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Thursday, February 27,2014

Desserts on the move

By Grace Boyle
Photo by Grace Boyle
SHannon Aten's Tasterie Truck is a Walken-up kind of place.

The food truck landscape has rapidly been expanding in Boulder, offering a variety of colorful and inventive mobile food concepts, each with its own unique challenges. Especially for those just offering desserts on wheels.

The Tasterie Truck is now in its fourth year of business in Boulder. Boulder’s first dessert truck started by only offering sweets and pastries. As a “a tasty mobile patisserie,” they were well loved for their whoopie pies, stickyboxes (bundt cake), milk and cookies cupcakes, lemon roulades and more.

However, since food trucks are limited to industrial zones and technology parks with Boulder’s food truck laws, The Tasterie Truck found customers kept asking if they had any “real food,” not just sweets, especially during their popular business lunch hours.

Owner and cofounder Shannon Aten knew they had to shift strategies a bit.

“In order to survive and pay our bills, we started offering a limited savory menu our second year for the lunch time hours and then did a full dessert menu for our evening and special events, where desserts are more popular,” she says.

But Aten, who is now solo since her business partner Nathan Miller moved back to Pennsylvania to start his own dessert shop, knew that the other savory trucks were doing more than three times the amount in sales as they were with sweets. So she made the decision to focus on food.

Since desserts was their original mainstay, they still offer a variety of desserts, especially for events like weddings or rehearsal dinners, which, in part, has kept them in business these four years.

Newer to the mobile dessert scene in Boulder is The Long I Pie Shop. Its founder, Shauna Lott, raised more than $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign that allowed her to move forward with her mobile pie shop concept: an Airstream she plans to drive between Boulder and Denver serving her delectable pies, baked special in cast-iron pans, and made with recipes that have been passed down by her Midwestern family.

The 26-foot Airstream (refurbished by her father, grandfather and herself ) will actually host customers inside, with room for six to eight to sit comfortably and enjoy their slice of pie.

Although there will also be a to-go window for those passing by, Lott believes “pie is one of those relational desserts,” noting that you don’t grab a pie on the go since it’s difficult to eat while you’re walking, so it’s something you share over a conversation.

Pushing customers to slow down to chat over a slice is fine by Lott.

“I’m building a business around the concept of home,” she says. “To me, pie is home and, for some reason, has this way of taking people back to whatever feels like ‘home’ in their mind. It takes me back to when I was a young girl growing up in Indiana on a crisp autumn evening, sitting around my Grandma Lott’s dining room table after dinner, eating pie and playing gin rummy.”

Lott even sees pies as a way to build community and plans to partner with nonprofits and provide a platform for youth at risk of homelessness, incarceration and exploitation to turn their lives around through a social services employment program.

She’s also preparing for the dessert-only challenge that faced The Tasterie Truck in the same fashion: sweet and savory pies. She’ll partner with local purveyors like Denver’s Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe for her meat pies, and she’ll have vegetarian pies too, like her coconut curry veggie pot pie. Once she’s open and running, which should be around the end of March, she will offer a gluten-free and vegan pie, three sweet and two savory pies. Those will rotate based on the season and her partnerships with local farms. In the future, she also wants to offer breakfast pies, like quiche, but with the thickness of a pie.

When it comes to the barriers to entry for these mobile dessert trucks, it can be examined through the lens of weather, narrowness of focus with just sweets, and the stifling food truck laws in Boulder.

With four distinct seasons in Colorado, there’s no denying the weather sometimes thwarts business, especially since Aten and Lott both operate year-round. Aten takes a few weeks off over the holidays when their business park stops are slow, and, as to be expected, the occasional snow day halts them entirely when it’s too dangerous to venture out.

“It’s much slower during the winter because there are much less weekend and nighttime events as it gets dark early, and the weather is so up and down,” Aten says.

But even with winter’s mood swings, Lott says the weather itself doesn’t concern her that much.

“The beautiful thing about Colorado is that it’s February and could be 60 degrees,” she says. “But there are things I have to think about if it drops to -11 degrees, such as our plumbing.”

Both Lott and Aten agree that Denver is more lenient in its food truck rules and stipulations, and they share frustrations in the rigidity of Boulder’s laws. They’re forced to operate in industrial zones that surround the city of Boulder, rather than in the bustling hubs downtown or in commercial zones where people naturally flock.

This also limits their hours and, subsequently, the dollars that can be made.

Aten, now a food truck veteran in this area, has made do by getting creative and going to surrounding cities like Louisville, Longmont, Denver and Broomfield. She has planned large food truck parties and widens her footprint through private events and catering, which Lott also agrees will also be strong business for her mobile pie shop.

After examining those that deliver desserts on wheels, it seems in the end, the best way to survive in Boulder’s food truck ecosystem is to actually offer more than just sweets. Even Lott understands that offering sweet and savory pies will broaden her reach, while Aten was pushed through the food truck stipulations in Boulder to a different market, away from entirely sweet. Although there are sweet tooths everywhere, the diversified focus seems to be the dessert on wheels offering direction in Boulder.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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