Food truck event designed to draw people to Fat City

Food trucks are coming back to Jefferson Parish in force after a six-year hiatus, and parish officials are hoping Monday’s Food Truck Festival will help hasten a revival of the long-troubled Fat City neighborhood.

The parish is suspending its stringent rules on mobile food vendors to allow them to set up in Fat City from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the intersection of 18th Street and Edenborn Avenue. Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng has pushed for the festival in connection with the Drago’s Foundation and the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition.

The event will mark the first serious gathering of food trucks in Jefferson Parish since officials created strict new guidelines that drove them out of the area in 2007.

Food trucks had become a common sight in Jefferson Parish after Hurricane Katrina, particularly those serving Latin food, but they fled after the parish imposed rules regarding restrooms and time limits among other items.

Sheng said that while the return of food trucks is a big deal, the real story is how the event continues to show the redevelopment of Fat City. That area had become known as Jefferson Parish’s seedy adult district with a mixture of bars, strip clubs and adult stores.

However, Sheng pushed through new zoning guidelines in September that limited the number and type of adult-themed businesses. Crime is down in Fat City, and she said several new restaurants and other businesses are expected to open in upcoming months.

“We’re really making meaningful changes in Fat City,” Sheng said. “We were trying to bring an event to Fat City. … We have been really trying to revitalize Fat City.”

That revitalization is really a return to glory for the area, argues Sheng. She notes that in the 1970s Fat City starred as Jefferson Parish’s answer to the French Quarter and was a serious draw in the region. But, after that heyday, there has been a steady decline despite the close proximity to the Lakeside Shopping Center, which is a huge economic engine for Jefferson Parish.

Parish President John Young said the redevelopment of Fat City is the most important project the parish has on the east bank. Young claims Fat City has long been underutilized by businesses and residents.

Officials hope to make the area more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly and attract the coveted young professionals that every community seems to desire. Young optimistically believes that with the right tweaks, Fat City can become a serious regional draw again.

“We’re looking at Fat City as our version of the Warehouse District,” Young said. “This is really our main challenge and opportunity on the east bank.”

Rachel Billow, the president of the food truck coalition, said it’s encouraging to see the parish include food trucks as part of the process. Food trucks have been a hot button issue in New Orleans in recent months, but in Jefferson Parish the de-facto ban has kept them out of sight and mind.

Billow said that even though the festival is a one-time event, it could open the door for more regular participation, which is the ultimate goal.

“In my mind it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “Hopefully it will become clear that it’s something that the community wants.”

Andrew Legrand, an attorney for the coalition, said it’s obvious that Jefferson Parish sees the festival as a chance to capitalize on the New Orleans dispute. But, he believes the trucks can help with Fat City’s revitalization because the presence of food trucks draws people to areas simply for the novelty of the food.

“I think with all the recent news in New Orleans, Cynthia sees it as an opportunity to step in,” Legrand said. “With food trucks it’s kind of like an event.”

Billow said that eight food trucks have confirmed their participation in the festival. The trucks are: Foodie Call; Frencheeze; NOLA Girl; Empanada Intifada; La Cocinita; D’Juice; Crepes a la Cart; and Rue Chow.

One of the recurring questions about food trucks is whether they detract from the food sales for existing bricks-and-mortar businesses, which have a more permanent stake in the parish. That was one of the initial concerns with bringing them back to Jefferson, and Sheng said that’s why she made the festival a one-time event for now. She touted the Drago’s Foundation as a crucial part of that process.

Organizers will monitor the turnout and impact and then decide if it could work as something more frequent, she said. The most important thing is figuring out what works for Fat City, she said, because that’s what will work to improve Jefferson Parish as a whole.

“It’s such a valuable area in the heart of Metairie,” Sheng said. “This latest push we’re really starting to see something happening.”