OGDEN -- Forget TGIF. These days -- in downtown Ogden, anyway -- it's all about TGIW.
The new day of the week to be thankful for? Wednesdays.
Every "Hump Day," the street vendors operating their taco carts in downtown Ogden offer up a sweet two-for-one special on their edible wares. Ordinarily, these bad boys are $1 each -- a reasonable price by most accounts. But on Wednesdays, the street vendors offer two tacos for $1, and that little deal has been packing in the al fresco diners.
Take a recent Wednesday. While local singer-songwriter Dan Weldon played a Tunes@Noon gig in the shade of the Ogden Municipal Building grounds, a steady stream of customers lined up at the mobile food carts to take advantage of the Wednesday special.
All four of the taco carts currently plying their trade in Ogden do a brisk business, but the El Paraiso cart on Washington Boulevard near 26th Street is the most crowded. At times, the line waiting for tacos can stretch out 20 to 30 people deep.
"I've been told this one is the best," said Korey Wardleigh, of Plain City, who waited in line a good 10 minutes to get her Mexican food fix. She's a three-year veteran of dining at the Ogden taco carts.
She says she did try one of the other carts once, but didn't like it as much.
"The people who work here are really personable, and the meat choices they have and toppings are nice."
Wardleigh's daughter, Shyanne Wardleigh, came in from Harrisville on her day off, just to have lunch with her mother.
"It's really, really good flavor, and it's cheap -- very affordable," she said.
Asked whether the draw was spending time with her mother on her lunch hour or coming for the tasty tacos, Shyanne Wardleigh pauses several seconds before they both burst into laughter.
"Probably the tacos," she finally admits.
Alicia Lopez, of Ogden, and three co-workers sat in Municipal Gardens, eating tacos from one of two La Tapatia carts near the municipal building.
"Last year I'd come here every Wednesday," Lopez said. "They're good and cheap and yummy. And, it gets you outside."
Lopez's co-worker, Stacy Matthews, of West Point, was a first-timer at the taco carts.
"I was impressed," she said. "The meat was fabulous, and they put a lot of it on those little tortillas. This is our new tradition."
And the food fun isn't confined to the municipal building. Over on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and 24th Street, the owner of La Michoacana Tacos serves up his two-for-one fare to a variety of blue- and white-collar workers.
Jewell McCloy, of North Ogden, says she's been patronizing the cart "every Wednesday since the weather got warm." She usually shows up with a group from her office.
"We try to come early, because it gets to be a big, long line," she said. "And sometimes they run out of chicken."
Is it safe?
For those who've never tried the tacos from these street vendors, there's a perception that the sanitation isn't up to the same standards as, say, one of the area's Mexican restaurants.
"Somebody just asked me as I was coming over here today, 'Does it look clean?' " McCloy said. "I told them, 'Yeah, the food's been good; no one has ever gotten sick. It seems to be hot, and tastes fresh.' We've never had a problem."
Indeed, patrons report that the most common question they get from taco-cart rookies is, "Is the food safe?"
Michelle Cooke is only too happy to field that question.
"I want people to feel comfortable eating down there," says the program manager over food services for
Weber-Morgan Environmental Health. "It's a neat idea, but it can be very dangerous if the food isn't handled properly."
And that's the whole raison d'etre for Cooke's department -- to make sure food is handled properly, so that it's safe for consumption.
Among the regulations: Carts must be affiliated with a restaurant or similar business, and all food must be cooked in a commercial kitchen, not on the cart. Carts must have a means of temperature control to keep the food in the cart hot. Carts must have hot and cold running water, under pressure, for hand sanitation. And carts must also have a restroom agreement with a nearby business or other entity, so that cart employees have somewhere to go when they need to, well, go.
"If there's an imminent health threat, we shut it down right away," Cooke said. Otherwise, they work with the vendor to resolve any health problems.
Permits for food carts are issued yearly, and the carts are inspected twice a year -- plus the occasional surprise inspection, Cooke said.
"We're a little stricter than other counties, from what I hear," she said.
Hot dogs, more
It wasn't always that way. In the beginning, there was much less regulation of these food carts, said Pauline Miller, business license coordinator for Ogden City. But around 2008, just when the carts began gaining in popularity in Ogden, the city tightened up the regulations.
Currently, Ogden offers 23 slots for street vendors -- 12 for food and 11 for other items, such as selling balloons, flowers and the like. Spots for vendors to operate are between 22nd and 26th streets, from Lincoln Avenue to Washington Boulevard.
In the past, Ogden has played host to food carts offering hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue -- and last year, there was a cart selling Indian food. However, currently, only four food carts -- all selling tacos -- are operating in the city.
"I think because of the restrictions, it's limited the number of carts we have," Miller said.
Cooke puts it another way: "It really makes (somebody wanting to open a food cart) be serious about this."
Ogden Planning Manager Greg Montgomery says the goal in all this is to offer a unique outdoor street vibe in downtown Ogden.
"It gets people on the street or sidewalk," he said. "The intent is to get some street life, get people out walking on the streets. That's been the intent."
Early on, Montgomery said, some local restaurants cried foul over the competition from street vendors. Montgomery said the city has worked with these restaurants to reach a compromise.
"What we did to help them out is told them, 'We'll allow you to have outdoor dining tables,' " he said.
As a result, he said, a number of Ogden restaurants now have outdoor dining.
Back at a taco cart in front of the municipal building on Washington Boulevard, U.S. Postal Service co-workers Chad Parkin, of Clinton, and Scott Mangels, of North Ogden, are patiently waiting in a long line for their chance to order tacos.
"We come here every Wednesday, unless it's raining or freezing," Mangels said. They've been coming for three or four years.
When the two men reach the front of the line, each orders six tacos. Six?
"I used to order 10 in the wintertime," Parkin said. "When I've got a better appetite, I'll wolf down 10."
They can't think of a better way to spend their lunch break.
"You can't beat it," Parkin said. "Come downtown, listen to live music, eat tacos and commiserate about our jobs."
WHERE IS THE FOOD CART IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?
Here's a look at the current food-cart situation in some other Top of Utah cities:
Layton has a few food carts operating within city limits right now, Planner Andrew King said.
Whereas Ogden's taco carts are concentrated in the downtown area, Layton's are scattered throughout the city.
"The difference between us and Ogden is that ours are often in a grocery store parking lot or a bowling alley parking lot," he said. Rather than the usual foot traffic at such carts, folks will often drive up to them in their vehicles.
King said the most successful location in Layton is south of the city offices, by Layton High School. Another is near Davis Lanes bowling alley. Both are taco carts.
"There's a pretty big ebb and flow to it," he said of the street vendors. "We've had as many as 10 or 12 at any one time, although we're down to maybe four or five now."
King likes the way these street vendors add "something different" to the city.
"We want to build up a more urban downtown area, and these make people go out on the street," he said. "Ultimately, from a planning perspective, we like to see people outside."
A handful of food carts has operated here in the past, but right now there's just one taco cart that travels around the Freeport Center, said Valerie Claussen, development services manager for the city.
"At least, we only have one legally licensed food cart right now," Claussen quipped.
Two food carts are currently operating on Main Street in Kaysville -- a World's Best Corndogs that sells $5 corn dogs, and a Rickle's cart that offers pasta, soup and sandwiches.
Wade Flint, zoning administrator for Kaysville, said outdoor carts provide another option for diners, and "a lot of people are attracted to them."
Flint said Kaysville is "appreciative of having these in town."
"It may be kind of a passing thing, but we're open to the possibilities of these carts," he said.
No food carts are operating in Logan right now, but James Geier, a business license administrator for the city, said they'd love to accommodate them.
"I think they do create a nice ambience if they're done well, and there's certainly a place for them," Geier said.
The challenge, he said, is to make the experience profitable for the cart owner, while at the same time making sure the public is protected -- and that established restaurants aren't harmed.
"We want them to co-exist," Geier said. "We have had some concern come from brick-and-mortar restaurants, but more so when a taco wagon is located within a block of a Mexican restaurant."
No food carts are currently operating in the city, Planning Director Aric Jensen said.
Jensen said there was one successful food cart operating for six years in the city, but last year it moved to a permanent restaurant location downtown. And in the last three years, there was a pizza cart and a taco cart, but those didn't last long.
"In some parts of town, food carts are appropriate -- for example, downtown, where we want people to get outside and walk around," Jensen said. "But other parts of town? No."
Jensen echoes the sentiments of Logan's Geier in that the city needs to be sensitive about adversely affecting the business of established restaurants.
"Here comes a guy with virtually no overhead, undercutting an established business," Jensen said. "That can be a real problem."
Currently, Brigham City ordinances don't allow for mobile food carts -- other than snow cone shacks and ice cream trucks, said City Planner Mark Bradley.
"But there has been some interest," he said. "People come in and would like to do what Ogden and Salt Lake do."
Although officials have seen some vendors interested in setting up food carts in Brigham City, Bradley said, so far, no one has appealed to the city to amend the current code.