The brothers scoured Brady Street in Davenport for a spot to park their food truck.
They drove up and down the main drag, knocked on dozens of doors and made cold calls, pitching their Chicago-style hot dogs that taste like their hometown.
More than 30 businesses told them no, until one — Price Buster Mattress at the intersection of Brady and 35th streets — said yes.
For the first time last week, Eric and Lamont Johnson opened their truck’s concession-style windows, taped a handwritten menu to the side and waited.
The Johnsons' is one of the newest additions to a mix of roughly 20 food trucks, trailers and pushcarts scattered throughout the Quad-Cities.
While Chicago's Hot Dog opened last week, others arrived on the scene as long ago as 2008. Some have more established followings than others, but each has strategized and scavenged for ways and places to do business.
As more follow, Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch is calling for a big food-truck presence at the now-closed Rhythm City Casino on the Davenport riverfront, much of which the city plans to turn into green space.
Before that can happen, however, one big piece is missing: Local enthusiasm hasn't caught up to the national trend.
“I don’t think we have a food truck culture here,” said Kyle Carter, director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership. “It’s not here like it is everywhere else.”
So, what will it take to get there?
Finding the perfect spot
With temperatures hovering around 90 degrees, Martin Garcia was dripping with sweat.
The co-founder of La Flama crouched behind his 16-foot Chevrolet step van, and carefully poured a few gallons of gas into a generator that powers his taco truck. It is the on-wheels offshoot of the former Mexican restaurant in Moline.
“It’s a whole show, doing this,” said Garcia, who a year ago launched La Flama on Wheels outside K&K True Value Hardware. “If I can’t get Bettendorf people to come to my restaurant, I’ll go to them.”
The restaurant, which closed this month after 12 years in downtown Moline, will reopen in mid-July at 114 Myrtle St., Davenport.
Meanwhile, Garcia is serving $1.50 tacos in the hardware store parking lot at 18th and Grant streets in Bettendorf. He also is refurbishing a 14-foot vehicle that eventually will operate as a second La Flama on Wheels at the new industrial park in Milan.
“Business has grown,” he said, crediting K&K for allowing him to use the property for free. “This is one local business helping another local business form a community.”
To find the less-prominent street vendors in the Quad-Cities, you have to know where and when to look.
A majority of them are steadfast in posting their schedules on Facebook or have at least one set location during the spring and summer season. For others, connecting with customers is a mix of happenstance and word-of-mouth.
In Moline, the owners of Saucy Sisters, a 16-foot custom-built food trailer known for its homemade meatballs and pasta sauce, signed an exclusive one-year contract last fall with Menards.
It took about a year of planning and preparation for sisters Rollene Hoffman and René Reichert to lock down their “safe” spot, acquire the necessary certifications and licenses and prepare their full-service trailer.
“I wanted to have a set location, and for whatever reason, we ended up at Menards,” said Hoffman, 46, who is willing to help other entrepreneurs with the time-consuming process. “I don’t want anyone else at my location, but small business owners have to stick together.”
Rules of the road
Local vendors can't simply drive around neighborhoods and stop on the street when they see potential customers.
City regulations in Bettendorf and Davenport require food carts to set up on private property. That is why they depend on the kindness and partnership of parking-lot owners.
“We do not have any regulations on the books that deal with food trucks, specifically,” Bettendorf City Attorney Kristine Stone said.
But the city has an ordinance that prohibits vendors from standing on any streets, alleys or sidewalks without an appropriate permit.
Additionally, the regulations for mobile vending and food licenses differ between Iowa and Illinois, which frustrates vendors. Most notably, Iowa offers statewide permits, but Illinois has various vending requirements, depending on the city.
Under Illinois law, pushcarts and trucks that are not self-sufficient must have daily access to a commissary, or a permanent food-service establishment to clean, service and store supplies.
Rock Island’s two regular street vendors, Eggroll Express and Streets of Italy, both serve out of commissaries in The District, according to health inspector Brian Tauke.
“They’re meeting food safety requirements, but they’re not mobile,” he said, adding both hold $70 seasonal licenses. “I’m not going to let a vendor down here go around town as a mobile unit because they don’t have a mobile self-sufficient kitchen.”
In Moline, which has three mobile units that serve at set locations, they have free range.
“If you just find somebody who owns property, it’s a lot easier than dealing with the city,” said Chris Mathias, Moline’s property management coordinator. “You need a food license, regardless, but if you want to park it on the street, you don’t need a parking lease or license — just follow parking laws.”
‘Cheaper and easier’ in Iowa
John “Roy” Rogers parks his hot dog and brat cart along the Ben Butterworth Parkway, just west of the Captain’s Table on River Drive, and he pays the city of Moline for the privilege.
He struck a lease deal with the city about eight years ago.
Under the name, Roy’s All Fed Up, he serves food from Cattlemen’s Meat Market in East Moline and stores his cart overnight at a nearby business.
“I don’t make a lot of money out here, but it keeps me off the streets, and I get to meet a lot of people,” he said, adding that motorists on River Drive make up 95 percent of his clientele.
Yearlong food service licenses for mobile units in Moline cost $100. In Rock Island, mobile unit licenses are $80. In Iowa, yearlong licenses cost $27.
“Iowa’s definitely cheaper and easier,” said Andy Swartz, an environmental health specialist for Moline.
Davenport doesn’t have a food-truck policy, but Deputy City Clerk Jackie Holecek has seen an uptick in interest in the past year.
“I think there’s a demand for food trucks,” she said. “It’s becoming a thing across the United States, and we’re trying to address that for people who want to vend.”
Carter, of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, said policies are needed.
“There's no symmetry in regulations,” he said. “For many municipalities, it’s such a new thing that most communities haven't bothered.”
Model to follow
In 2010, Natalie Brown didn’t see a food-truck scene, so she created one.
Brown’s Scratch Cupcakery has brick-and-mortar locations in Cedar Falls, Coralville, West Des Moines and Waterloo, but she doesn’t rely solely on those storefronts.
Early on, Brown added a food truck — Scratch Curbside — to her business plan to reach more of the state and more customers. This summer, Scratch Curbside will drive to more than 150 locations and will visit a different city every day of the week.
“Back then, in Cedar Falls, nobody knew what a food truck was,” she said. “In a lot of these other cities, it’s normal to walk by a row of food trucks, and they assemble in your everyday environment.
“It’s literally a culture there,” she said of Atlanta, Chicago and New York. “People leave work, and they go to a food truck; they don’t go sit down at a restaurant.”
Brown hired a full-time employee to handle scheduling for Scratch Curbside. He spends his days making phone calls about permits and rules and asking permission to park outside businesses. Some cities ask for background checks and fingerprint scans and drop pounds of paperwork. Some, Brown said, want more food trucks in their communities.
“I’m paying someone to navigate this system, and I’m not sure it should be that way,” she said. “I’ve seen the food truck madness that happens everywhere else, but not here.”
In some cases, the roadblocks can be placed intentionally.
"I don't think it's something we're pushing from the top, because we wouldn't favor this over restaurants downtown," Moline's Mathias said. "I think it's on everybody's mind, but I wouldn't say we're focused on it."
In Carter's mind, the Quad-Cities isn’t at the food-on-wheels tipping point — yet.
“There hasn’t been an uprising of people wanting food trucks,” he said. “No one has rocked the boat hard, yet. If there are people who are passionate about it, those people need to come out of the woodwork.”
Here they come
Imagine a 26-foot silver Airstream trailer parked along Davenport’s riverfront.
Complete with a full-size commercial kitchen, the chef and his on-board crew can cook up whatever concoction of “whimsical street food” they’re in the mood for that day.
“That’s the idea,” said Chad Cushman, a former restaurant manager and longtime chef who is refurbishing the vintage camper this summer. “The city is talking about putting food trucks down there once the boat leaves, and who doesn’t want that?”
Bettendorfer Rich Thompson is a fan. He recently made a special trip to K&K for La Flama’s tacos.
“I’m burned out on fast food, so it’s nice to have these,” Thompson said. “It gives people a chance to try something they might not normally try.”
Don Keller, who owns the hardware store that lends the corner of its parking lot to La Flama and Load of Crepe, agreed, noting the convenience factor.
“I think it’s a good thing for everybody,” he said.
Cushman, better known as The Crepe Guy for his pop-up restaurant around town, hopes to launch the Airstream next spring. Bruce Grell, the owner of Healthy Habits Bicycle Shop in Bettendorf, is partnering with him on the project.
Noting his low overhead costs, mobility and flexibility, Cushman thinks he’s living a dream and has no interest in opening a location indoors.
“I know what it’s like when you put hours of operation on the door,” he said. “You’re trapped.”