Photo Caption: The Not Guilty food cart is one of the newer entries in the local mobile takeout market. Behind it to the left is one of the oldest uptown vendors, the Burrito Buggy.
According to some accounts, the idea of mobile food started with cattle drives and the creation of the chuckwagon. From those days of beans and cornmeal, we now have street food that's sometimes gourmet and certainly trendy.
Practically every Ohio University student (and many locals) have chowed down at the Burrito Buggy near the College Gate or one of its curbside restaurant neighbors
These days the tradition is evolving and the locations are proliferating as the restaurant-on- wheels movement makes eating out easier and more appealing.
The mobile food scene is "definitely growing," confirmed local restaurant expert Leslie Schaller. And there's "more focus on healthy and local options."
One example, said Schaller, is Chelsea's Real Food, which is one of the latest entries in the market. Chelsea Hindenach, 30, opened for business over the summer.
Hindenach invested $50,000 into what she calls a "mobile kitchen." The kitchen is a trailer that's pulled from location to location by a pickup truck.
(Mobile kitchen, food truck, food trailer, food cart, food buggy and less charitably, roach coach are names used in the industry to identify movable venues that sell food.)
Hindenach's cooking background includes five years at the Village Bakery in Athens. "That's where I learned the intricacies of the local food scene," she said.
Her resume also includes more than two years as a personal chef. Alas, the family she worked for moved away from Athens, leaving her unemployed. That's when she took the plunge into the street-food business with the help of family and friends.
The Chelsea's Real Food menu features gluten-free and dairy-free items. Hindenach buys most of her ingredients from local sources, plus she gets eggs from her own chickens, and produce from her own garden.
"What I have on my menu currently is sandwiches, soups, salads and handmade popsicles," she said.
Although she's not open every day, "this is a fulltime gig," said Hindenach, explaining that because everything she serves is "scratch made," preparation takes a lot of time. She sells regularly at the Athens Farmers Market, the Ohio University Mini Market and Nelsonville's Final Friday, and does occasional festivals and events.
She reports that business is "good." She's been paying all the bills and has a little left over.
"I want to make a living doing this," said Hindenach, "I'm not looking to be rich."
AS CHELSEA'S REAL FOOD IS WORKING its way into the market, John Brannon is trying to get out. Brannon of Albany is owner/operator of Now We're Cooking.
Lately he's been setting up on East State Street, in the parking lot near Big Lots. He parks a smoker alongside.
Ribs, sausage and BBQ sandwiches are on the menu board. "Modern American Comfort Food Served Curbside With A Twist" is written on the side of his trailer.
"Our business has gradually grown over the last three years, and I'm very happy with it," he said between customers on one Saturday morning. "I'd be happier if I could recruit some family members to help, but I don't see that happening."
Now We're Cooking is open sporadically, which Brannon acknowledges is frustrating for some of his customers who can't always find him. "I just show up… whenever the spirit moves me and… I'm not backed up with a million other things," he said.
Brannon pointed out it takes him three days of cooking before he's ready for his first customer. "It takes me a lot longer to do this than many people think," he said.
"This is a young man's business and I'm not 21 anymore," added Brannon, who is "pushing 70." So he's willing to listen to buy-out offers.
His price started at around $70,000 but it's now down to about $55,000.
Although a food stand is less expensive than a "brick and mortar" restaurant, he said, "It's not cheap to get into business."THE NOT GUILTY FOOD CART is another vendor singled out by Schaller for its focus on healthy and local menu choices.
"We use many local products," said Jay Wamsley, who sells grilled sandwiches, smoothies and seasonal soups on Union Street in Athens. "We offer many vegetarian and vegan options."
Crumbs Bakery, Integration Acres, King Family Farm, Herbal Sage Tea, Athens Own and Shagbark Seed and Mill are some of his suppliers.
Considering it's new, "our business has been good," said Wamsley. "Now that the (Ohio University) students are back, it's busy again."
Wamsley observed, "Athens is doing a better job of being food-cart-friendly than many of the bigger cities. I think it's because there's such a long tradition here."
The Bagel Buggy was "so popular" when Wamsley moved to Athens in 1981, and "Then the Burrito Buggy and Ali Baba's became institutions." Wamsley added, "Shows on the Food Network help encourage the trend toward food carts."
Another mobile food vendor is Patricia Thomas, who owns Adam's Rib. She's a regular at the Union Street vending area in uptown Athens.
Thomas is also a regular at the Athens Farmers Market on Saturdays. Her specialty is grilled/smoked food: "Primarily BBQ spare ribs, baby back ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, (and) beer brats."
"Business is good, always growing and improving," she said. But like Brannon, she's grown weary.
"My primary obstacle is my time and energy," she said. "Currently my time and energy is on the low end" and the "55-plus" year old businesswoman is looking for a partner, someone to share the load.
Thomas said the growth of the street food business is due to "easy accessibility (and) reasonable pricing. We live in a society where fast, easy and inexpensive are the order."
Around Athens, more and more vendors are ready to fill those orders.