At a recent, cold lunch hour in Vintage Park Business Center, many customers waited in their cars for crepes or burgers. In an open lot between office buildings and a senior center, two food trucks stood by the wood frame of what will become a covered seating area.
April Sapp walked over from the nearby Jordan Creek Family Health Care office. She ordered a cheeseburger and gyro sandwich from one of the trucks.
“I’m very excited about this,” she said.
Before, she likely would have had to drive to a supermarket for lunch.
“Now we just walk,” Sapp said.
The new food truck park opened in December. It’s also in the Mendenhall Valley, miles away from the cruise ship docks downtown. Many Juneau restaurants rely on summer tourists, which can leave fewer options for locals in the winter.
One of the trucks, Alaskan Crepe Escape, is better known for serving its sweet and savory crepes from a stand downtown during cruise season. And so far, owner Madelynne McKeown said things are a lot different out in the valley. For one, they have regulars.
“We’re realizing and learning how much these people are going to be the same people we see. Which is also really fun because we get to know people better, meet more people and stuff,” she said.
The park will have more options soon — a taco truck, one with Filipino food, and a beer and wine cart. But by setting up shop in the winter — and nine miles from downtown — all of these businesses are taking a leap of faith.
Brian Holst, with the Juneau Economic Development Council, said the city’s restaurants typically rely heavily on summer tourists to stay afloat.
“Most of them will tell you that it’s much harder to make ends meet in the wintertime,” he said. “And those — particularly downtown and those that are where visitors frequent — really count on making most of their profit in the summertime, so that it carries them through in the wintertime.”
That’s been true for Pucker Wilsonʼs, which serves burgers out of two purple food trucks — a downtown location that closes in the off-season and one in the valley that stays open all year. But owner Chad Edwards said staying open in the winter hasnʼt been easy.
“Operating costs for us are much higher in the winter, and revenue is much lower. I haven’t figured any way around it,” Edwards said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Edwardsʼ biggest focus, he said, is keeping his staff around.
“You need to pay your crew really well,” he said. “And you need to be busy. Otherwise, you’ve got people standing around in a literally, like, a 40-degree box, who have run out of things to clean and they’re thinking about how they would rather be somewhere else — like anywhere else, you know?”
McKeown’s father, Marty, owns the food truck park. He said he hopes the location will mean that the food truck workers won’t be standing around. He said it’s filling a need for nearby office workers, as well as health care workers at the senior center and the new SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium campus.
“We don’t have any food over here,” McKeown said. “Everybody’s been saying that they’re very pleased to have more options in the Valley.”
The other truck at the park is Devil’s Hideaway, a burgers-and-wings spot that used to operate out of Squirez Bar in Auke Bay. Owner Anthony Kanouse said he likes the prospect of serving regulars.
“I’ve never wanted to be downtown in the summer, just because it goes from trying to do something unique to mass-producing,” he said.
But will it work? Holst, with the Juneau Economic Development Council, said he thinks the food-truck model — which lets different kinds of food spots get started at a lower cost than a traditional restaurant — increases the odds.
Holst said legislative staff — who are in town from January to May — are another possible source of business for the park because they’re more likely now to live and spend money in the valley. Ten or 15 years ago, he said, they mostly stayed downtown.
“I trust that Juneauites will recognize that they’re gonna have a lot of good options, and they’re gonna be busy,” he said.
Madelynne McKeown said she sees another benefit of the year-round park. It helps her retain employees.
“I had so many girls that I was like, ‘I need another location to get these girls the hours that they need.’ And so I’m really excited about that, especially for summertime, because I’ll be able to staff up everybody, and then I’ll have more retention that way,” she said.
Marty McKeown said the winter opening wasn’t intentional — the contractor he hired was busy all summer. But he’s heard that people are happy with the food truck park so far.