DURANGO, Colo. — The food cart movement that is popular in large cities throughout the West is showing up in force throughout the Four Corners.
Food carts have popped up in Durango, as well as in Farmington, Aztec and Flora Vista.
They promise immediate revenue and relatively low start-up costs. Many are operated by the owners, with no additional employees necessary.
Christopher Mellen, 35, opened Travelers World Cafe in Durango in April. Mellen spent recent years climbing in Nepal and hitchhiking from Chile to the United States.
"I think of myself as an activist with a project - and I happen to be a really good cook," he said.
Travelers World Cafe is parked at 610B E. 8th Ave, behind Kangaroo Express. Mellen purchased an Airstresam food trailer from Tim Turner of Zia Taqueria and agreed to pay rent to Kangaroo Express.
The menu changes frequently. On one recent day, the entrees were massaman curry and chicken shawarma, a Lebanese flatbread sandwich. Travelers also has small bites, smoothies and sorbet.
Travelers operates as a worker-owned cooperative, with profits split equally among each worker.
"The dishwasher will make as much as the owner," Mellen said. "We're trying to create an egalitarian environment where people are treated better than the traditional work environment."
In Farmington, Jacqueline Klock started Dip N Chicken food truck after tiring of her job as a supervisor for the Red Apple Transit bus system. Klock and her husband, Randy, park their renovated motor home in Orchard Plaza on east Main Street on weekdays, selling steak fingers, chicken fingers and other deep-fried dishes.
Klock said she enjoys operating her own business.
"You're independent, working for yourself," she said. "You have total freedom."
In Flora Vista, former construction equipment rental salespeople Anthony O'Gorman and JoJo Gomez reopened Red Solo Cup food truck in March after closing for the winter. O'Gorman and Gomez jumped into the food truck business after the equipment rental firm they worked for was bought by a larger company.
"I saw that as a go-ahead signal to go ahead and pursue my midlife crisis," O'Gorman said. "We hope it'll be a long-term thing. Ideally, if it works - and we believe it will - we would probably expand our hours. I've got all sorts of ideas - I'd like to have music there and just make it a destination for people."
Food trucks have boomed in cities such as Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Ore. O'Gorman was inspired by food trucks on trips to Austin, Texas; Miami and Los Angeles.
"What we're trying to do, really, is emulate the food truck movement across the country," he said.
Red Solo Cup, 800 N.M. Highway 516, focuses on burgers, using beef from Sunnyside Meats of Durango, and potatoes from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry near Farmington.
"We're looking for a higher quality of food," O'Gorman said. "We're trying to do all that local kind of stuff."
Many of the Four Corners' food carts emphasize local food ingredients, finding it easier and more rewarding than buying from large food purveyors.
"We're trying to shift things to fresh and local and what we believe in," said Mellen.
In Aztec, Kathy's Place serves Mexican food from a truck in a gravel lot alongside U.S. Highway 550. And Durango has a burgeoning food cart lot on north Main Avenue that includes Mariana's Authentic Cuisine, Chacha's Food Truck and Skillfully Decadent Desserts.
Regulating food trucks is a responsibility split by several governmental agencies.
Food trucks in New Mexico and Colorado must pass restaurant inspections. In New Mexico, those are conducted by the state Environment Department. In the Durango area, inspections are conducted by the San Juan Basin Health Department.
The cooks said they take cleanliness seriously, in part to combat the perception that food trucks aren't as clean as permanent restaurants.
"We're very careful with sanitation, especially in a food truck," Mellen said.
Dip N Chicken, because it operates within Farmington city limits, also obtained a city of Farmington food catering/vending wagon and truck license.
San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said the county has some ordinances that could be interpreted to apply to food trucks, but regulating the mobile businesses isn't a priority for code compliance officers.
"Right now, our guys probably really wouldn't mess with that," he said. "A lot of people out there are trying to make a go at things, and more power to them."
Durango has seen some resistance from restaurant owners who are wary of food carts undercutting them.
"We had some concerns from people who have restaurants that are brick and mortar," said Nicol Killian, planning manager for the city of Durango. "We don't get into that economic side of it."
Food carts or trucks can be classified under Durango's city codes as either permanent or seasonal. If permanent, they must meet the same requirements as any restaurant. If seasonal, a food truck has only six months in one location before it must move to a new location.
Travelers World Cafe and the food carts on north Main Avenue in Durango are classified as seasonal. Michel's Corner Crepes at 598 Main Ave. is a permanent food cart.
The north Main location could become permanent if the gravel lot were paved and a few other improvements made, Killian said. Travelers' location would need more extensive work to be brought up to code.
Mobile food entrepreneurs must also work with property owners. They typically pay a modest rent.
Food trucks are using social media - primarily Twitter and Facebook - to attract customers and keep them abreast of the truck's changing locations, for those that move around.
"That is how the promotion is done in the food truck business," O'Gorman said. "Twitter and Facebook is where you would get people to follow you. You would post different ideas for menu items, and try and get feedback. We do have a lot of conversation on Facebook."
Mellen said food carts have a fun factor. Travelers World Cafe, he said, aims for "local food with a street presence that's vibrant and tasty and exciting."