New Orleans represents many things to many people. For some, she’s the perfect vacation spot, a place where you can dance and drink your cares away and not worry about packing on a few pounds. For others, she’s a harsh mistress, a city that takes with both hands and gives little back. Still to many of us who call her home, she’s a tempestous lover, ready to torture you to be sure you’re worthy of her. When she’s finally satisfied you’ve passed the test, she never leaves you.
Often people’s perception of the city comes down to how resilient (or just how plain stubborn) they are. After all, it takes a lot of nerve to take New Orleans on. But plenty of people have done just that, and some of them even won, becoming a part of the transient tapestry making up the city.
Rose Nicaud was one. The enslaved woman served coffee from a portable cart she wove in and out of the French Market to become New Orleans’ first coffee vendor. Another mobile food vendor was Pearl the Pie Lady. She could be seen and heard wheeling her pie cart throughout the French Quarter while singing, “Pie Laaaady.” While she unfortunately didn’t continue selling pies after Hurricane Katrina, many still remember her and long for her return.
Today’s mobile vendors are food trucks. These modern-day carts have the same entrepreneurial spirit Rose Nicaud and the Pie Lady had. Because what could be more NOLA than combining the Southern need to feed everyone while having the ingenuity to get paid for it?
I was lucky enough to speak with owners Rachel Angulo of La Cocinita food truck and Stephen Maher of Bonafried this past week to see how their individual journeys began, are progressing through the pandemic, and how the rest of us can find them.
KT: What made you want to start a food truck?
Rachel: “Benoit Angulo [and I] met while working together at Commander’s Palace, a fine-dining restaurant in New Orleans. While enjoying drinks at a neighborhood bar late one night after a long shift, [we] became hungry, not having eaten since the 5 p.m. pre-shift meal. Disappointed with the absence of nearby late-night food options, Benoit pitched the idea of starting a food truck together.
Benoit envisioned drawing from the feel and flavors of late-night street food carts lining a strip in Caracas referred to as “Calle del Hambre” (“Hunger Street”). Benoit introduced [me] to his arepas, and soon thereafter, I fell in love with both Benoit and his cooking. The New Orleans truck opened for business on Nov. 19, 2011, at the same bar where it all started…and the rest is history!”
Stephen: “We wanted to work for ourselves. I didn’t want to wait and learn a new trade, and the only things I had ever really done was food service and HVAC repairs and maintenance. Naturally, I figured I could turn a 30-year-old bread truck into a kitchen. Also that was also all we could afford to do.”
KT: What was the process like?
Rachel: “When we first opened our food truck in 2011, we learned that the laws governing mobile food vendors (dating back to the Roman candy cart!) had not been updated since 1956. We worked with the city council and the mayor’s office to change the legislation. A year and a half from the time I wrote up my initial proposal, we were able to accomplish the following changes:
- Removed the 600-ft proximity restriction from restaurants which made it nearly impossible to operate legally in New Orleans
- Increased the time limit from 45 minutes to 4 hours
- Increased the number of food truck permits by 100
- Opened access to part of the CBD (including the biomedical district) that was previously off-limits to food trucks
This helped our operations drastically. Prior to then, there were a lot of unnecessary obstacles and challenges involved in starting and operating a food truck in New Orleans.”
Stephen: “The process started fun and exciting with brainstorming, test kitchen parties, and pop ups. Then it got scary with cashing in my 401k, driving a shaky Wonder-bread van 55 mph from Houston to New Orleans, and secretly working on my project after hours in the mechanical shops of my former employer. Not to mention the permitting process and the vast differences between how parish governments would treat us. It was rough seas before it became something functioning.”
KT: How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Stephen: “COVID brought everything to its knees. Our entire business was serving packed offices, hospitals, and large gatherings. We went into the first lock down hopeful our budgeting and savings from Mardi Gras vending would carry us, but then it just never ended. We survived through a combination of PPP, EIDL, and RRF programs. We waited till we could get vaccinated and then we did online pre-order shifts, private catering, anything to stay afloat. But the reality is two thirds of our revenue comes from large Festivals like Voodoo or The National Fried Chicken Fest. These spikes and waves of COVID are essentially holding my entire industry hostage.”
Rachel: “People were working from home during the first year or so of the pandemic, and so the typical lunch spots in commercial districts no longer made sense for us. Therefore we opted to only operate the food truck for catering events. But for a long time, people were not hosting events during the pandemic, and so the food truck was not very active at all and brought in very little revenue during the year or so following the beginning of the pandemic. In the past several months, people have been excited to host events and celebrate milestones with their loved ones again, so our catering services are making a comeback.”
KT: How can customers find/follow your truck?
Rachel: “Follow us on social media: @lacocinita on Instagram and La Cocinita Food Truck on Facebook. With occasional exceptions, we are primarily focusing on catering at the moment. But we are open six days a week at the Pythian Market, 234 Loyola Ave, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Sat (until 9 p.m. Thurs-Sat).”
KT: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
Rachel: “We offer both food truck catering and catering deliveries (think taco bars, etc)! Our catering menus are on our website, www.lacocinita.com.”
Stephen: “We are currently deep in some mechanical repairs to the truck side of the Food Truck, and we aren’t sure what the fall festival scene will have in store, but the baby blue Chicken Van will be back in action ASAP. And as always, thanks for eating at Bonafried!”
This was written with the deepest gratitude to Rachel Billow and Stephen Maher for being so generous with their time.