your truck is solar-powered...
Partially solar electric?so, I plug it in at night and there's enough solar power to run the freezer and the lights. The oven's a power hog that runs on propane. So the power that's drained by the oven over the course of a day has to still be recharged at night. But I also have a solar water heater, which is basically a greenhouse sitting on top of the truck that accumulates sunlight. There's a water heater inside that's gathering up the solar rays and turning them into heat. All the hot water in the truck for washing dishes and washing hands is coming from that.
Does this make the truck quieter and a little more tolerable to neighbors?
Yes, that's a big thing too. The environmental thing is a part of it, the cost is part of it, obviously, because generators just run through gas and it's very expensive. But the big thing is also "neighbor relations," because, look, I get it ? I don't want to work in a place with a generator, personally, but I definitely wouldn't want a food truck parking outside of my apartment complex or house or whatever and running a generator right outside, having that very loud white noise take over. So, yeah, a big part of the decision to use solar electric power was figuring out how to make our food truck a more palatable and easier entity to get along with among neighbors.
Has there nevertheless been any friction or contention with neighbors?
Let me say this: there's always sort of the possibility for it. Food trucks have always existed in this sort of liminal zone of figuring out how to coexist with brick-and-mortar places. There's always been a recognition that you [as a food truck operator] can move, which is both a good thing, because you can move, and a bad thing because people know you can move and if they want you to move, they tell you to move. And the current regulations on the books basically always keep that threat [of being forced to move] in a business's back pocket. In theory, for example, you're not supposed to be within 600 feet of any restaurant, church, or school in New Orleans, which is all of New Orleans. At least, anywhere where there are people.
Are those regulations really enforced or enforceable?
The regulations were created at a time when there were only hot dog carts and people like Mr. Okra going around selling groceries. That's what the city council had in mind, not a modern kitchen on wheels concept, which didn't really exist when these regulations were put in place in the late 60s, early 70s. So there are actually some legal battles going on right now. I'm not directly involved with them, luckily, but people are trying to gradually challenge those rules and figure out what they really should mean, or whether we should exist at all, whether [the city] is just prohibitively anti-competition. Even then, it'd be unethical for me to park outside of an empanada restaurant and sell empanadas. I get that there's a line and there has to be some sort of dialogue about where that line is, and I don't expect to just have full freedom with the truck, but current regulations are crazy. There's another one on the books that says that you can only be in the same spot, or on the same block, for 30 minutes at a time, which means that, by the time you set up, put out your signs, you know, you've got like ten minutes left.
Is it just a matter of outdated laws or is there an active resistance within the city to the idea of food trucks?
It's mostly just inertia, but I'd say there is some resistance. When people talk about how big the tourism industry is in New Orleans, what they're really talking about is how big the restaurant industry is in New Orleans. People who are giving to city council campaigns, who are involved in local politics, are largely restauranteurs, which means that their voices get a disproportionate influence in city government, for better or worse. So, there's definitely been a certain backlash at various moments, usually when there's a feeling that the food truck movement is actually gaining momentum. That's when things start happening. As long as we stay peripheral, there don't seem to be any problems, but ... there was an incident a couple of years ago here on Frenchmen where the guy with the Brazilian barbeque truck and taco truck got shut down. For the most part, he was following all the applicable and meaningful regulations, but restaurants here felt like he was taking business from them and he was shut down. It takes quite a lot of political influence to get a health inspector to come out at 1:00 in the morning, and it doesn't happen very often.
Even still, do you get the sense that food truck community is growing? That the culture is shifting?
I think it is. There's still a wide swath of people in New Orleans who associate food trucks with hamburgers that some guy is selling out of a van at Mardi Gras, or just a guy with a barbeque set up in his truck with smoke coming out everywhere, running an extremely loud generator. Half the stuff's got flies all over it. There's this greasy spoon image that people still have. I that we're at the stage right now where the gourmet food trucks that exist in New Orleans are really just getting together to try to wield some political influence. I'm still an upstart, but some of the more established ones are at the point now where they have a 1500 Facebook followers and they can bombard a city councilmember's Facebook page. There's coordinating among food trucks right now because the current laws on the books are not going work for very long. People are really working together to pave the way for doors to be swung open.
We're just gaining support right now?there's multiple stages of political action. The first one is just to get a lot of support and show that there are a lot of people out there who actually care about this issue and want food trucks to be available, and a lot of those people are people who have lived in other cities and seen what food trucks are like in Austin and Portland, and get what it means to walk down the street to the store and get food on the way and be able to walk with it. The convenience and fun of food trucks is hard to communicate unless you've experienced it. So that first stage is happening right now and then figuring out how to take all of that support and leverage it into some of the specific change is the next step, and we're not there yet. We're still getting ideas and figuring out how to create a unified vision.
How is New Orleans particularly well-suited to food truck culture?
It's interesting because the biggest change I've seen here since when I lived here back in 2003 is that there's this sense that New Orleans is reasserting itself as a metropolitan, cosmopolitan city. It's becoming a modern U.S. city, and influence is coming from all over, which, historically, is what New Orleans was all about. It was very much at the vanguard of figuring out how to mix all the influences in the U.S.?the Spanish, the French, the Creole, and the English?into something that made some sense. I think in some ways we got the gumbo out of that and didn't want to let go for a long time, so change was very slow for a long time. I don't think that's true right now because I know a lot of really smart people who are moving here from all over the country, or considering moving here from all over the country, people who have never been here. New Orleans is on the national map as a place that you go as a young talented person who wants to create culture.
People also want to be able to walk from place to place. A pedestrian-friendly city is the natural habitat of food trucks?an environment where people are all walking around from place to place. There's still a lot of resistance to food trucks because of parking, and there's still not a fully shared idea of what it means to live in a walkable city. Plus, there's not really a public transit to support it yet.
What neighborhoods have really taken to the food truck culture?
I'd have to say that Uptown seems to be the place where they're actually creating space. ... Geaux Plates and Taceaux Loceaux have been up there for a few years now and have developed relationships with bar owners and with their customers so that they're able to just show up at a place and everyone knows who they are and everyone's responsive to what they're selling. There is sort of a pioneer thing to that. Now there are several other food trucks that have started, mostly on Uptown routes. ...
There are definitely trade-offs that come with having a city that has food trucks and that has that culture. It's kind of a pain in the ass, too, that there's an awesome brass band on Chartres and Frenchman when you're trying to get through the Quarter, but it's definitely worth the trade-off.
Any plugs for the truck?
We're doing some interesting stuff?the empanadas are kind of like a platform. We're trying to be somewhere between an awesome food truck and a Mardi Gras float. We try to create a little environment everywhere we go, and we've got outdoor speakers, lights, and a lot of different ways for customers to interact with us. It's more of a party, more like being the host of a party than being a cashier that's just taking money and handing out products. I think that model works particularly well in New Orleans. I think that there are things about New Orleans culture that make food trucks make more sense here than they do anywhere else in the country. The fact that people are used to being on the street and enjoying themselves ? that's a very normal thing for people to do. You'll be going somewhere, you hear music on the street, you stop, hang out, and you don't need to have another destination. The fact that people expect food to be this social event, almost like a ritual, is also what food trucks can do at their best. It's a food thing, but also a little bigger than that.