Cleveland’s food trucks driving dining innovation

A group of pioneering Cleveland cooks is taking advantage of a new government policy initiative to spur the growth of their small businesses. As of this summer, food trucks will be allowed into downtown Cleveland, thanks to a temporary ordinance that lets them serve curbside in a part of the city previously closed to them.

Credit for Cleveland’s rapidly growing truck scene is due to Chris Hodgson, the owner of Dim and Den Sum, who’s on the roster for Food Network’s second season of The Great Food Truck Race, which premiers August 14. (The show is in the process of being filmed, and the gossip around the city is that he’s one of the two finalists, if not the winner.)

So I hit the streets to map the food truck landscape.

Traveling the American Road – Cleveland’s Food Trucks

Hodgson started his truck before being joined by three others, StrEat Mobile Bistro, UmamiMoto and Jibaro, that form a sort of core-four food trucks in Cleveland. Zydeco Bistro, out of Wadsworth, Ohio, and the truck from Cleveland’s Fahrenheit restaurant round out the offerings, with Traveling Treats and Oh! Babycakes driving dessert.

But there’s no innovation without growing pains, it seems, as brick-and-mortar restaurants have taken to the local press to voice concerns about their own business interests. One pizzeria claims its business is off 25 percent. But food truck crews say there’s room for everyone.

Chef Oleh Holowatyj, who we spoke to in front of Dim and Den Sum as it was parked on Ninth Street Street, voiced a common refrain: “You’re not going to pass up a sit-down dinner for a $7 taco.”

Jeffrey Winer of StrEat credited the city council for creating opportunities for entrepreneurs when I talked to him on East 12th Street. “Councilman Cimperman, who is the councilman for downtown, has really gotten behind us. I think he really understands that food trucks aren’t a danger to any restaurant. We’re actually going to bring more people to the area.”

At least one traditional restaurateur is hanging his hopes on Clevelanders love of eating out. Jonathon Sawyer, who already operates the wildly popular Greenhouse Tavern, will open Noodlecat this summer. The ramen-and-Japanese steamed bun house will be downtown on Euclid Avenue, a stretch known as much for empty storefronts as exciting dining.

Says Chef Sawyer about the neighborhood, “The thing that East 4th has that most other streets in Cleveland don’t have is that the landlords own, from end to end on that block, every single storefront, even going [west] toward Public Square on Euclid. So we get a sense of community.” He credits, as does StrEat’s Winer, the work of Joe Cimperman, a city councilman that’s helped the industry-on wheels or otherwise-thrive downtown.

The combination of innovative offerings and experimental policy making is turning Cleveland into a dining destination-and building the economy, Sawyer says. “We’re not necessarily as dense as San Francisco or Chicago or New York City, but we have the raw products and the talented chefs to really elevate our terroir to be much more than it is right now. If we keep having awesome customers and people keep paying attention to us, there’s a lot more that Cleveland can do.”

Inside the WBEZ Studios in Chicago to Learn about the Rust Belt

At the outset of my trip, I needed some guidance. A sort of Rust Belt Virgil, willing and able to orient me to the exciting and dynamic and tragic state of the Great Lakes region. With my route passing through Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, there seemed no one better for the job than Micki Maynard, a journalist now spearheading a public radio project called Changing Gears.

More than just a radio show, Changing Gears is a multi-year, multimedia effort that aims to tell the stories of people in the Great Lakes, through radio, yes, but also online and in video, with reporters stationed around the region. The questions they’re asking: How are people in this part of the country reinventing their cities, their local economies and even themselves in the face of cataclysmic change? Those are the stories Changing Gears hopes to capture and some of which Micki shared with us in our video interview at the WBEZ studios on Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Traveling the American Road – Changing Gears’ Micki Maynard