Truck Stop

Truck Stop

Tall colorful banners and bright national flags ripple in the breeze above a column of trucks as customers line up along the sidewalk. It looks like a fiesta on Long Wharf Drive. But it’s only lunch.

Wrapped in vibrant colors and pictures of the menu items, most of the trucks serve Mexican food, with a sprinkling of other Latin cuisines along with a Greek option and Sweeney’s Hot Dogs. Bob Sweeney is acknowledged as the first vendor at Long Wharf, beginning in 1960. Now, at 83, he’s still selling his hot dogs and claiming the title of “Hot Dog King.” I asked why he keeps going after more than 60 years. “I got no place to go,” he says. “Here I get to meet people. It gives me something to do.” But the Mexican trucks now define the space, and Mexican’s what I ordered: a chicken fajita for $10. It was flavorful with just the right amount of heat and plentiful enough for two lunches.

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Many of the regular customers work in the surrounding area, and a line of eighteen-wheelers idling across the street announced the popularity with long-haul truckers. One of them, Matt Hensley, hails from Arkansas. “I’ve been coming here for three years,” he said. “As soon as I cross into Connecticut I start thinking about this food.”

Among the others waiting for their orders last Friday were two young women. “This is our weekly treat,” Carla Williams said. “TGIF. We’ll take it back to the office and have a great lunch.”

Every day, as many as 29 food trucks gather here, forming an assembly some have taken to calling “Food Truck Paradise.” Vendors pay $2,500 a year for a reserved spot and another $500 for an electricity hookup. They also must have liability insurance. The fees are part of New Haven’s Special Vending District program, begun in 2017 when the food truck phenomenon was “getting out of hand,” says Steve Fontana, the city’s deputy director of economic development. “Vendors were competing for positions and it was becoming overcrowded, creating traffic and safety problems.” The city created four vending districts and held a lottery for licenses. “We wanted to make the areas healthy, safe and aesthetically pleasing,” Fontana says. The program included a vending enforcement officer and the addition of power hookups for each of the vendor slots, eliminating the need for noisy and inefficient generators.

In addition to Long Wharf, the four vending districts include Cedar Street, restricted to 24 food carts; Sachem Street (outside The Whale), with 18 slots; and a downtown zone, also with 18 spots. Official vending hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the vendors are free to make their own schedules, including by choosing what days they’ll operate.

Down on Long Wharf, I’ve found as many as a dozen unoccupied spaces depending on the day. The city has installed portable toilets and a parking area in addition to curbside parking, but there’s no formal seating. Customers eat in their cars or on the curb, along the water or on a squat wooden fence. Or they take their meals back to the office. The city plans to address that inconvenience with a project involving a waterfront promenade, benches, a permanent bathroom facility, an improved area for food trucks and picnic tables, to be financed by a multimillion-dollar state grant.

Construction could begin next year. “We want to create more of a park-like setting,” Fontana says. “We want to turn Long Wharf into an area people will want to frequent.”

Written by Jim Murphy. Images 1 and 3 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2, featuring Birria Estilo Tijuana, photographed by Jim Murphy.

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