Eager customers line up at vegan food trucks and carts

Signs of demand outstripping supply at Maine’s plant-based food trucks and food carts this season are already emerging, so if you’re a customer, expect longer waits. Luckily for overburdened truck staff, by all accounts, mobile vegan kitchens serve a chill customer base, notably patient and non-complaining.

The popular Curbside Comforts vegan food truck, which launched last year in Portland selling vegan burgers, mac and cheese and ice cream, has leased a take-out restaurant and scoop shop in Gorham. Its loss on the streets of Portland may be one of the factors contributing to longer lines at the remaining vegan food trucks.

Long-running plant-based food truck Falafel Mafia is readying a second truck for the city streets, but its fate is now uncertain, thanks to Portland’s recently announced plans to shrink the number of spots for food trucks on the Eastern Prom.

Meanwhile, the Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck is facing longer lines than ever, while the Cornish-based The Greenhouse by SAO vegan food cart continues to serve the towns to the west of Sebago Lake and is adding South Portland to its route.

THIS TRUCK IS TOTALLY AWESOME

When the Totally Awesome truck made its first appearance of the season at lunchtime in early April, serving Baconators and Street Dawgs, a line stretched in front of the truck. You could hardly call it fast food that day – customers waited up to an hour and a half for their orders. Owners and husband-and-wife team Tony and Coleen DiPhillipo were working the truck by themselves and said the line never let up.

Since then, they’ve been able to hire extra help, but they could use more. “We’re still getting mobbed, but it’s a little less painful now,” Tony DiPhillipo told me by phone. And despite the 30-minute wait times at their first 420 Brunch of the season, “people remained so grateful and positive.”

DiPhillipo, who launched the food truck in 2018, has worked in food service for many years. At other jobs, “there was always a percentage of people that give (employees) a hard time,” he said. “But that never seems to happen with us.”

Many of his repeat customers say they’re happy to wait.

“I want vegan businesses to succeed, which definitely makes waiting in line mentally easier,” said regular and Gorham native Kelly Caiazzo, who splits her time between Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Portland. “I’m excited that it means vegan options are popular because they’re better for animals and the environment. And the long line means it’s more likely that vegan businesses will succeed. ”

Christine Drown of South Portland, another regular, echoed that sentiment. “We’d rather pay and wait for good food and good service,” Drown said, before joking, “It’s the only time I’m hangry that I don’t lose it having to wait for food.”

DiPhillipo attributes both the demand and the customer patience to the truck’s menu. Even if the location where he parks lacks high foot traffic, vegan burgers and hot dogs are “such a niche that a lot of people seek us out,” DiPhillipo said.

Before the pandemic, DiPhillipo had been considering making a leap to brick-and-mortar. He’d like more space, more staff, and the opportunity to expand his menu. But the last two uncertain years caused him to pause. Now, despite the continued labor shortage, “I’m feeling a lot better about things,” he said. “I’m feeling like it’s going to need to be sooner rather than later.”

For now, the Totally Awesome truck plans pop-ups on the Western Prom near Maine Med; Sunday 420 Brunches at the Corner of Bolton and Congress streets, where the former gas station in front of Tony’s Donuts (owned by DiPhillipo’s uncle) is soon to open as a medical cannabis dispensary; and pop-ups at the Rose Mary Jane recreational cannabis store on St. John Street.

The Totally Awesome Vegan Food truck is scheduled to sell food at events, as well, including 4th of July at Bug Light Park and Art in the Park in South Portland; Woofstock in Kennebunk; and Yoga Fest, Pet Rock in the Park and the Rally 4 Recovery, all in Portland.

PARKING WOES PLAGUE FALAFAL MAFIA

After 2 pm on a weekday in late April, with a raw wind whipping off Casco Bay onto the Eastern Prom, the Falafel Mafia truck was parked on the Eastern Prom near the playground with three other trucks. There was no one in the playground or sitting on the prom, yet a cluster of people braved the cold to order from Falafel Mafia.

The Falafel Mafia offers a simplified version of the menu served at its sister restaurant Nura in Monument Square, including falafel pita pockets, hummus bowls and shawarma fries. The truck’s menu is mostly vegan, with occasional options for cow’s milk based cheeses or sauces.

Soon, the company will be running two identical trucks. Brothers Dylan and Cameron Gardner, who launched the truck in 2017 and opened the restaurant in 2019, ordered a second truck last year from a Florida company. By the time you read this, Cameron Gardener hopes to have driven it to Portland.

Unfortunately, changes in the city’s rules that govern food trucks at the Eastern Prom have put a wrench in the works. Responding to neighborhood complaints about generator exhaust, overflowing trash cans, tree damage and sidewalk congestion, the city is significantly shrinking parking for food trucks in the area.

“We built the new truck with the intention of operating seven days a week on the Eastern Prom before we knew about the city’s plans,” Dylan Gardner wrote in an email.

“We are kind of in limbo, waiting to hear more on the selection process before we pursue another location,” Cameron Gardner wrote, adding that if the truck can’t get a spot there, they could be forced to lay off staff or reduce employees’ hours; the staff at Nura does the prep work for the trucks.

Until the changes on the Eastern Prom take effect on June 15, one Falafel Mafia truck will park at the Eastern Prom while the other will do weekday lunch pop-ups on the Western Prom near Maine Med, as well as selling food during concerts at Thompson’s Point, special events and corporate lunches. Both Falafel Mafia trucks will work this year’s Common Ground Country Fair.

HELP WANTED AT GREENHOUSE BY SAO

The Greenhouse by SAO food cart serves southern-style vegan food in towns to the west of Sebago Lake and South Portland. Photo courtesy of The Greenhouse by SAO

At The Greenhouse by SAO food cart, staffing challenges are a top concern. The Greenhouse pops up at various local businesses during the week and parks at summer festivals and events.

“The challenge is finding dependent staff that can show up for those festivals,” said owner Shelby Oates, whose Southern-style food cart is already booked for Bridgton’s Music on Main series, the Ossipee Valley Fair, Buxton’s 250th Birthday Celebration, and the Bluegrass Festival at Apple Acres Farm in Hiram.

Oates runs the cart with a two- to four-person team. At some of the festivals she worked last year, “there was such a long wait at certain times.”

“I’m grateful for the grace of the client who is willing to wait on that food,” she said.

This season, look for The Greenhouse parked at The Local Gear in Cornish, Archie’s Strike & Spare in Kezar Falls and Pine Root Farm in Steep Falls. Oates said she is collaborating with the farm to produce a ticketed, on-farm dinner series. Once she is licensed in South Portland, Oates plans to do occasional pop-ups at Casco Bay Cannabis, a medical dispensary located at 575 Westbrook Street.

As soon as corn is in season, her popular grilled street corn will be back, Oates said, and she is working on creating a house barbecue sauce. Other new menu items include vegan shrimp barbecue sandwiches and polenta cake sliders with greens and herb aioli.

“People will find me a little more often and a little more wider spread this year,” Oates said.

ONE TRUCK’S LAST HURRAH

Curbside Comforts, which aims to open in Gorham on May 28, made its last appearance as a mobile kitchen on Earth Day in Harrison for a town clean-up event. The wait for food was long, said local resident Angie Rosenberg.

“I didn’t hear any negative comments or see negative behavior,” she said, “which is surprising due to high tension these days. I work in a restaurant, and this positive food truck experience is not something we are seeing in a brick-and-mortar restaurant atmosphere. ”

Curbside Comforts owner Suzanne Grace appreciates customers’ patience, and she hopes people recognize that food trucks aren’t always synonymous with fast food. Many local trucks turn out scratch-cooked meals prepared one at a time, she said, so wait times increase as the orders pile up.

When she’s not working herself, Grace said she is willing to wait a long time for a plant-based meal. She’s waited up to an hour and a half for a table at the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro in Portland, which no longer takes reservations (it did for the first time during the pandemic).

“Whenever I go there,” Grace told me via email, “I expect to have a wait and make a plan.”

Her favorite solution: The arcade games at nearby Coast City Comics.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
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