City Centered: Losing it Over Lunch

Food trucks are great, but their collateral damage is real.

Losing it Over Lunch

It is food truck season, when the skyway denizens emerge from their cubicles to celebrate all that is quirky and artisanal about the local food scene down on the mean streets where pretense and fads go to die.

You undoubtedly have read the stories about Doug Sams, proprietor of the nine D. Brian’s Delis, organizing a consortium of skyway businesses to protest the trucks congregating into a hub on a swath of Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis over lunch hour.

When Sams’ complaints hit the press, the food writing community, of which I remain nominally a member, reacted with derision. Andrew Zimmern (himself a food truck operator) replied in these pages back in March, suggesting Sams pay more attention to his own product if business was flagging. I chuckled at that, until a colleague and I did some informal research.

Skyway eateries in the vicinity of 6th and Marquette told us of revenue drops of 20 to 40 percent last summer. Now competition is a bitch, but that alone doesn’t move me—I accepted the thesis of trucks good, chains bad. But then I visited D. Brian’s, having bypassed it nearly every weekday for 15 years in search of a more authentic-seeming skyway lunch. What I discovered surprised me.

Rather than a temple of processed food served by sullen staffers to indifferent customers, I found a local chain that is environmentally aware, eschews food made with chemical additives and preservatives, and posts full nutritional info online and calorie counts on its menu boards (without any obligation to do so). Sams also employs roughly 100 Twin Citians across his operation.

Is it scratch cooking, locally sourced, with an eye to sustainability and global balance? No, not if you go by the sodium counts in its soups, at least. But that’s not the game in the skyways, like it or not. It’s about variety, speed, and price for most cubicle denizens.

I’m glad we have a vibrant food truck scene, but a truck doesn’t pay property taxes or co-fund the Downtown Improvement District (the yellow shirts who stroll the streets in nice weather picking up and trying to make downtown a bit less intimidating) with a menu built around a pork belly kimchi BLT, kale slaw, and organic guava lemonade—posted at 11 am on Twitter. And if a customer wants a seat to rest her weary bones, a side salad, a drink refill, or maybe the cilantro left out of her bison taco—well, she’s come to the wrong curb.

So it’s na├»ve to slam skyway restaurants for not being more like trucks. Particularly when the trucks don’t show up in winter or on rainy days or whenever the spirit moves them.

I’m the first to admit D. Brian’s isn’t all that, but nor is nearby skyway lunch counter Allie’s Deli, which food writers rave about without any particular merit other than its plucky ma-and-pa spirit. But that spirit is at least half the appeal of the trucks as a whole. They’re a romantic underdog riding a wave of food fashion that’s captured imaginations. And more power to ’em.

But who feeds downtown? Don’t kid yourself—it’s Potbelly, Good to Go, Brothers Deli, Chipotle, and, yes, D. Brian’s. A couple of them are underdogs too.

Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.