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Food & Drink

Slowly but surely, humble pushcart food vendors sprouting in Anchorage parks

Maybe a dozen hot dog carts line up every day downtown, mostly along Fourth Avenue, all essentially working the same concept: grilled bun, grilled onions, and charred dogs, wrapped in foil, served with a bag of chips and soda from an extra-large cooler parked on the sidewalk.

While downtown is saturated with hot dog carts, the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department has been looking to get more mobile street vendors permitted to set up at city parks, far removed from the competitive downtown scene. This summer, a small group of vendors will be operating in green spaces across the city.

The idea is to get more people into the parks and crack down on "rogue" vendors, according to C.B. Stewart, park permits coordinator with the parks department. While many of the licensed vendors are mobile food carts -- different from the ever-growing fleet of food trucks that can be found around Anchorage on any given day -- the business model goes beyond just edibles.

One offers art classes. Another sets up bouncy houses and other inflatable games. There's even a roving photo class.

It's another way entrepreneurs are looking to capitalize on the budding mobile food scene in Anchorage. There are 101 mobile food vendors in Anchorage, according to numbers provided by the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services. Of those, only 25 are pushcarts. The rest are food trucks. Currently there are 76 of those vehicles registered with the city, up from 62 in 2013 and 37 in 2012.

The food pushcarts are overwhelmingly hot dog vendors, though a small contingent is trying to break free of the dog.

Gelato and crab cakes

"Fishalicious" owner Jody Thompson said she refused to serve common street food, but recognized that her options are limited. Food on the pushcarts can only be ready-to-eat and must be prepared in a commercial kitchen before it can be served. It's a restriction that food trucks don't have. Food can be cooked within the confines of the vehicle.

Thompson has worked out selling crab cakes and salmon sliders. When she's not at farmers' markets or the Spenard Food Truck Carnival on Thursdays, she camps out at Westchester Lagoon three evenings a week.

Thompson loves being out in the park, between the lagoon's edge and the popular Chester Creek Trail that runs by it.

But there are challenges. People are still getting used to having vendors in unexpected places around town. Poor weather can hamper people coming out and makes it difficult for her as well, since she can't hide from the rain and wind.

"I'm not in a truck, I'm on a cart," she said.

Carmen Ricciardi likes the increased mobility that comes with his "Carmen's Gelato" cart. Not only can he move from park to park, but also it's easy for him to load up and head to a festival, like the Girdwood Forest Fair or the Salmonstock music festival in Ninilchik.

For Ricciardi, the cart is his first foray into getting Alaskans used to his artisan gelato. He was trained in Italy to make the frozen dessert. He's been parking his cart at Town Square Park, in the heart of downtown. He hopes his presence has helped clean up the area that's been a hotbed for crime.

He's seen a marked change in people's behaviors. The cart seems to be driving out ruffians, replacing them with gelato customers.

"The first week we were there, every morning on my corner I would be picking bottles and garbage (off the street)," Ricciardi said. "I don't see that anymore."

Hot dogs still dominant

While other carts have made some forays into more exotic options, there are still plenty of hot dog vendors. Erica Stimaker has been selling her "Yeti Dogs" at Kincaid Park for the last two summers. Kincaid, in southwest Anchorage far from downtown, appealed to Stimaker.

"I knew I didn't want to go downtown," Stimaker said. "I was a personal visitor at Kincaid, and I knew there was always lots of people there and said 'well hey, let's see how this works.'"

Stimaker ends up parking her cart close to the chalet, though sometimes she has to move farther away during windy weather to the nearby soccer fields. Her clientele has built up over time.

The biggest challenge for many is just getting people used to having vendors in parks. She said people often don't have cash on them because they're unprepared to encounter a vendor. Stimaker only takes cash, since cell reception at Kincaid is spotty, and iPhone credit card readers rarely work.

Marty Smith, who operates a hot dog cart at Westchester Lagoon, has a similar problem. He and his family, who operate the cart as a small side business, said they parked at Valley of the Moon Park a few times, but business was slow. Most people prefer to barbecue at that park, he said, and a hot dog cart ends up being redundant.

He's found success at Westchester and is excited to start venturing into other parks around town.

"For the most part, people are pretty happy to have options," he said.

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