ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Move over hot dog carts and coffee stands-- food trucks are staking a claim in Anchorage.
Mobile food businesses, which have grown in popularity over the last decade in the Lower 48, can be seen on city streets hawking everything from skewered meats to cupcakes, with more trucks in the works. Even the Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race," currently in its third season, features Momma's Grizzly Grub, a truck staffed by three Wasilla women.
According to the municipality, 177 of the approximately 1,700 food establishments in the city are permitted as mobile. Nearly half those are considered "fixed mobile," meaning that they are parked and do not move, like Oscar's Taco Grande and Kendo's. Of the businesses that are truly mobile, another 20 are permitted as push carts, like the hot dog stands downtown such as M.A.'s and Tia's. That leaves 37 food establishments that are considered motor vehicles and are able to roam the streets.
You probably won't be seeing many food trucks downtown: The municipality limits sidewalk sales in the area to eight spots along Fourth, Fifth and Seventh avenues, which are won via a bidding process. The trucks can park in private lots with the permission of the property owner.
Here's a look at three of the new kids on the block in Anchorage's mobile cuisine scene.
The kitchens of most fine restaurants are the polar opposite of their dining rooms: unwelcoming, hot, muggy and windowless. On busy nights, the staff moves at breakneck speeds to put out beautifully plated food but doesn't get to see the customers enjoy it.
Urban Bamboo was born in this environment.
In 2008, while helping establish Ginger as a downtown destination, Anchorage kitchen veterans John D'Elia and Jake Baniky began plotting their future. D'Elia, 31, was intrigued by the trend in bigger cities of bringing a higher level of cuisine to the streets and showed Baniky, also 31, a Time magazine article on the phenomenon.
The pair kept in touch after leaving Ginger, and D'Elia began pursuing his dream. He bought a truck in 2010 and Baniky was on board soon after. It took over a year to retrofit the 1969 Ford into a mobile food cart with parts from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and hardware stores. The pair worked -- D'Elia at Marx Bros. and Baniky at Hott Stix -- while toiling on the truck for many 16-hour days.
"We could talk for hours about building the truck," said D'Elia, a former U.S. Marine jet engine mechanic. "That's what we've spent the majority of the time doing."
"I didn't even know what cooking was for a while," joked Baniky, himself an ex-Navy cook.
As far as the cooking, the duo focused on easy-to-eat food from a variety of cultures made with quality ingredients at a fair price.
"We want to be affordable for the everyman," D'Elia said
He said that, because almost every culture has food on a stick, they settled on skewered meat, seafood and vegetables cooked over a custom-made Japanese grill, with evolving themes according to ingredients and the seasons. They try to get as much of their seafood and vegetables from local producers as possible.
"We've got Chinese, Korean and Thai flavors, Alaskan ingredients and we cook off a Japanese grill out of a '69 American-built Ford," Baniky joked.
All the hard work paid off in June when the truck hit the road for its first night of business in a Fireweed Lane parking lot. Friends came to eat, and families from the nearby neighborhood trickled in. The duo then decided to stake a claim to Spenard.
They've served hungry lunch crowds in Midtown parking lots, been swarmed at the Spenard Farmer's Market each Saturday and have handled tipsy crowds outside The Buckaroo Club on Friday and Saturday nights. They fed a large crowd while catering a political fundraiser. And last weekend, they drove the truck to Palmer and won the annual Alaska Seafood Throwdown competition at the Alaska State Fair.
"We're no longer tied down to the dungeon," said D'Elia, referring to the window-less kitchens of their past. "There is no limitation. We can literally roll up and serve the freshest food."
On a recent Saturday at the Spenard Farmer's Market, Urban Bamboo sold out of everything in less than three hours, including a shrimp-and-grits breakfast special.
"It's only been six weeks but we're building a trust," Baniky said.
The duo said Facebook and Twitter have helped build their business but feel connecting directly with guests has been the bigger advantage. D'Elia said the chance to interact with customers directly is huge.
"It gives you the opportunity to express yourself," he said.
"We get out and talk to our guests," Baniky added. "After a few times coming, people are pledging their allegiance to follow us around town."
PopCycle owner Kait Kanaris, who grew up in Anchorage, takes a different approach to serving the masses on the move: Instead of a truck, she cruises around town on a vintage, bright green Schwinn bicycle with a custom cooler sidecar selling artisan popsicles.
The 28-year-old said the idea first came to her in a tent in the middle of a Botswana desert. She woke up from a sleep and made an odd proclamation to her husband.
"I told (him), 'When I get home, I'm going to make popsicles and ride around on a bike and sell them,' " Kanaris said. "He was like, 'OK, sweetie.' "
In March, she bought a set of 10 molds and started making popsicles for her husband and friends. A friend gave her a bag of rhubarb, and after some tinkering, she produced her first batch. Soon she was creating other interesting flavors via trial-and-error recipes.
Other Kanaris creations include coconut, raspberry, latte, chai tea, key lime pie, root beer, watermelon, blueberry, spiced chocolate, hibiscus, peach, mixed berry, strawberry, carrot cake and Nutella. She usually has three to four flavors at a time during her trips around town.
Kanaris, who along with her husband traveled around the world for two years, wanted to use some of the exotic ingredients she brought back including masala tea, cardamom and hibiscus. Her other inspiration is local ingredients, including the rhubarb, wild Alaska berries and garden-grown carrots. She plans to grow more next year in preparation for a busy summer.
"If you can get it in Alaska, I've grown or picked it," said Kanaris, who even trekked to Kaladi Brothers to get 16 ounces of espresso shots for her latte pops. "The baristas said, 'You can get a French press to do this,' but I kind of like just going there and getting a cup of espresso."
In mid-June, she took a batch of 10 popsicles for her first ride. Her first sale was in Westchester Lagoon. Not long after arriving at Elderberry Park, she sold out.
Her first day at the Spenard Farmer's Market saw 55 popsicles gone in two hours. Fans began following her on Facebook to find out if she'll be out pedaling, where she'll be and what flavors she'll have with her.
Now she usually takes 80-100 popsicles, the max her coolers can hold, and still sells out.
Due to fall weather, Kanaris is planning her last day of the season for sometime in mid-September.
Until then, you might see her on sunny days cruising on Millie, her single-speed bike. But sometimes to get up a steep hill, she has to jump off to get a running start.
"I'm sure it looks great," she said with a laugh. "I guess I'm getting stronger."
At the top she can always cool down with a frozen treat.
Kastle Sorensen wasn't looking to get into the food truck business. She just wanted to get her mother-in-law's chili a few more votes.
At a church chili cook-off fundraiser in February 2011, Sorensen, an avid watcher of Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," decided to entice voters with mini-cupcakes to help her mother-in-law's cause.
Soon after, a new fan inquired if they could place an order for a batch. From there, word of Sorensen's delicious cupcake creativity spread like wildfire.
"People were like, 'You need to start doing this as a business,' so I just ran with the idea," said Sorensen, who previously worked as a high school Spanish teacher and at a bank.
"I'm a creative person, and I didn't feel like I was getting to use that," she said.
In the summer of 2011, Sorensen, 26, started Kastle's Kreations and sold her cupcakes at outdoor markets, among other places, with great success.
Looking to take the next step, she started turning the wheels to take her cupcake business mobile and avoid some of the overhead of a brick-and-mortar store front.
"Food trucks were getting more popular in the Lower 48, so I thought it would be a bit more unique," said Sorensen, who grew up in Anchorage and Eagle River.
In September 2011, she bought a truck on Craigslist in Washington and had it customized in Portland, Ore. By March, she had made the move to mobile in her bright pink-and-white truck, which she debuted at the Dena'ina Center on St. Patrick's Day with Irish cream cupcakes. She quickly sold out her stock of 300.
Sorensen focused on Eagle River first before branching out to Anchorage this summer, including every Friday at the Northern Lights Boulevard Blockbuster parking lot. Thanks to rabid fans and a strong Facebook presence, her success in Anchorage has been rapid and dramatic. Sorenson uses Facebook to tell customers where she'll be and what cupcakes she'll have, including pictures. She said it's been a big part of her success.
"I can't believe Facebook is free," she said.
On her first trips, she would bring 400 freshly made cupcakes and not sell out. But after a couple weeks, business picked up big time. Her 400 cupcake batch sold out in two hours. She upped it to 600. Same result. Up to 800. Sold out. Last week she brought 1,000, the max her truck can hold. Two hours later, the shelves were bare.
"It's kind of gotten a little crazy, and I feel like I can't make enough to last me," she said, adding that it takes about 10 hours to bake 1,000 cupcakes. "They sell faster than I can bake them, so it's kind of hard to keep up."
Sorenson takes pre-orders via Facebook, so customers can reserve flavors. But if they don't show up by 2 p.m., she will sell them to vulture-like fans who didn't have the foresight to arrive early or order ahead.
"These people are serious about their cupcakes," laughed Sorensen, who said she doesn't have a sweet tooth and doesn't eat her own creations besides some early sampling.
Sorensen is hoping to double her Anchorage trips per week, but Friday is her last day in town until Sept. 28. She'll be out of state on vacation for a couple weeks.