Despite facing a unique set of economic pressures, southern Minnesota’s growing fleet of food trucks persevered through 2020 — and now, they’re looking forward to growth and new opportunities in 2021.
Thanks in part to the relaxation of certain regulations, Minnesota’s food truck industry has become a big deal in a relatively short period of time. Even though the industry is a bit quieter in the winter, the MN Food Truck Association’s list of food trucks across the state, which doesn’t include several prominent local trucks, lists 39 trucks working throughout the winter.
That’s a far cry from just a decade ago, when there were just 10 licensed food trucks period. Now, food trucks have established themselves as an easy and accessible way to enter the food preparation business, enabling vendors to travel to customers and build up loyal clientele. Food trucks have also benefited from a dramatic rise in the number of microbreweries across Minnesota.
The number of taprooms across the state surged following the state legislature’s passage of the “Surly Bill” in 2011, which allowed breweries to sell their brews onsite.
Many of those breweries had no interest in investing in a full-service kitchen, so they turned to food trucks. Local breweries that invested in that strategy are Imminent Brewing in Northfield and Mineral Springs Brewing in Owatonna. 10,000 Drops Craft Distillers in Faribault and its neighbor Corks & Pints, have also welcomed food trucks on many a weekend.
Since opening last year, Mineral Springs’s Bill Cronin said that the brewery has used about eight trucks on its special “food truck pad,” built specially to provide all of the electrical connections needed to ensure smooth operation of the trucks.
According to Cronin, nearly every food truck used by Mineral Springs is based in southern Minnesota, within about a 40-mile radius of Owatonna. He offered high praise for the trucks, saying they have consistently provided high-quality food and service.
“These food trucks are the epitome of small business, they’re scraping and clawing for everything they get,” he said. “They serve up fantastic food.”
During the winter, Mineral Springs partners with New Richland-based Evan’s Eatery nearly every weekend. The truck, which got its start in part thanks to a loan from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, is owned by Dan Miller and his wife April.
While the Millers are always experimenting with new recipes, there’s one constant across many of the burgers they serve up — the signature chipotle aioli. Thanks to friendly service and good food, Cronin said they’ve managed to become a draw week in and week out.
When the pandemic hit, Dan Miller said, the initial effect was jarring. With everything from community festivals to kids birthday parties and school events cancelled, the truck’s schedule was effectively “wiped clean.”
However, the truck has since managed to make a comeback by pivoting instead to serving lunches and at breweries, offering a safer alternative for hungry customers who might otherwise be dining in a restaurant.
“People really appreciate the fact that they can order our food and eat it outside,” he said.
Even though many trucks close for the winter, operating Evan’s Eatery is a full time, year-round gig for the Millers. Even though sales have been down as the weather has gotten colder, Dan Miller said that word of mouth has helped bring in enough customers to keep the truck going.
Brian Freed of Uncle B’s Last Chance BBQ Shack is among the local truck owners who closes up shop in the winter. Freed said that the Shack will return as soon as March. In the meantime, he’s focused on getting healthy and rested up for a strenuous summer schedule.
Freed said the truck did remarkably well in 2020, posting its strongest sales in seven years. When bars and restaurants were forced to close, Freed said his phone began to ring off the hook as people organizing small group events rushed to secure his catering services.
In Northfield, Imminent Brewing co-owner Derek Meyer said that traffic has slowed a bit with on-site taproom sales so limited. Roughly a half-dozen trucks are continuing to serve food, down from roughly twice that throughout the summer months.
According to Meyer, traffic tends to be best when the weather is nicest. Imminent books its trucks well in advance. While many come from the Twin Cities area, others hail from southern Minnesota.
Among the local trucks Imminent regularly hosts is Ellendale-based Noris Cuisine. A native of Venezuela, Noris Hemingway founded the truck in 2018 and has since served up her homemade arepas and empanadas across the state. As the only authentic Venezuelan food truck in the state, Noris Cuisine has built a devoted following, with some customers driving as much as an hour to get their food. Like the Millers, Hemingway got her start with help from SMIF.
Now, she’s interested in taking the business a step further by starting up a new cafe that will function as part coffee shop, part Latin American restaurant. More details are likely to come in the near future, as Hemingway works to finalize a lease agreement, and the cafe could open as soon as June 1.
Hemingway said that she has no intention of giving up her food truck. While she hasn’t set a final schedule yet, she suggested that it might be closed once or twice a week so that she can bring the food truck to Imminent or other breweries she frequents in Rochester and Mankato.
However, she believes that the cafe would fill an important niche in the community, providing a place for people to socialize or work over a cup of coffee or an empanada.
“We don’t feel like the area has a lot of coffee shops or cafes, so we want to bring something new for people to be excited about,” she said.