As Austin’s culinary scene continues to make waves and pour into the national conversation, trends are bound to come and go. And the latest trend is in: food truck fests. The initial concept is pretty simple; get a large enough space, broker deals with food trucks, and people come to eat. But the leader of this foodie fad is taking things in a different direction.
David Poku, most notable for his involvement in Austin’s nightlife scene, took on the task of breathing fresh air into the food truck scene when he decided to create his own food truck festival. He isn’t the first to create a food truck festival, and likely won’t be the last, but his approach has raised the bar for what foodies expect from local events.
“I had attended the Soul Food Truck Festival, and I’ve always wanted to do some sort of festival,” Poku explained. “So I went to the Soul Food Truck Festival which is a mentor of mine, Donell Creech who owns Soul City, I just felt that a lot of food truck festivals just focused on the food and not the entertainment. So because that was something that I was very familiar with with the nightlife side of entertainment that I’ve been involved with, I figured I could create a perfect assembly of both worlds. So every time we have a food truck festival some people might call it a circus because there’s a lot of stuff as far as entertainment whether it’s a pop-up petting zoo, a rock wall, a car show, what have you. I try to integrate so many forms of entertainment and create an interactive atmosphere, so that it’s not just the food that’s bringing people together.”
People would likely call Poku’s festivals a circus because, nearly by definition, that’s what he’s created. To make a food analogy, Poku’s festival is like a full course meal. You get the vendor booths (appetizers), the food trucks (main dish) and kid-friendly activities (desserts). But with more than 12 vendors and activities and only eight food trucks, you’re basically filling up on the bread. To make the circus comparison: You pay for a ticket, and all of the entertainment is free, but the food — the thing you came for in the first place — is still an additional charge, like cotton candy or popcorn...which are both available at Poku’s food truck festivals. Ironically, there was an actual traveling circus occupying the same parking lot at Gebruary’s food truck festival, which caused confusion for some.
“[They need] more signs around the place to let us know exactly where it’s at,” Jason Barefield of Austin explained. “A lot of people that were coming didn’t know exactly where to go and the circus is on the other side [of the parking lot] so a lot of people kept going to the circus thinking it was this. But it’s a friendly environment. The food is good and they’ve got liquor — it doesn’t get better than that. I’ve tried three food trucks. My favorite one was The Cajun Skillet.”
Criticisms aside, the numbers don’t lie, and the people are fans of the fest.
“The first [food truck festival] was insane with about 4,300 people with every food truck running out of food about half way through, so we kind of knew what we were capable of,” Poku stated. “The second, third and fourth continued to bring in about two or three thousand people depending on the weather, but it’s a minimum of 2,000 people. They’re all successful in their own way, and the thing we’re trying to have a happy balance with is the food trucks don’t like to compete with other food trucks. They want us to have less and less food trucks, but the people want us to have more and more food trucks. We never get to win in finding the perfect happy balance, so we get a bunch a flack if we get too many or too few food trucks and then people are waiting in line.”
That balance seems to continue to be a work in progress for Poku and his team, as festival goers were excited for the food, but not for the wait times. Many attendees came from nearby cities as well for the festival, giving proof that Poku’s reach goes well beyond Austin.
“It looks really cute. We’re excited to come and try out some of the places that are here,” Carita Fambro of San Antonio said. “Now that our daughter’s a little bit older, I’ve been trying to find fun stuff for us to do on the weekends so when I Googled things happening in San Antonio this came up and I knew that it wasn’t a super duper far drive, so we decided to make it a Sunday Funday.”
Other festival foodies were drawn to the festival through the food trucks themselves, but may not have been completely pleased with the full product.
“Food trucks were advertising that they were coming here, so we came to check it out,” Freddy Orange and Flavia Neves of Austin said. “I’d like to see more trucks and more options, but it all depends. The lines were pretty astronomical. That was the big deciding factor in choosing to go to one [food truck] or trying the next place — the wait. Plus the sitting area; people aren’t really able to find seating.”
Much of this isn’t new information for Poku, who has hosted approximately five food truck festivals at this point. As the festival grows and expands, he and his team are working to find a way to please everybody, but a certain book once said, “no man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Although, this hasn’t grown to biblical proportions yet, it would seem that Poku is learning this lesson one festival at a time.
“The thing that’s difficult is they always want to know how many food trucks are going to be there,” he explained. “It’s a double-edged sword and we have to err on the side of ‘if we have 10 food trucks as opposed to 15 or 20 what is your serving time going to be? Is it going to be the same if there were 20 food trucks? Is it going to be the same if there were 4,000 people instead of two?’ So in my mind, we always take a gamble at trying to make the consumer and the food trucks feel as best as possible, but the food trucks don’t understand that if we only have six food trucks and 2,000 people come — people will have a very bad experience because they don’t want to wait in that long of a line. The food trucks don’t care about that because they’re going to make a killing either way. So we’re trying to create a scenario where the food trucks are more aligned with us trying to achieve a great consumer experience, not just self-serving to make them make a bunch of money. We can’t do that at the expense of the consumer having a bad experience.”
While Poku is sympathetic to the plight of the consumer, he does seem to take offense to the thought that it’s a simple fix.
“I’m not saying people aren’t happy, but people don’t know how hard our job is in creating a scenario which — ‘ok, let’s create a huge event and then people are expecting to come to this festival and think that there’s not going to be lines?’ It’s really an impossibility; absolutely and impossibility,” Poku argued. “Even when you go to Arlo’s downtown or any food truck really, there’s going to be a line; whether it’s six people, or three people or four people there’s going to be something stopping you from getting your order immediately as you order it.”
Although his food truck festivals are still fairly new on the scene, Poku is impressed with what he and his team have accomplished thus far. Creating a food festival of any size is no easy undertaking, and Poku’s team is playing fast to catch up to the competition.
“A lot of events that are smaller events like Potluck and Trucklandia will try to focus on contests,” he explained. “Trucklandia is really great; they give, like, a $10,000 prize to food trucks. We’re not there yet with the sponsors obviously. And Potluck gets a lot of big acts, but the thing that’s interesting is that the way we’re doing it — as organic and wholesome as we’re doing it, getting local bands and not spending a whole bunch of money on talent — we’re achieving the numbers that they’re getting on a monthly basis instead of yearly. I think the reason for that is that every single event is different in its nature.”
The growing pains of putting together a food truck festival may be hurdles for Poku to overcome, but from what can be seen, the city still supports his endeavors. And until he can build this up on his own, his friends in high places have his back too.
“A lot of this wouldn’t be able to take place without our liquor sponsors, Infamous Brewing Company, Colorado High Vodka, American Born Whiskey, Dolce Vida Tequila and without them, Roscoe Properties and our brand new sponsor Harbortouch POS, without all of them, the event could not go in the direction it’s been going in and I think in 2019, we’re going to see a lot of new horizons,” he said.
Now, Poku has his sights set on a food truck event during Austin’s famous South by Southwest leading into his next food truck festival, scheduled for March 24.
Nick Bailey is a forward thinking journalist with a well-rounded skill set unafraid to take on topics head on. He now resides in Austin, TX and continues to create content on a daily basis.