Food trucks on a roll in Walla Walla

Mobile vendors enjoy a ravenous local following, as exemplified by Food Truck Night on the first Monday of each month.

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A box on wheels was not what Andrae Bopp had in mind when the French Culinary Institute-trained chef moved to Walla Walla with designs on opening a restaurant.

He had owned a restaurant in Boise and thought of starting something similar in Wine Country. But the economy was precarious in 2008, and one restaurant after another was closing.

The cost of investing in a 153-square-foot kitchen in a custom trailer was irresistible compared to the price of a building. It didn’t hurt, either, that the concept had the momentum of a nationwide movement.

As his mobile kitchen rolls into its fourth year in business, Bopp is behind the wheel of a growing food trend that’s done more than diversify Walla Walla’s dining scene. It’s also given him a foothold with a demographic that might never have tried his gourmet food in a fancy dining room.

Once contractors, ranchers and corrections employees sunk their teeth into Bopp’s burgers and corn salad, the door opened for expansion from the parking lot of the Walla Walla Farmers Co-op to inside the convenience store there. Now the gastropub fare is a drawing card for the gas station.

“I don’t know that I would have predicted five years ago when I moved to Walla Walla that I would be making food in a gas station. I thought I would be destined to open up a place downtown,” Bopp said. “But it’s worked out. It’s different. We’re not just a restaurant. We’re food truck guys who took over a gas station.”

Aaron Rebhahn, owner of Dog House Grill, has a similar story. He was trained in the kitchens of some of the Valley’s most established restaurants before working as a chef in Spokane. Returning to Walla Walla, he went to work for Food Services of America, where he’s been more than a decade.

When he got the itch to return to the grill, opening a full-fledged restaurant would have been a massive financial undertaking.

But with a mobile food cart that offers 14 different gourmet hot dogs plus sandwiches and other offerings, he found the perfect way to bring his food to the masses and balance his day job.

Food trucks are not your typical restaurants. So it makes sense that the people who run them tend to blaze their own toothsome trails.

From the windows of Walla Walla’s mobile food vendors come slow-smoked barbecue, grass-fed beef, garlic fries, pambazos, poutine and vegetarian dishes that rotate with the Valley’s crops.

The trucks represent everything from starting bases for future growth to student-training facilities and family-owned traditions. The owners are just as diverse — some having worked years in restaurants and navigating their own way in the flourishing culinary landscape; others having taken a chance with a career change.

Sixteen different mobile vendors are currently permitted to operate through the Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency. Growth in the last five years has added an array of signature dishes to the long-established Walla Walla taco wagon tradition.

For a relatively small community, the choices are vast. But they will probably never rival the large metropolitan communities where mobile vendors can focus completely on a particular dish, such as curry, noodles or Korean barbecue, Bopp said.

From the southside wineries, where Bopp sometimes sets up Andrae’s Kitchen, to the co-op, the customers tend to have a commonality. “People want to get fed. They want it quick. They want it good. And they want it fresh,” Bopp said. That is the force behind the success of the trucks.

Lest there be any wonder whether the food truck movement has traction here, consider the popularity of May’s inaugural Food Truck Night at Bacon & Eggs. Restaurateurs Michelle Adams and Michelle Giannunzio paid homage to food trucks by hosting seven vendors in the parking lot of their East Main Street restaurant.

The four-hour affair was so packed with hungry patrons that a number of the mobile vendors ran out of food. Adams and Giannunzio have since decided to make it a regular event, on the first Monday of every month.

It’s taken serious work to maneuver the movement, food truck operators say. Now that Bopp has the truck and permanent location at the Farmers Co-op — not to mention a cold-case selection he provides to Basel Cellars Estate Winery, his vineyard dinners and his many winery events — his patrons may have forgotten about his start at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

“We didn’t just all of a sudden open and have lines,” he said. “We were parked up at the old terminal. We had days where we would have one or two people.”

There was a stigma to overcome with the idea of picking up food from a truck, he acknowledged. But that was just the beginning of the challenges. When he left the spot at the airport and started setting up in a lot north of Main and Palouse streets, behind Doubleback Winery, he became a familiar acquaintance with the code enforcement officer. The city fielded complaints about where Bopp was parking. Some business operators didn’t appreciate the fact that the mobile kitchen didn’t have to pay property taxes like a brick-and-mortar operation.

“There was a huge learning curve,” Bopp said.

The confined space added another layer of difficulty. Most mobile vendors operate in shorter bursts throughout the day. But the amount of planning and work that goes into it takes much longer.

“Every time you move you have to be cognizant of how every cabinet is packed,” Bopp said. “You have to think what has happened to the deep-fryer oil — is that secured? Is it going to splash everywhere? Are the refrigerator doors locked? Are there any liquids in there? Are they wrapped well? Do we have plenty of fresh water? Is there plenty of gray water? Power? The generator? Is there enough gas in the tank for the generator? Is the space level enough to get the trailer in?

“And that’s every time you move it. You’re basically opening up a restaurant for three hours and then packing it up to move. It’s a whole different beast.”

A mobile kitchen may be the perfect recipe for training culinary students, too. Hence, the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community college has its own Titus Creek food truck.

Mobility may be one aspect of running the operations, but hours spent on food is another. Customers who belly up to Keith Knotts’ window at West of the Blues Barbeque on Rose Street are served dishes that have taken hours to prepare.

“Slow-smoked barbecue just doesn’t happen in an hour or two,” said Knotts, who left a career in retail to jump into the culinary scene. “You’ve got to prep the meat, put it into the smoker, 10 or 11 hours later take it out and either shred or slice it.”

Knotts wakes up around 6:30 a.m. each day to begin prepping. He opens at 11 a.m. and serves food for three hours. His pulled-pork sandwiches have emerged as a favorite menu item since he opened five years ago this month.

Depending on the season, which is also a factor in the success of local mobile vendors, Knotts said he goes through as much as six to eight 12- to 14-pound pork shoulders in a week or as few as four or five. He estimates the same amount for beef brisket, a close second among the favorites at West of the Blues. He runs through 4 to 5 pounds of chicken every other day.

Unlike the mobile vendors who change locations, Knotts has remained parked in the Blueline lot. He believes the spot is good for visibility, although it may not allow him to introduce his menu to people who don’t have the lunchtime mobility to reach his 7-by-17-foot unit.

Rebhahn’s day is similarly stretched. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. four days a week to get ready for his regular workday. Once he’s off at 4:30 or 5 p.m. he heads to the commissary kitchen at the Elks Lodge, where he shares space with two other vendors. There he stores his dry, frozen and refrigerated products and works on prep for the next day.

“Everything is cut fresh every morning to go on the street,” he said.

Three days a week a family friend operates the Dog House Grill cart at Land Title Plaza. On Saturdays, Rebhahn sets it up at the Downtown Farmers Market. He also contracts with the city of Walla Walla for events, and caters for private affairs from graduation parties to wedding rehearsal dinners.

Rebhahn said he considered opening a restaurant site downtown last winter. He figures he could have paid the rent with funds from the cart. But it would have meant changing his entire business model.

“The advantage right now is that I’m mobile,” he said. “I can pick up and go anywhere I want.”

And for the time being, that is his true calling, he said. One that seems to be a commonality among operators driving their own culinary destinies with a focus on the one thing they have to offer: good food.

“That’s all we really have to hang our hat on,” Bopp said. “We’re in a box with wheels being towed behind a pickup truck. There’s nothing sexy about this. Nobody’s going to come here if the food is no good. We’ve got to make sure that the food is better than good.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com.

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