EL PASO — Until recently, Lydia Palacios could not remember the last time she had been downtown.
A lifelong El Paso resident, Palacios said downtown was more a childhood memory than a current event.
“My father would take us on the bus downtown and take us to Kress to eat lunch,” said Palacios referring to S.H. Kress & Co., the five-and-dime with a lunch counter on the northwest corner of North Oregon Street and Mills Avenue.
On her way to a doctor’s appointment on a recent Monday in June, Palacios said she and her husband, Sergio, were doing something they had not done in many years – lunching together downtown.
The two sat at an umbrella-covered table waiting for the fish tacos they had ordered from The Reef Mobile Kitchen, a food truck on Mills Street that serves seafood Mexican fare. The couple said they were intrigued by the various developments and events that are reshaping the city center, including concerts at the Civic Center on Friday nights, the newly opened Southwest University Ball Park, and the nearly 2-year-old food park where they were lunching.
“They are reviving downtown,” Lydia Palacios said. “They are doing more, and I am coming more.”
Their reaction is exactly what real estate entrepreneur Lane Gaddy was hoping for when he got the idea to turn a downtown parking lot he owned into Foodville, a food truck park.
“I was able to travel and see what other cities were doing for both downtown revitalization and get ideas behind tactical urbanism,” said Gaddy, 31, who
looked at Austin, Portland and Dallas before determining that his parking lot might work well for food trucks in El Paso.
“It seems a much better use than a semi-functional parking lot, which is what it was when we bought it,” said Gaddy.
Launched in November 2012, the Foodville Truck Park opened as the city’s only dedicated downtown food truck park. Among the first to open were Crave Kitchen & Bar (Crave to Go), whose owner Octavio Gomez worked with Gaddy to set up the truck park.
Located directly across the street from the post office, Foodville offers space for up to four food mobiles that offer lunchtime fare to downtown workers and visitors.
Cesar Villanueva opened The Reef with business partner, Federico Valdez, in 2013, hoping to piggyback on the growing popularity of food trucks nationally and locally.
The two, who were doing biology research at the University of El Paso, opened their food truck relying on advice and some resources from Valdez’s father, who owns a seafood distribution store.
Although there are an estimated 3 million food trucks in the United States, keeping the businesses open has not always been easy.
“At the beginning we had one customer a day or something like that,” said Villanueva, whose job as co-owner includes cleaning tables, opening the table umbrellas, loading and unloading supplies and hooking up the speaker for music.
Crave, the original food truck in Foodville, left the truck park after a year, which was sobering, Villanueva said.
“Crave has a name by its own and gathers a lot of people. And when they were gone, it was kind of like it went down and we had to build our own reputation,” Villanueva added.
The young entrepreneur is active on social media promoting the food truck as often as he can on Facebook, a step some food truck analysts say is important.
Although food trucks are newly fashionable in cities around the country, Villanueva said they have old-fashioned roots in El Paso – burrito trucks. The modern trucks, sporting bold colors, designs and menus that range from tacos to sushi, debuted in El Paso about three years ago, he added.
A Facebook page on food trucks in El Paso lists more than 60 businesses, most of which hang out on the city’s west side. The trucks frequent various venues throughout the year, some of which are sponsored by civic and private groups. For example, Evolve Federal Cred
it Union hosted six trucks in its parking lot in May.
The Foodville vendors also participate in the “Last Thursdays,” a monthly art walk in downtown El Paso, Villanueva said.
Having a food truck in downtown, said Gaddy, has helped other businesses, including nearby restaurants.
“It created a destination for people to walk to,” he said. “It created an outdoor venue, which is amazing. It has brought traffic to a different area of downtown.”
Karla Flores, who works downtown, was a recent Foodville customer but said she also likes to eat at Pike Street, a restaurant across the street that offers fresh salads, homemade soups and quiche.
Pike Street owner Virginia Howell said she likes the idea of the food truck park across the street from her cafe. Howell said she was apprehensive at first but that she is reaping the benefits of competition.
“It brings a lot of fun and uniqueness to our area,” she said. “It has brought more customers than it took away.”
But despite being located in a downtown community that is attracting more businesses and consumers, the food truck park has had its challenges.
On the first Monday in June, only two — The Reef and Takorexico — were open. And when a Takorexico Food Truck employee called in sick, owner Gilbert Macias said he had to close shop for the day.
Another hurdle for Foodville: vendors will have to relocate in a couple of months, Macias said.
“Now that the baseball field has come in and downtown has gotten bigger, they are going to use this space for something else,” he said.
Developer Gaddy said he is committed to keeping a food truck park downtown.
“We worked out something with an adjacent land owner,” Gaddy said. “I didn’t want to see something that was near and dear to my heart go away.”