On May 10, a blog entry titled “Lessons in Shady Business Practices” appeared on Notes from Food Truckin’, a blog maintained by Haley Wood and Jesse Watnes, the proprietors of GourMelt Grilled Cheese Truck, one of the most prominent food trucks in Reno’s now burgeoning mobile food movement.
“Reno Food Truck Fridays took a few months and lots of leg work by the two of us to plan,” the blog entry begins. “We had never planned an event before. Our goal was to bring all of the trucks together in one location in order to show Reno what we’re all about. … The success of RFTF was amazing and unexpected. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came to the first two. This was a great turnout, but, of course, it did lead to long lines.”
The entire post can be read at foodtruckin.blogspot.com, but the controversial bit comes a few paragraphs later:
“Then yesterday, we received a call. We were invited to attend an event on Friday nights (other than first Fridays) at the same location, with live music and local artisans and … wait … this sounds familiar. Someone had called to invite us to our own event. The idea that we had and created and did all the work for is now being taken over by a company who wants to charge a fee plus a percentage. (Wow, they will make some money off our idea.) I am amazed and astounded. Does this happen in real life? Do people just copy an event verbatim and call it their own? These are businesses we have worked with before and thought of as colleagues. In fact, they asked me for a list of food trucks so they could do a page in their publication devoted to food trucks. Little did I know that list was needed to poach our event. They didn’t even talk to us about extending the event or consult us. They just swooped in for the kill. I am beginning to realize that as much as Reno talks about supporting each other, that is definitely not always the case. These people want to make money off of what they see as a successful event.”
The blog post went viral among local foodies, who reposted it on Facebook and other social media sites, and discussed it at length on their own blogs. The tone of the commentary was often incredulous. Here’s the first comment beneath the original blog post, for example, with internet-casual grammar and punctuation intact: “incredible. i say expose them—name names. i would prefer to support YOU, not some copycat.”
Much of the commentary included demands to reveal the identity of the “copycat.”
Out on the street
“Reno Street Food is a new company,” said Steve Schroeder over coffee on a recent weekday morning. “It’s a food event production company, so it’s not just limited to the one event. For organizations, RSCVA, events in town, Reno Street Foods is a one-call turnkey. ‘Hey, we want to put on an event. Can you bring trucks?’ Rather than the event producer trying to rally trucks, call each of the owner-operators, go through the health department, ‘Do you have your business license? Give me a copy of your insurance.’ They call us, we’ve already got it handled.”
Schroeder is co-owner of Reno Street Food with Jaci Goodman. Schroeder is also the president of Synergy Communications, a markeing and public relations company, and Goodman is the co-publisher and advertising director of Edible Reno-Tahoe Magazine. Joe Horn of Dish Café is a silent partner.
The first Reno Street Food event is from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday, June 8, at the old Regional Transportation Commission Citicenter bus station near the corner of Fourth and Center streets in downtown Reno, featuring many local mobile food units, like Dish Truck, serving up gourmet and artisan cuisine, as well as beer from the Great Basin Brewing Co. and activities for all ages.
Perceptive readers might notice a superficial resemblance to Reno Food Truck Fridays, last held from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday, June 1, at the old Regional Transportation Commission Citicenter bus station near the corner of Fourth and Center streets in downtown Reno, featuring many local mobile food units, like Dish Truck, serving up gourmet and artisan cuisine, as well as beer from the Great Basin Brewing Co. and activities for all ages.
Of course, food trucks are not exclusive to either of these events. For instance, the Whole Foods Farmers Market in Sparks, which opens this evening, will have a food truck court.
The first RFTF event was held on April 6. News coverage leading up to the event, including in this newspaper, focused on the up-and-coming culinary trend of gourmet mobile units, and postulated the event as a unifying gathering among the food trucks and local foodies.
The event is recurring on the first Friday of every month through the duration of the summer, and though the first two events were considered successful, they did attract certain complaints, largely because the events were so successful, which led to long, unwieldy lines and wait times.
“There was talk amongst truck owners about if we should increase it to maybe bimonthly or something like that, but it being so new and only having two—actually when the first discussion came up, we’d only had one event, the first one—so we thought maybe, let’s see how it goes into the season, maybe that was a fluke,” said Wood in a recent phone conversation. “So nobody actually talked to us about expanding the event before going ahead and applying for the permits. The only way we found out about it was by getting an invitation to the new event.”
Though Wood sees Reno Street Food as an imitation event, for Goodman and Schroeder, the two events are both part of the same larger cultural movement.
“Well, if I opened a restaurant, would every restaurant owner think I was copying them?” said Schroeder. “We’ve had an interest as a new business in the food truck movement, the mobile food truck movement, the pop-up restaurant movement. There’s a food movement taking place in the United States, and Reno is now on the map. We’re not behind. We’re not ahead. We’re right there. It’s taking advantage of the movement of what people are seeing in Portland, San Antonio, San Francisco, Austin. So we’re not copying something in Reno. We’re copying something that’s taking place nationwide as a gourmet food movement. It’s not just a barbecue movement. It’s not just a farmers’ market movement. It’s a gourmet food movement—the folks that have invested in artisan stuff. Someone’s put together a truck or a mobile trailer or even a pop-up tent. But what they’re offering is unique ingredients—maybe they’re locavore ingredients, maybe not—but they’ve gone out of the box to create something that’s unique. That’s what we’re celebrating.”
“We’ve wanted to do this since we opened,” said Wood of RFTF. “It was just a matter of time and there actually being enough trucks. … Nobody was really sure what it was going to be like, it was just taking a chance, a leap. And it turned out to be this really successful thing. Now, I can see at this point that there should be more food truck events. I don’t necessarily think that the people who are doing this event should have taken exactly what we did and copied it verbatim. They could have done something on a Saturday in Midtown. Even on a Saturday in the same spot. But they’re basically riding the wave of what we have worked really hard since December to create. … I feel like they could have gone about it differently.”
Wood said that among the truck owners and operators, there is a sense of friendly competition, as well as camaraderie among fellow practitioners of a relatively new approach to cuisine.
“We do want there to do be a lot of promotion for food trucks,” she said. “That was the whole point of Food Truck Fridays, to get some exposure to some trucks and to show everyone in Reno what we’ve got. … Every day we need to recommend each other, so I want everyone to see that we are a brotherhood. Of course, we are in competition, too. And I’m not at all afraid of that. I just think that this other event was just a little too close for comfort.
“We wanted to be different,” said Schroeder. “Really. We want to be different.”
He says there are differences between the two events. RSF will be attracting more vendors from farther away in California. They plan to donate a percentage of profits to charities, like Care Chest, Urban Roots, the Heart Association and Food Bank. And, later in the summer, they plan to host competitions among the trucks using locally sourced ingredients.
“We went to the city, all through the application process,” he said. “You can’t copy that. You have to start from scratch. I’ve done it many times in producing events. I’ve worked with the rodeo. I’ve worked with Hot August Nights. I’ve worked with many of the major events in this town. If you’re going to put something on, there’s a trail of paper you have to create to work with the special events committee. So there’s nothing you can copy about that.”
Schroeder said they also looked at other possible locations including the ReTRAC pads above the train trench near Virginia Street, but there were significant power, bathrooms and zoning problems with this location. The Citicenter location is just ideally suited for this kind event, with multiple large vehicles, simply because it used to be a bus station.
“It worked,” said Schroeder. “There was no other solution.”
Friday night fights
“Food truck events have been going on a lot longer than they have in Reno,” said Joe Horn, a silent partner in RSF and co-owner of Dish Café and Dish Truck, a vendor participating in both events. “If anybody stole anything, they probably stole it from L.A. four years ago. … Food truck events didn’t start in Reno. They started a long time ago. Gathering people around to have street food, having pop-up vendors didn’t start here. I’ve been to events in L.A. I’ve been to events in San Francisco. I don’t know how anybody could have stolen anything.”
According to Horn, having multiple events just presents more opportunity for the truck owners.
“I end up going out Monday through Friday throughout town, and I sell probably 70 to 90 lunches a day out of my truck,” he said. “When I go to Food Truck Friday, I sell 200 to 300 and [then] some, and I have a line so long I can’t service my clients fast enough. And owning a restaurant, I get constant complaints from people who say they’re not going to go back [to RFTF] because the lines are too long, and there’s not enough trucks, and it should be every week, and this, that and the other. So when it was decided to become a weekly thing with Reno Street Food, I was ecstatic, because number one, as a business owner, I now have … quite a few more Fridays throughout the summer to make money to help pay for my truck and take care of my business. … If I was doing 300 people every Food Truck Friday and now I only start doing 200 people, I would rather do 200 people four times a month, which is 800 people, than 300 people one time a month and not give them as good of service as I could if I was only doing 200. So for me, from a business standpoint and nothing but a business standpoint, it’s frigging awesome.”
Justin McDaniel, general manager of Sauce Wagon, a barbecue trailer and the new, not-yet-open Composition Café inside the Nevada Museum of Art, has a different perspective.
“I think if you have an event like that every Friday, it would saturate the market,” he said. “I feel like people will not go, so it won’t be as big. … I think a better approach would have been a different day somewhere else to create a different vibe. So if people don’t like it downtown, they can go to a park, somewhere else on a different day. I understand that people are trying to strike while the iron’s hot, but … what I’m afraid of is that it would saturate the market, and take away from all the Fridays in general. I think it would actually decrease how many people attend.”
“They came to the first event, and Jaci stuck her head in the window and said, ‘Good job! You guys are doing awesome. I’m so proud of you,’” said Wood. “And then the next time we heard from her was for her to call and ask us to be a vendor at her event. No, she did call me to ask for information. She wanted to put a food truck ad—a whole page in Edible dedicated to food trucks, so could I please give her the information of all the food trucks. That ad does not exist, but she suddenly has all the contact information—which wouldn’t be hard to get anyway. I’m not saying she couldn’t come up with the contact information. We all have that information readily available. It just made it a lot easier for her.”
The ad never appeared, which Goodman attributes to a design problem, though the current issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe includes positive profiles of a number of mobile food units, including GourMelt.
“Nobody asked her for a list,” said Goodman. “She didn’t give anybody anything. … We know all of the food trucks that are actually put in the story. We have relationships with all of them. She didn’t provide anything for a story that had been in the can for over two months. We’ve had plans for a food truck story for summer for a year.”
“I’ve had the food truck operator list since December when we held an all food truck owner meeting at Dish Café,” said Schroeder. “I gathered the signatures and phone numbers of every food truck operator in Reno so that we could come together as a coalition and work … with the city.”
Schroeder and Horn and others worked with the city to develop business-friendly ordinances for mobile food units. According to Wood, Schroeder and Goodman’s high standing in the foodie community meant that many locals tempered their immediate knee-jerk negative responses when they discovered who the “copycat” actually was.
“It seems like initially people were really mad, and then when they found out who it was, they weren’t as mad, said Wood. “So, because it’s Edible Reno and they’ve done things in the food world, that makes it OK? I guess. That’s fine, whatever. Maybe it’s because this is a small town, and everybody’s so connected, I should just keep my mouth shut and let these people run over me, but … that’s not the way I’m wired.”
“I encouraged everybody to participate in Food Truck Fridays, where the other way around, Haley has actually sent an email telling everybody not to do business with us,” said Goodman. “I’m not going to get in the middle of her Gourmeltdown 2012. I’m not going to do it.”
“I don’t want to hurt the other trucks that are choosing to participate,” said Wood. “We’ve told them all that we’re so sorry that they have to be in the middle of it. You know, this is a hard spot for everyone. That’s what sucks about it too, please mention this, it’s put all these small business owners in a really weird spot where they feel like they have to choose sides, and nobody ever wanted that. We never wanted anyone to have to choose sides. So I’ve apologized to them all if that’s the way they feel, but we support whatever they choose to do.”
“She’s making people pick sides,” said Goodman. “When she gets somebody else not to participate, she’s running their business. And for them to miss out on that kind of money that would pad them through the winter is absolutely not very community-minded. And it’s not smart business.”
“Haley did a great job,” said Schroeder. “It’s been a wonderful event. It’s resonating in this community. … Business is business. It’s hard to say someone’s copying an idea. When people get together and think something up, it’s just a matter of, when can you launch it?”
“The thing that really sucks about it all is that if we did want to expand into next season and decided that we wanted to do it every month or biweekly or whatever, they already have first right of refusal for that,” said Wood. “So we couldn’t expand our event, because they decided that that’s their thing now.”
“We don’t want people to think it’s us and them,” said Schroeder. “We want people to think, it’s food trucks, and I’m going to go down on every Friday night with my family and friends, and we’re going to hang out and have a good time, and we’re going to eat from a couple different trucks. … I was sad that they were so affronted by this, that I would want to start a company that serviced the food truck owners and the community. No one owns the idea. We’re looking at models from out-of-state.”
Goodman said she still wants Gourmelt to participate in future Reno Street Food events.
“I keep going back and asking them to check their calendar for the future,” she said. “I said that Steve and I really hope they’d like to attend our event sometime this summer, as many dates as they can.”
But Gourmelt has many of their Friday evenings already booked up for most of the summer.
“Our main priority is that food trucks in Reno do well and that people in Reno don’t get burned out on it,” said Wood. “I do see a need for more food truck events. And I will always stand behind all the food trucks and the choices that they make. I just wish they would have gone about it differently.”