At first, I didn't even notice it. The sounds of I-59 echo around the concrete lot and the grassy underpass. A light breeze ruffles the leaves on a few nearby trees. Syncopated beats pour forth from speakers on a table in the center of a raised deck. From one corner of the lot, a man leans his head out the window of a truck and yells that the grill is fired up.
And then I realize why this scene is so strange. It's quiet. I'm surrounded by food trucks ready to cook hot meals, and there aren't any generators drowning out the sounds of my own thoughts.
"I really do want this to be a food truck haven," Ren Garrett, owner of Midtown Mobile Cuisine tells me. "They don't have to worry about anything. That's why we have plug-ins. That's how we're able to have a DJ out here, because all those generators aren't going."
It's not one of those food parks in a grassy lot with shade from old oaks keeping diners cool in the summer. It's a concrete slab near where I-59 and Highway 288 meet, but it does feel like a haven of sorts in a gritty Midtown neighborhood. There are lawn chairs and wrought iron tables with bright orange umbrellas providing shade and a deck where a DJ is set up to play music for the evening's crowd.
If a crowd ever comes.
"The thing is we have the support of the community, but we've got to have the consistency of the trucks," Garrett says. "The trucks want to go where the money is, but the money won't be here unless the people are here."
The new food park, which opened in April, is still trying to figure out how to draw crowds with good trucks and how to draw good trucks with big crowds. Getting a food park off the ground is sort of a catch-22. Garrett would like to be open seven days a week, but for now, the park operates Thursday through Sunday, because that's when more people come out. But she still has issues getting trucks to commit to a space that isn't yet on everyone's radar. Sometimes trucks cancel for something that they know will bring them more money.
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Garrett is a special events coordinator by trade, so she knows that gathering a crowd can sometimes be a struggle. In order to entice people to Midtown Mobile Cuisine, she's trying to make it as fun as possible. Not only are there food trucks. There's also a DJ. There are games like giant Jenga and corn hole. There's a concert series featuring Divisi Strings, an electric orchestra that performs contemporary hits. A few vendors are working on arranging some sort of culinary throwdown. Eventually, Garrett hopes to bring in her own snocone truck and a car show under the I-59 overpass.
If Garrett seems almost stubbornly committed to making the neighborhood food park work, it's because she's had a business there for more than 20 years. She and her brother Craig own Klassic Hardwood Floors, a reclamation and repurposing business right across the street from the food park. Garrett says the food park lot was vacant for as long as she can remember, so it wasn't hard for her to convince the landlord to let her do something with the property. The next step was convincing the city that she could make use of the grassy lot under the overpass. Now she just needs to use those persuasive skills to get trucks and customers to the happening new spot.
On a recent Thursday evening, Midtown Mobile Cuisine welcomed Sticky's Chicken, Soul Cat Cuisine, Flip 'n Patties and Raw Chef Renee Vegan have all gathered at the park. The DJ, Steez, has already set up, and Soul Cat's Robert Stokes is deep in conversation with Craig about hosting a wing competition. The crowds haven't come yet, but Garrett remains positive that they will.
"Of everything I've been through, this is the hardest, because you're relying not only on your own work but other people as well," Garrett says. "My brother Craig and I are so used to working hard and seeing it pay off. But with this, you just kind of have to wait. We just have to hang in there. It's coming."