Proposed food truck would be missionary for St. John Parish cuisine

Restaurants may get to use public truck

The self-proclaimed “Andouille Capital of the World” may take its show on the road.

Using part of a $215,000 grant that the parish received from BP funds set aside after the 2010 oil leak, the St. John the Baptist Parish Council is considering buying a mobile food truck for local restaurant owners to use to sell food at special events in the parish and across the region.

“We’re exploring different ways that we could really share with people the good, quality foods that we have here,” said Torri Buckles, St. John’s director of economic development. “If the food truck allows us to be able to expand on that brand, then that’s something that we should certainly be willing to explore further.”

The St. John Parish Council’s finance committee is scheduled to consider soliciting bids for a truck at its meeting Tuesday. The initiative is part of the parish’s “Taste of St. John” campaign, which aims to promote local restaurants with money from the grant, part of BP’s $57 million fund to promote Gulf Coast tourism and seafood industries in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The food truck, which Buckles estimates will cost between $80,000 to $120,000, will have a full kitchen, equipped with an eye toward making the rounds at festivals and special events throughout the year.

Buckles envisions a “food tour” of about a dozen stops in the truck’s first year, calling it “an opportunity to take dishes that have been prepared, staples of this area, and bring them to different areas around the parish and around the state to promote the restaurant industry and the culinary industry within St. John.”

“What we’re hoping is that by creating an opportunity for them to maybe try some dishes that are prepared by local restaurants and retailers, then that will possibly encourage them to come back to St. John and patronize that same restaurant again,” she said.

To sign up to use the truck, interested local chefs and food vendors can fill out an application with the parish, which will hold a lottery every three months to pick who gets to hit the road for an upcoming event. The truck will accommodate two vendors at a time, she said. It will be driven by a parish employee.

That schedule could eventually get more ambitious, Buckles said. For now, parish officials are targeting newer festivals, which may be easier to participate in. “They’re still competitive, but they’re not as competitive to get into,” she said.

EJ Bailey, who owns Bailey’s Andouille on West Airline Highway in LaPlace, hopes to land a spot on the schedule on a chilly day.

It’s difficult peddling chicken and andouille gumbo at outdoors festivals during the summer, Bailey said.

“We have a cold weather-type dish that we serve and it’s kind of hard to serve gumbo when it’s 90 degrees out,” he said.

Bailey speculated that food trucks in St. John could gain a steady following, and said a new idea for marketing the parish’s products was overdue.

“I don’t see why not, because we certainly have good food around here,” he said. “Finally, someone’s going to come up and put a little marketing spin on it. We’ve been ignoring marketing lately, we really have, and I think it’s time that somebody steps up and does something like that, because in time it will catch on and it gets peoples’ attention. They come down and they’re very curious about what we have to offer.”

St. John officials met with various local chefs to gauge interest in the truck and determine what amenities it should have. “It has to be outfitted with a variety of cooking methods, whether it’s something that needs to be smoked or steamed,” Buckles said. “We’re trying to build all of the amenities into the food truck so that it could be a able to appeal to many different preparations.”

Using the truck will be free, Buckles said.

Gourmet food trucks and other mobile vendors have sprung up in New Orleans in the years since Hurricane Katrina, selling anything from produce to snowballs, and Buckles believes there’s no reason the trend couldn’t spread to St. John. The parish-owned truck, branded in a way that’s “eye-catching enough that it will draw everybody’s attention as it’s going down the highway,” could help spur that interest, she said.

“We think that we have the ability to get there,” Buckles said. “I think the food truck is really a revolution within itself, and to see what it’s really done for the culinary industry, because it’s no longer simple foods. It’s gotten quite sophisticated.”

During the upcoming St. John Parish Andouille Festival, slated for Oct. 18-20, Buckles said the parish plans to have a tent featuring cooking demonstrations, calling it “an opportunity for those that have an interest in cooking and getting up front and personal with local chefs.”

That’ll have to do in the meantime. Even if all goes according to plan, the truck may not hit the pavement until the beginning of next year, Buckles said.

When that happens, the truck will start spreading the gospel of St. John: “If you can’t get people to come here, then basically you have to bring it to them,” she said.