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Keep on Trucking: Food Truck Row Hits Denver's Streets

David Mueller mans the Pink Tank food truck.

The inside of the Manna from Heaven food truck bustles with cooking activity.

Pink Tank's famous chicken and waffles with hot sauce ice cream.

Pink Tank's David Mueller serves up dishes to a customer.

Manna from Heaven serves Vietnamese fare.

The pork Banh Mi with a honeydew-coconut smoothie from Manna from Heaven.

People line up for lunch outside the Food Truck Row near the University of Denver.

Rumor has it a new food truck is unleashed on Colorado every four days. The trendy trucks are the hottest thing to hit the food industry since Jamie Oliver -- but most of them struggle. Food Truck Row is on a mission to bolster the industry by bringing together high-quality, gourmet trucks.
"People don't quite understand food trucks," says Pink Tank Owner David Mueller.

To say there's a rift between food truck owners and traditional brick-and-mortar restaurateurs is an understatement. Many brick-and-mortar owners suspect food trucks are out to usurp their customer base and are predictably standoffish, and even combative. 
 
"They think we pull up in front of their business, make a million bucks and drive away," Mueller explains. This impression isn't reality for entrepreneurs like Mueller and Food Truck Row Co-Founder Larry Galves, Owner of Manna from Heaven.   
 
Both Mueller and Galves have felt this resentment, which they believe contributes to a vast number of food-truck flops. Another problem, Galves notices, is a lack of camaraderie between trucks. Food Truck Row, an organization dedicated to raising awareness while fostering community, addresses these issues. Like-minded individuals strive to increase business opportunities for truck owners and raise public perception of the industry by curbing competition between trucks, encouraging mutual support and ensuring members produce high-quality food while obeying the rules.    
 
Galves and his wife Vu operate Manna from Heaven, specializing in non-traditional Vietnamese food such as Banh Mi, out of a 26-foot-long repurposed Lay's Potato Chips truck. The cargo area's seven-foot-eight-inch interior leaves a scant 36 inches between appliances -- that's space enough for 10 employees. "It seems tiny," says Galves, "But I've talked to chefs who say my space is bigger than theirs." The inside of the Manna from Heaven food truck bustles with cooking activity.
 
Galves' philanthropic 14-year-old daughter, home-schooled and intricately involved in the family truck, came up with the idea that spawned Manna from Heaven, an eatery that uses leftovers to feed the homeless. When inclement weather makes it difficult to personally feed the homeless, the family cuts a check -- a sizable 10 percent -- to Catholic Charities or St. Vincent de Paul.
    
When the Galveses first came to the scene in 2011, competition was stiff. Galves recalls parking-lot altercations along with general confusion surrounding the intricacies of small business start-up. One night, Manna from Heaven parked outside LoDo's Beta Nightclub.

"Next thing I knew, the employees and patrons were coming out for food, and we were slammed." With more business than he could handle, Galves had an idea: Why not invite other trucks to join? 
 
The first rows formed outside Beta, with as many as seven trucks participating. "We were having a blast," says Galves. Gradually, the little venture became Food Truck Row, a community of 26 food truck owners working together to help one another succeed in an oftentimes volatile industry. "We aren't about fighting for locations," Mueller says. "We're about making fun events for people who enjoy eating."
 
Mueller joined Food Truck Row in November 2012 as a Co-Owner and Board Member (he's one of five). The energetic, mohawk-sporting businessman owns Pink Tank, a truck specializing in breakfast confusion, a twist on typical fair featuring uncommon pairings like the French Toast Hot Dog. Regulars know the loud and sassy truck makes dining an experience. They also know they'll get quality food. "Food trucks don't have the luxury of buying things in mass amounts, so our food is raw and fresh," says Mueller.     Pink Tank's David Mueller serves up dishes to a customer.
 
Joining Food Truck Row isn't complicated. Prospective members complete an online application before submitting to an inspection and site visit. "We hold ourselves to a higher standard," Mueller says. "We want clean, organized, professional and friendly trucks."
 
Once admitted, members pay nominal dues -- just $10 per month -- in exchange for fringe benefits like business cards and advertising, as well as access to established rows. These rows, regular congregations at set locations, are vied for in a noncompetitive first-come, first-serve process. Information regarding rows is available online. Because contingencies like flat tires and weather make last-minute changes inevitable, social media -- Facebook and Twitter -- is your best bet for staying plugged in.   
 
"Food Truck Row has the potential to be as big as it wants to be," says Mueller, hypothesizing that a national scope isn't beyond reach. That's because the principles of community and camaraderie work. "Not everybody believes they will do more business if there are five trucks in a row," Mueller says. "It doesn't make sense, but it works." 
 
Galves concurs, expressing a desire to peacefully coexist with local brick-and-mortar restaurants, some of which already welcome trucks. "A few restaurants and bars ask us to park in front of their establishment because it actually gets them more business," Mueller explains. 
 
Increasing business is good, but in the end it's about community. "I love to watch the people standing in line," Mueller says. "They'll start talking to each other while they wait. In an age of abundant technology, it's really cool to see people connect in this way."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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