Nisar Shaikh has had a license to run his food truck Uptown since 1989, but many patrons don’t call him by his name.

“Everybody calls me Ali Baba and my wife is Mrs. Ali Baba,” Shaikh, who owns the Ali Baba’s food truck, said.

Shaikh’s food truck is one of many parked on the Athens bricks. Food trucks in Athens have been around for decades and continue to be a stop for the people in town.

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Lauren Guest, a sophomore studying psychology, said her mom introduced her to Burrito Buggy.

“My mom went to school here and my mom said, ‘Lauren you have to try it,’ and I love it,” she said.

Guest said she goes to Burrito Buggy once every few weeks and that she likes to order any of the vegetarian options, especially the rice and salsa.

Though the food truck industry can be deemed popular across the nation, according to Matt Geller, the CEO of the National Food Truck Association, it’s difficult to evaluate an industry that is regionally influenced.

“As (the food truck industry) professionalized, it attracted many great, talented and inventive entrepreneurs with amazing cuisines,” Geller said. “But at the same time ... they’re still dealing with a lot of really antiquated services or regulations."

For instance, Geller said New Yorkers looking for a food truck permit might be out of luck because “there is a cap on permits.”

In certain areas, Geller said food truck establishments are considered “non-legitimate,” and sometimes regulations favor restaurants.

The National Food Truck Association formed to support food truck owners across the nation, as well as to provide resources and information.

In Athens, city ordinances regulate the hours of operation, where trucks can park and what times the trucks can operate.

John Paszke, director of Athens’ Office of Code Enforcement and Community Development, said his office provides the registration form for food truck vendors and the health department sends out the food serving license.

He added that the trailer also needs to be inspected and must fit the size regulation, which is “no larger than eight-feet wide, 10-feet high, as measured from the ground, and 20-feet long,” according to the city code.

“It’s pretty easy to get (a vendor’s spot), but they’re getting filled up,” Paszke said. “When those spots are gone there is going to be a waiting list.”

Getting started

Shaikh’s desire to start a food truck came while working in the oil industry in Libya, Africa. Shaikh said his American boss at the time gave him three pieces of advice.

“(My boss) told me 'If you go to America, ... If you have good food, you will survive. If you’re a doctor, you survive. If you are a mechanic, you survive,’” Shaikh said. “I have two qualifications. I am a good mechanic and a good cook.”

When getting the business started, Shaikh said he built his own truck out of a box trailer with the help of his wife. Getting a permit approved was another difficult task, but he said he found success once he had a steady place to sell in Athens.

Shaikh said his family, including his young children, helped him in the truck.

Idris Shaikh, Shaikh’s youngest son, said he began working there when he was 6 years old. At a young age, he said he mainly worked the cash register, which helped him with math skills.

“I definitely wouldn’t change (the experience) at all,” he said. “I have my own business now, so it definitely led me into wanting to become a boss. It was a good time working with my parents, meeting all these college students year after year, getting to know different people and learning about business.”

Burrito Buggy has been around Athens since 1984. Marla Rutter, the owner of the food truck, was a freshman at Ohio University when it opened. But when it almost closed down, Rutter bought the truck in 2010.

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Rutter originally purchased the truck for her daughter, who was a culinary student at Hocking College at the time, but she ended up working in it instead.

Running a food truck is a retirement job for Jay Wamsley, an owner of the Not Guilty Food Cart. After visiting his daughter in Austin, Texas and enjoying the food trucks there, he began planning for a truck with his wife about a year prior to opening.

Wamsley and his wife, who is a dietitian, began experimenting with different sandwiches and recruited family and friends to be taste testers.

Devine Gober said she drinks the strawberry banana smoothie from the Not Guilty Food Cart around lunch time once every few weeks.

“I think (food trucks) are cool,” the freshman studying pre-engineering said. “It’s different, on-the-go and quick.”

The daily grind

Rutter’s day begins at 7:30 a.m., despite Burrito Buggy not opening until 11 a.m. At a separate location on Columbus Road, Rutter stocks up the truck, fills the water tank, hitches the buggy to a van and pulls it to her spot on East Union Street.

On an average weekday, Burrito Buggy is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., but, on weekends, the truck is open until about 3 a .m. Rutter said it’s interesting to deal with drunk people on late nights. Other memorable occasions include, she said, the truck getting flat tires and having to get cars towed after being parked in her spot.

“You better be in good shape or you’re going to get in shape pretty quickly (if you’re going to run a food truck),” Rutter said. “I’ve developed some pretty good muscles. It’s a lot of hard work.”

Wamsley usually opens the Not Guilty Food Cart at 9 a.m. and closes at 2:30 p.m., but said the days are much longer.

“Some days, the easy part is while you’re at the cart cooking,” he said. “Before and after, physically, is hard because there is a lot of lifting for coolers and lifting of propane tanks and things like that.”

When the day is over, Wamsley said cleanup involves even more work. Because Jackie O’s Production Brewery and Taproom, 25 Campbell St., uses the Not Guilty Food Cart in the evening after 4 p.m., Wamsley has to clean it up and drive it there prior to then.

“I don’t see any craziness,” he said. “That’s by choice. I understand why food carts are out here at night. It’s a good time to sell food but it’s really not for me — I’m too old.”

Where’s the food from?

Rutter and Wamsley said having a truck in Athens makes using local produce more accessible.

Burrito Buggy uses a branch of Gordon Food Service, located near Columbus, for most of its products and partners with a local mill that produces its black beans and soft taco shells.

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Wamsley said what is in season affects what is on the menu at the Not Guilty Food Cart. Wamsley is selling sandwiches with tomatoes, but he said once the tomatoes are no longer in season, they will not be on the menu until next year.

“It’s a small cart, so you can’t do everything,” he said. “You have to limit the things you offer.”

Shaikh said Ali Baba’s purchases most of its products from US Foods, a food company and distributing service in Cincinnati. His wife, Brenda Shaikh, bakes the cookies for sale at Ali Baba’s and even more of her baked goods are offered at the Athens Farmers Market, he said

On-the-go

While Wamsley said he has fun running a food truck, he added that it’s more than just having fun — it's a lot of hard work, too.

When owning a food truck, Rutter said it’s also important to know about plumbing and electric in addition to knowing about cooking. Driving on the bricks in Athens, Rutter said, can “shake things loose” sometimes.

Restaurant owners sometimes complain about the food trucks becoming more popular, but Rutter said a small truck is still a lot to manage.

“I feel like saying to them, ‘How would you like your kitchen to go through the equivalent of a 5.0 earthquake twice a day, because that’s what happens — everything gets shook on this street,” she said.  

Food trucks are being painted in a glamorous light with movies such as Chef (2014), Wamsley said.

“(Food trucks are) clearly popular right now,” he said. “I told my kids a year ago, ‘I’m 63 years old and it’s the first time I have ever been part of a trend.’”

@liz_backo

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