Food Trucks: A Love Story
In the height of summer in the Capital District, when tomatoes shine like rubies on the vine, the days seem like they were engineered in Hollywood.
Gossamer white clouds festoon the cerulean blue ceiling sky like a wispy lace bridal veil. Green deciduous trees rustle in the full, lush glory of their bloom. Adventures beckon, as days extend into nights: Live music in a park? Twilight lake swim? S’mores at midnight over a bonfire? Let’s do all three.
The summer days and nights in upstate New York are a tango with a lover we can’t resist, and we know will break our hearts, come October. The food that best embraces the syncopated beat moving our feet is mobile.
In a nation of on-the-run eaters, there’s a long history of mobile food in America. In 1691, New Amsterdam (aka NYC) began regulating street vendors. In 1866, Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon to feed the cowboys and wagon trains heading out West. In 1936, the ostentatiously un-ironic Oscar Meyer Weinermobile was born. In 2011, Zagat began to include reviews of food trucks in its prestigious dining guide. Industry estimates claim roughly $1.2 billion was generated in 2015 from food trucks (the most recent numbers available).
The samba beat of food made quickly à la carte from a cart rules our summer menus. Here are three of our favorites!
Pippy’s Food Truck:
Sometimes an offbeat notion, born in childhood, is more fruitful than the most exactingly executed long-term life plan.
“Growing up in the Catskills, I helped my grandmother on her hot dog truck in the 1970s and ’80s,” Heather Williams, Pippy’s proprietor, explains. “Those were some of the happiest times of my childhood. It was fun, exciting, rewarding and just such a joy to be outside, traveling around, meeting new people and working with my grandmother.”
Like most middle-class children of the ’80s, Heather moved along an “expected” track—college, graduate school, job.
“I got my masters in teaching at Hunter and figured I’d just do the crazy hot dog truck thing when I retired, which is what my grandmother did,” Heather says. “At the end of my grad program we were going around the table in a seminar and talking about what we’d do if we weren’t teachers. My answer was automatic: the food truck.”
When the recession hit and no teaching job was forthcoming, Heather decided to follow the flight of fancy she launched at her smiling grandmother’s side decades ago. Born and raised in Palenville, Heather launched Pippy’s seven years ago out of a 1972 International truck at the junction of Routes 23A and 32A.
“I knew that intersection well,” Heather says. “It draws a regular flow of local customers, plus tourists and day-trippers heading to Kaaterskill Falls when the weather’s warm, leaf-peepers in the fall and skiers in the winter.”
Regulars and drive-by tourists in the know burn rubber to Pippy’s for her quirky, soulful take on the all-American hot dog.
“I source my ingredients locally. I get my hot dogs from Smokehouse of the Catskills because they’re handmade and 100% beef without anything added,” Heather says. “They also make a veggie dog and sausages, so I always have options for everyone. All of my toppings are either homemade or locally sourced. My favorite topping is my grandmother’s recipe for meat and onion sauce.”
While classic options are available (the Fancy Sauerkraut Dog with spicy mustard and kraut, the Lonnie Dog, with her grandmother’s chili meat sauce), some of the more popular dogs are decidedly offbeat (the Elvis Dog is wrapped in bacon with peanut butter, honey and bananas and the Buckshot Billera boasts bacon, mustard, mac ’n’ cheese, goldfish crackers and onions). Pippy’s simple but imaginative sides, like her corn on the cob with melted butter and red hot sauce, and her watermelon with feta and mint, are a taste of summer in your hand.
While a regular teaching job may have perks that the peripatetic life of a food trucker does not, Heather says that Pippy’s is an extension of herself. “It’s my life,” she says. “The support and love I get from my community and family members who come in and help me, the people I meet along the way, the babies who grow into kids before my eyes. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Pippy’s has grown so much, a few years ago she bought a second vintage truck (a 1988 GMC) that she takes out to music festivals and other community events.
Check out PippysFoodTruck.com for updates and locations.
The Hungry Traveler:
“I totally got lucky,” Chris Fournier admits, speaking of his sweet spot behind the Tax and Finance Building on the W. Averell Harriman Campus on Washington Avenue in Albany.
Getting a permit in for weekday parking at a building complex in Albany (especially one that houses 16 New York State government offices with several thousand workers) is basically like winning the lottery.
“It’s so tough to get a spot in Albany, the waiting list is long and people are grandfathered in,” Chris explains. “Someone just happened to drop out and retire and I got the one spot available in 2014. I’m the newest truck there.”
His cohorts have welcomed him with open arms, and they operate more like neighbors than business competitors. “Oh we’re always sharing ingredients, running back and forth and offering to pick up things for each other when we break for supplies,” he says.
Chris worked in retail for 20 years before making the jump at his wife Dana’s suggestion.
“I love cooking and serving good food to people, and it gets crazy sometimes, but I am happier than I’ve ever been at work,” he says. “It’s great because it’s my business, so I can be as creative as I want to be and my customers love that I cook seasonally and change things up. Recently, I felt like cooking Mexican food all week, so I just went for it. I also love doing fried green tomato BLTs when they’re in season, but I always have a set menu of specialty wraps and burgers for my regulars.”
While the Hungry Traveler’s menu rotates seasonally, with frequent edible flashes of inspiration thrown in for good measure, fans return again and again for his Cilantro Lime Pork Tacos, Grilled Chicken with Avocado, Pesto Mayo and Bacon and, of course, his personal favorite, the Michigan Hot Dog.
“I use the Hofmann German Frank out of Syracuse and modify the classic Michigan meat sauce so it has more of a New York feel,” he explains.
During the week, the Hungry Traveler is parked at the office complex, but at night and on the weekends, he hits the road. “I love doing my thing on the road,” he says. “Getting out, meeting people, giving them great food—it doesn’t get better!”
Keep up with the Hungry Traveler’s meandering goings-on from “Plattsburgh to New York City and beyond” at HungryTravelerTruck.com.
Slidin’ Dirty is the original Capital District food truck like Marilyn Monroe is the first screen-scorching siren. It’s not technically true, but emotionally and psychologically it feels like it’s true, so in essence, it is.
Slidin’ Dirty exploded onto the scene in Troy in 2012. Within weeks of opening, people were standing in line waiting for sliders. And sliders weren’t even that cool anymore. Can you imagine anyone waiting in line for totally-jumped-the-shark cupcakes these days?
Well, maybe if they were really good. And that was the point.
Tim Taney grew up in the Capital District and worked in the food business—primarily in management—since graduating from college. He and his wife, Brooke, decided to pool their considerable intellectual and entrepreneurial resources and go to market, for themselves, with what seems like in retrospect a kind of revolutionary concept. Sure, offbeat food trucks fly in Brooklyn and San Francisco, but upstate New York?
“We knew that we were the first to market with the sort of ‘modern food truck concept’ that is simultaneously more sophisticated, laid-back and offbeat than the typical truck found at most fairs and festivals,” Tim explains. “Even knowing that, I don’t think nerves or doubt ever entered our mind. We kind of committed to being all in and making this thing work.”
And work it did. Tim and Brooke love the District as much as the District loves them, and they do what they can to support their local everything. “You can often see us walking through the farmers’ markets in Troy and at Empire State Plaza looking for ingredients to use on the food truck,” Tim says.
The initial burst of hipster love Troy had for Slidin’ Dirty has blossomed into a serious region-wide, generation-spanning romance. Slidin’ Dirty has won a fistful of regional best-of awards and enough committed fans to merit the opening of not one but two brick-and-mortar stores. The first one opened in Troy in 2014, the second in Schenectady, just this year.
But Tim, when he has his way, spends his time on the truck. “It’s still my favorite thing to do in this business.” And, like many of his loyal fans, he, too, still craves the Dirty Ninja after all these years.
The Ninja is an Asian-inspired slider with sautéed bok choy and shiitake mushrooms, scallions and housemade Asian mustard. Sound good? Grab a side of fravos with extra chiptotle cream while you’re at it. (Avocado fries for the uninitiated).
Check them out at SlidinDirty.com.
Food truck operators are chefs, small business owners, drivers and party planners all rolled into one. Perfect for the places-to-go-people-to-see-music-to-dance-to-locavore spirit summers in the Capital District bring out in all of us.
During the summer, Empire State Plaza in Albany has a hopping food truck scene on Wednesdays and Fridays. Nine Pin Cider also has food trucks on Thursdays when the weather cooperates.
But, like rock stars and teenagers, food trucks’ schedules can be unpredictable and are prone to sudden and whimsical change. Their social media feeds should be consulted for the most up-to-date information on their locations in time and space.