Brown bag lunches are so elementary school, and as the trend toward mobility infiltrates all parts of life, why not food, too?
That's why a decade ago, the Civic Center Conservancy – a local nonprofit with a mission to revitalize Civic Center Park after stretches of neglect, under-utilization and crime – strategically positioned food as a community activator, to affordably and accessibly attract downtown Denverites at lunchtime.
Originally a weekly urban farmers market, the event morphed into a place for the city's budding gourmet food truck community to park in 2009, when Josh Wolkon of the Vesta-Steuben's-Ace team convinced other culinary entrepreneurs on-wheels to join. In 2011, the event expanded, adding a second day thanks to popular demand.
Now, every January since, vendor applications stream in to fill the limited footprint of the park each May through October. According to Civic Center Conservancy's Executive Director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, EATS organizers curate the event based on: visual appeal; social media following and proven willingness to promote; product diversity throughout the park; consistency and established brand and history. Trucks are either extensions of existing brick and mortar operations, pilot projects for aspiring culinary architects, or content as is with four wheels.
"Its success is truly a showcase of Denver's culinary and entrepreneurial diversity. It's a reminder that Denver diners crave unique, authentically local, high-quality food experiences. And whether in a restaurant or at a food truck in a National Historic Landmark park, the Denver food industry is delivering," says Eichenbaum Lent.
On any given Tuesday or Thursday from 11 a.m. through 2 p.m. during EATS season, the park averages traffic of up to 2,500 people. During the roughly five-month period, close to 200,000 feet hungrily pitter-patter through the park to pick up lunch. This year, 58 trucks have regularly scheduled spots split between the two days, and drop-in opportunities arise occasionally.
Steuben's, Moe's Original Bar B Que, Fat Sully's and The Denver Biscuit Co.bus were among the first trucks in 2010 that continue to participate in the bi-weekly event today. Quiero Arepas, Mythos, CrockSpot, Manna from Heaven, Mikes 2 Kitchen and OG Burgers joined up in 2011 and remain crowd favorites, as new ideas roll in annually.
Earlier this summer, Pat Sajak and Vanna White filmed a number of "Wheel of Fortune" spots at Civic Center EATS, which will air in spring 2016 as part of a Denver-themed week on the long-standing game show. With more eyes on EATS, the Cooking Channel's "Eat St." program was filmed at the downtown Denver food truck rally, while current vendor Kathy Poland, who owns and operates A Taste of the Philippines, recently competed on an episode of the Food Network's "Cutthroat Kitchen."
Come rain or shine, the motto for Civic Center EATS remains: more days, more trucks, more people enjoying and eating in the fresh air.