Anchorage food trucks get ready to face one of their biggest challenges: Winter

Anchorage's cold, icy winters might not be the ideal condition for food trucks, but this year, more of the mobile businesses than ever are giving year-round operations a try.

Seven businesses have signed up to be part of the weekly Spenard Take-In, a regular gathering of food trucks, serving lunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. each Thursday in front of Chilkoot Charlie's in Anchorage.

That's up from only three last year, said organizer Darrin Huycke. It's the second time food trucks have tried to organize for the winter. Last October, the Fireweed Take-In was shut down just a month after opening when municipal code inspectors found the site was in violation of parking regulations.

[Related: Parking rules shut down Anchorage's winter food truck meet-up]

Now, not only are trucks attempting to operate through the winter, some food truck owners say they're finding more places to park around the city.

"Businesses are definitely warming up to the idea," said Angeline Del Real, owner of Del Real Kitchen with her husband, Roberto. Del Real is one of the seven trucks planning to operate all year; she'll be in Spenard and stop twice a week at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

Del Real started roaming Anchorage with her food truck at the beginning of 2016, serving a mix of comfort food that includes everything from burgers and fries to jambalaya and dirty rice. Starting the business in winter meant the Del Reals had to fight the perception that food trucks can't operate in the colder months.

"Everyone had this idea of 'why are you out?' " she said in an interview Thursday.

With the growth, the trucks are even organizing. A nonprofit industry group, the Alaska Food Trucks and Mobile Vendors Association, registered with the state in August to advocate on behalf of the mobile vendors.

President Kristine Rickard, owner of Boom Ba Laddy's, said there are about 70 vendors signed on with the association between Anchorage and Fairbanks. According to data from the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services, 67 food trucks and mobile vendors are licensed to operate in the city.

The association's goal is to address emerging issues within in the industry, from informing members about new regulations to finding legal spaces to operate.

New rules

While food trucks are increasingly trying to operate year round, they're also trying to adapt to new rules. This summer, Anchorage fire inspectors began inspecting food trucks. Before, the trucks only had to have inspections from the city Department of Health and Human Services.

The city is also working to update rules the for food trucks, including requiring any truck that creates grease-laden vapors, such as those caused by deep fat fryers or grilling cheeseburgers, to use a restaurant industry-standard hood and fire suppression system.

Right now, food trucks don't need much more than a fire extinguisher. But without the suppression systems, there are concerns that the truck could blow up. While rare, it's happened in other cities.

Footage of a food truck explosion in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

"What I can see happening is a whole row of food carts in front of downtown Anchorage businesses and the only thing separating the plate glass windows is the sidewalk," Fire Marshal Cleo Hill said. "Can you imagine if one was to explode? … Very scary."

Some food trucks say the change in regulations came as a surprise. They'll need to upgrade the systems by next year, and installing a system that runs in the thousands of dollars will be a financial difficulty during the off season.

"I'm at the point where I have to decide if it's worth it to keep my business," said Amanda Cash, owner of the Magpie food truck. "It's that hard. It's that much money for us."

Rickard said the association supports the municipality's request to have upgraded systems — she said similar units are standard in food trucks across the Lower 48 — but hopes they will work with operators who need time to fund the installation of the expensive systems.

Robert Kilby, owner of Bear Mace Bites, said installing the suppression system will cost him about $3,800.

It's an unexpected cost but one he said his truck can manage. He said business has only increased since October and the next three weeks are totally booked for him. He has no plans to take any time off until November, when he'll have the fire suppression system installed while he goes on a trip to Hawaii.

Kilby, who started operating in the spring, said the busy winter season has been a surprise.

Del Real said that she, too, is busy through much of the next several weeks. She thinks that with fewer food trucks available in the winter, the ones that do choose to operate can stay as busy as they want.

"Lots of events are opening to the idea (of food trucks)," she said. "They want food, and companies are opening doors."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.