Food vendors going a la cart

Permits for mobile units skyrocketing

Mike Valdez serves up a bratwurst at The Dog Haus, a food cart on the southwest corner of Seventh Street and North Avenue.

When Mike Valdez moved back to Grand Junction from Pittsburgh last month, his job prospects should have been bleak.

He returned to an area saddled with the second-highest unemployment rate among metropolitan areas in Colorado, a place that by all appearances will be slower to recover from the recession than many communities.

But a relative who works at the Business Incubator Center on Orchard Mesa tipped him off to a man looking to hire someone to help run his series of mobile food-vending units.

Valdez jumped at the opportunity.

“This is actually pretty good money if you like working hot dogs,” the 19-year-old said.

If local government data are any indication, selling food on street corners and in parking lots constitutes one of the few growth industries currently operating in Mesa County.

The number of licensed mobile food vendors has skyrocketed in the county in the last two years, jumping from 12 in 2008 to 54 this year. Nearly half obtained their permits in the first six months of this year, according to Darleen McKissen, environmental health specialist for the Mesa County Health Department.

Entrepreneurs selling everything from kettle corn and ice cream to bratwursts and fajitas are, of course, capitalizing on a basic human need. Beyond that, they’re positioning themselves in high-traffic areas at opportune times, whether they’re in the middle of Main Street in downtown Grand Junction, in front of a home-improvement or auto-service business, or outside a bar whose patrons may be looking for some late-night grub to counteract the alcohol. And they’re likely doing it on the cheap.

McKissen believes part of the reason for the boom in mobile food vendors is the relatively small amount of capital required to start and the low overhead needed to stay open.

“It’s the cheapest way to start a food business,” McKissen said. “You’re not buying, you’re not leasing, you’re not putting in expensive commercial equipment. That initial cash outlay is significantly less.”

McKissen said she was on the Front Range in March, and “I swear there was one of these on every street corner. I think we’re just catching up with the trend.”

Valdez, who was born in Grand Junction, said he lived in Pittsburgh and New York and indicated street food vendors there are nothing like those here in the Grand Valley. Here, he said, vendors must keep food preparation surfaces clean and maintain the appropriate temperatures for hot food and cold items. Valdez, who has been employed for two weeks, said he’ll attend a Health Department food safety and sanitation class Monday.

The Dog Haus, the mobile unit Valdez was running Thursday at the southwest corner of Seventh Street and North Avenue, is one of four such mobile units belonging to Venture Marketing owner Carlos Maestas.

Valdez said he works six or seven hours a day, seven days a week, moving among Maestas’ units. In addition to learning about entrepreneurship, Valdez said he likes the job because he gets to work outdoors and interact with the public.

“I love being able to meet new people,” he said.


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