What do the French Connection, Loch Ness, and Red Riding Hood have in common? They’re all versions of grilled cheese sandwiches created by Nick Cowles, owner and operator of Grilled Cheese Café and Catering, and they, their grilled cheese compatriots, and a host of other delicious delights-on-wheels will be front and center on May 6 at 1 Maynard Street in Williamsport for the city’s first StrEAT Food Festival. is inaugural celebration of the local food truck business is a collaboration between the Susquehanna River Valley Mobile Food Alliance, of which Nick is co-founder and president, and the Williamsport Recreation Department, of which Jessie Novinger is recreation director.
“We’re hoping for forty-five different vendors,” says Jessie.
“We are still looking for vendors,” concurs Nick. “Plus, we need people to come and eat.”
It is a tough assignment, but you shouldn’t have any trepidation about taking it on.
If your conception of food truck food is stalled at not-so-blooming onions and tougher-than-leather cheesesteaks, prepare your palate for a pleasant surprise. Nationwide, the mobile food truck industry is growing faster than tomatoes in July. According to the National Food Truck Association, mobile food vending has, in the past five years, gone from an underground and unseen industry to one of the fastest growing trends in food service. One statistic showed mobile food truck revenue has increased by over 12 percent during that same five-year period. Nick says he went to a food truck event in Allentown that hosted thirty-three trucks and thousands of attendees.
“Nationwide, it’s phenomenal what food trucks are doing,” he says.
So, a celebration—one that includes many opportunities to sample culinary creations—is in order.
Nick explains that he has spent the past nine years in the Williamsport area operating a food truck and two food trailers. He sets up at concerts, fairs, wineries, and the like, and has several street locations. As is the case here and in other areas of the state and country where mobile food units are proliferating, there are local health, safety, and fire codes with which operators must comply and tax and payroll obligations they must meet, just like their counterparts in the brick and mortar restaurant business. A building’s not bad, says Nick, but “we invest a lot of money in our trucks.”
“We get inspected every place we go,” he adds. “Nobody is trying to hide anything. We don’t want friction.”
Unlike the “build it and they will come” mentality of a fixed facility, the food truck folks need to be out and about looking for customers. Obviously both kinds of businesses must do some marketing research/demographic studies to increase the chance of success; the advantage of people knowing you’re always in one place can be o set by the ability to simply move to another street if the customers aren’t showing up.
And that can bring life, money, and opportunities—attractions if you will—to neighborhoods that may have just been waiting to experience those kinds of positive outcomes.
“In Williamsport there are places to do a Food Truck Friday,” Nick says. “A lot of people show up at our window who are not from this area, but they come specifically for our food. People tell us that their only purpose for being here is for the food truck. So this is not an event, it’s an attraction.”
“This gives a lot of talented chefs the opportunity to showcase their abilities,” Jessie says, not to mention the opportunities it will give a lot of hungry people to taste some amazing food.
Williamsport’s first StrEAT Food Festival gets underway at 10 a.m. and runs until 8 p.m. How does it work? Think of it as a smorgasbord on wheels. For the price of admission ($25 in advance, $30 beginning April 23, and $35 the day of) attendees will be able to sample food from all the vendors. Other vendors will join the food truck folks, a couple of bands are scheduled, and the Billtown Brewers also plan to be there with microbrew samples. Tickets are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com and will also be available at the festival. For more information about attending the StrEAT Food Festival as either a vendor or a hungry person, call Jesse at (570) 447-2307 or Nick at (570) 279-1192.