This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
The peninsula food scene Joe Spady grew up with is much different than the food scene in the area now. The 30-year-old, who opened Joe’s Meatball Shoppe in Soldotna earlier this summer, said he’s seeing more local food, different kinds of food and an increase in the number of food trucks in his hometown.
“The food scene is growing amazingly,” Spady said. “It was a different food scene than I grew up in, which was just the same four identical restaurants.”
Spady recalls area restaurants selling ubiquitous fare, like burgers, fries, tacos and pizza, but not much else. It didn’t seem people were craving much else, Spady said.
“It’s neat to see the shift in people really wanting more,” Spady said. “It’s not that we simply didn’t have it, it’s that people weren’t asking for it.”
These days, peninsula palates are hungry for something new. Wanna Kane lives in Nikiski. Last June, she opened up her food truck, Tuk Tuk Express where she sells Thai-style street food. There are only a handful of restaurants in Nikiski, and Tuk Tuk Express offers something less typical than what’s found in the area. Kane was able to find a spot to park near her home, where she is open Monday through Friday, and has partnered with local brewery, Kassik’s, to provide sustenance for beer-drinkers on Friday nights. Kane said even in the short time she’s been in business, she’s seen her business grow and the community welcome her.
“When I first opened it was slow, but very steady,” Kane said. “People are used to us being here now. It is just a different variety for Nikiski. People seem to like the quick, pick-up-and-go (style) of a food truck. We don’t see many food trucks out in Nikiski. Most are in Kenai and Soldotna, but I’ve seen growth, even in the short time I have been in business.”
When trying to come up with the concept of his food truck, Spady brainstormed food not readily available in the area.
“We don’t have a meatball shop,” Spady said. “In New York, there’s a pretty popular shop called ‘The Meatball Shop.’ I loved that place when I lived in New York. So I was thinking, what if I do that and kind of just transition all my sandwiches into meatball form… it’s fun to be a specific niche, while still doing what I’m passionate about.”
Once he created his menu and brand, Spady was ready for business. For many, the cost of a food truck is often what holds aspiring cooks back from their mobile eatery dreams. The Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District offers an affordable way for new business ventures to feel the industry out through the rental of a small trailer equipped with a kitchen: the ideal starter food truck.
“I was originally going to get a booth and rent a kitchen, but the opportunity to have it all in one was so nice,” Spady said. “It’s crazy affordable. So many people are like ‘oh you’re starting a food truck. How fun. I’ve always dreamt of starting a food truck.’ That’s when I’m like, ‘our state is so good for small business and with this opportunity, literally $100 and you can start your food truck this week.’”
Heidi Chay, district manager of Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, said the trailer, which was acquired in 2007, was originally set up as a test kitchen and a small business incubator. The Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District rents out other equipment that can help small businesses, especially farmers. The trailer is used at the Kenai Peninsula Fair for the 4-H barbecue, fundraisers and small businesses who want to test new products. Since Spady started Joe’s Meatball Shop, Chay said she’s received several inquiries for the trailer from people interested in developing their small business ideas.
“Turns out a lot of people have this food truck dream,” Chay said. “This has been the turnaround year because Joe is so generous about telling people about us.”
Andy Heuiser is the events and program director at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. He’s been working closely with food vendors through events put on by the chamber, including the Wednesday market, which sees perhaps the largest concentration of food trucks in the area. He said the food vendor scene really took off around 2014, just around the time Music in the Park was starting.
“When Music in the Park started, I think it really helped those food vendors quite a bit,” Heuiser said. ”They have a good customer base with the lunch rush and then with the evening rush.”
Originally, Spady was hoping to set up Joe’s Meatball Shop at the Wednesday Market, only to find there was a waitlist for food trucks.
“Professionally, I’m (upset), but personally, I’m so excited for our community,” Spady said. “What a wonderful problem to have. There’s so much variety. The variety of food trucks we have is way bigger than the variety of restaurants we have in town, which is so cool.”
To accommodate this new type of eatery, the city of Soldotna had to modify its regulations in 2015 to make it simpler for mobile food vendors to do business. Director of Economic Development and Planning for the City of Soldotna, John Czarnezki said he thinks the updated codes have been well-received by businesses.
“I can’t say whether the code changes have promoted small business — we have no way to measure,” Czarnezki said. “But, anecdotally we have noticed a large number and variety of food trucks in the area.”
Czarnezki said there are many factors that can influence food truck growth, like the number and type of events and venues where they can operate, the status of brick and mortar restaurants, and the health of the local economy.
In Kenai, where Tammy Olson runs Double O food truck, there are far fewer food trucks operating. Olson said this is because of ordinances maintained by the city that make it difficult to run a food truck.
“Kenai needs to change its ordinances,” Olson said. “They are not food truck friendly.”
Double O started in April of 2015. The food truck moved its business into the airport in 2016. The business left the airport restaurant location this year, and continues to operate out of the Double O trailer, where Olson said they make triple the business compared to the airport.
“It seems people enjoy food trucks more than a restaurant,” Olson said.
Elsewhere on the peninsula, food trucks have appeared in even the smallest of communities. In Cooper Landing, David Bond opened up Blue Yeti in 2015 in front of the grocery store. When Bond first opened, two other trucks also opened in the area. One truck went out of business, and the other is Libby’s Bites on the Fly, which sits near Wildman’s.
“I thought that I had a great idea, only to find out two more trucks were opening at the same time,” Bond said.
He said he had his fair share of challenges starting his truck in Cooper Landing. Finding a spot to park that had visibility, a power source, a restroom nearby and parking with the ability to turn around was difficult for Bond. Blue Yeti is also a solo project for him.
“My biggest challenge is working alone,” Bond said. “I do the planning, purchasing, preparation, order taking, cooking and all the washing by myself. It’s a one-man show, but that may be some of the appeal.”
Despite these challenges Bond says the experience is a blast.
“I get to sit in the center of town and visit with many of my customers, who are good friends as well,” Bond said. “The opportunity to do quality, small-batch cooking is also fun for me. I like to pass the goodness onto others.”
Spady said he’s learned a lot since starting Joe’s Meatball Shop, and that it’s been challenging due to space. He said he plans to be open through the end of summer and then will most likely move Joe’s Meatball Shop into its own brick and mortar this winter.
Reach Victoria Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.