It is 6:30 p.m. on a midsummer evening. On these protracted days, daylight lingers, and the heat of the day begins to dissipate, luring folks out to their yards and porches to make the most of this precious time before the sky grows ablaze with red and orange, eventually falling into darkness. Commuters heading home peer out their windows to assess their dinner options. A line has already formed outside Will’s Farm Fresh Food Truck. The air around it is tinged with smoke, and the smell of short ribs and Conecuh sausage cooking on the grill wafts down the street. While the sight of a food truck parked along the sidewalk may conjure an image of a busy urban thoroughfare, this scene unfolds not in a major city but the residential neighborhood of Old Field in Daphne.
Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
Bright pink azaleas bloom along the entrance to the neighborhood’s communal areas. A father and son arrive on bikes, and join a cluster of their neighbors. Other families lay claim to their spots, putting down picnic blankets and settling in for a leisurely meal. Neighbors zigzag to the truck, placing orders, chatting, and watching pig-tailed little girls in gingham summer dresses twirl on the sidewalk. Three older boys toss a baseball on the newly mowed lawn behind the truck, shouting and laughing. The neighborhood pool, adjacent to the truck, is also full of families with children laughing and splashing. The kids who are still awaiting dinner eye them, yearning and restless to join in. Grownups survey the menu. While the everything looks enticing, there are whispers that the short rib tacos are not to be missed.
Two days later, a similar scene unfolds down the road in the Jubilee Farms subdivision. And two days after that, across the Bay in Sierra Estates. Food trucks have become deeply entwined in the daily lives of suburban families across Baldwin and Mobile counties. Weeknights remain the most popular; however, families also spill out of their homes on weekend mornings, often still in pajamas, for fresh hot doughnuts from The Lil Doughnut Factory and beignets heaped with powdered sugar and dunked in hot caramel sauce from Mo’ Bay Beignet. Food trucks fit so perfectly in a suburban landscape, it’s surprising it has taken this long for them to gain traction.
The history of food trucks mirrors the landscape of Baldwin and Mobile counties, both evolving to meet the changing needs of the population. The earliest American iteration of the modern food truck was the Chuckwagon, which served easily preserved food, such as beans and salted meats, to loggers and cowboys of the Texas panhandle. The “cookies” who manned the Chuckwagons also served as makeshift dentists, barbers and bankers. Food trucks did foray into the suburbs with the popularity of ice cream trucks in the 1950s. However, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, food trucks primarily operated in dense urban environments, with convenience, as opposed to the quality of the food, being the primary focus. During this era, perhaps unfairly, food trucks were referred to as “roach coaches” due to patrons’ fears of poor sanitation and low-quality ingredients. Despite their reputation, food trucks provided easy, affordable access to a hot meal in large cities and construction sites around the U.S.
Food trucks today are quite different, featuring innovative menus with an array of gourmet and ethnic options, often using fresh local ingredients and farm-fresh meats. Popularity has grown rapidly in the U.S. in recent years, from 8,677 food trucks registered in 2011 to 35,212 in 2022. Unlike many other businesses impacted negatively by the COVID pandemic, food trucks have had a 12.1 percent growth average from year to year since 2016. Entire food truck parks and festivals have emerged in major cities. The Mobile area, with its pleasant climate year-round and abundance of local ingredients available, proves to be an excellent market for this type of al fresco dining.
In Baldwin County, the catalyst for this food truck migration into the suburbs was the COVID pandemic. Will Hughes, owner of Will’s Farm Foods, says that when the pandemic struck, many of the traditional venues for food trucks disappeared, practically overnight. Gone were the festivals, weddings, parades and art shows that provided a built-in customer base. Food truck owners were forced to adapt or go out of business. “We opened for business February 1, 2020, and a month later, COVID hit,” Crystal Schieber, owner of Chew Chew Truck, explains. “All the events we’d lined up were canceled, and we were so thankful that we were a kitchen on wheels because we were able to take our passion for great food, cooked fresh and on site, where people wanted food.”
Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
“We barely knew food truck life before COVID, so we were learning our business and COVID at the same time,” she adds. “When we were serving in the neighborhoods, everyone was happy and excited to see us. Somehow, life felt OK. You saw communities bonding, families interacting with each other and kids being kids.”
Back in Old Field, though most restaurants have reopened, the community continues to turn out, socialize and support the local food trucks. “The food here is great and so convenient,” says Marianne Hill as she waits with her teenage son who’s still wearing his school uniform. “I even had food cooking at home, but we had to come anyway.”
Further ahead, Sarah Wortham stands, still in her work scrubs holding her young daughter in her arms. “It’s just so nice to pull in at 5 o’clock and know that dinner is ready,” she explains. “Sometimes we stop at home first, and we all ride our bikes over.”
Although many of the patrons of the trucks are residents of the neighborhood, there are also customers driving from other locales. The popularity of certain local food trucks has created a loyal following of “food truck groupies.” The rise of social media has enabled food trucks to announce their locations in advance, allowing operators to communicate with the people who love them. Chace Yamagata, founder of the popular Baldwin County Foodies Facebook page, recently branched out to create a Baldwin County Food Truck page where people can find out about the various trucks around the Mobile Bay area and follow their favorite trucks to different neighborhoods and beyond. “I love food trucks, and I know I’m not alone in that,” he says. “I wanted to create a site that makes it easier to stay informed on the weekly schedules and updates on all the trucks.” During the height of the pandemic, food trucks came to neighborhood residents, and those same neighborhood residents now come to the trucks.
Regardless of the next development, the heart of the food truck movement is providing eats that are fresh, local and affordable. Abbey Graves, owner of the Wacked Out Weiner truck which she franchised out from their brick-and-mortar location, sums it up best. “Food trucks provide a delicious and affordable meal that everyone in the family can enjoy.”
Wortham, who now has her food in hand and her daughter at her side, agrees. “It’s been so nice talking to you,” she says. “I think I’m going to get back in line and get something else. This all just looks so good.”