Sunday, June 4, 2023

Pacific Rim Food Park Opens

Restaurant and Church Join Forces to Feed a Need


The COVID pandemic was a difficult time for restaurants. Between shutdowns, mask mandates, staffing shortages and having to construct outdoor seating areas, many restaurants failed to weather the last couple years of business. One foodie trend that survived the pandemic fairly well, however, was the rise of local food trucks. Low overhead costs and well-ventilated outdoor locations allowed our city's food truck population to blossom. Now Albuquerque is home to a brand new food truck park in the Northeast Heights, one that concentrates heavily on Asian- and women-owned businesses.

Judy Chiang is the owner of Rising Star Chinese Eatery on San Antonio, a longtime local eatery that made it through the brunt of the pandemic relatively unscathed. But she saw plenty of other restaurants that did not—many of them Asian-owned. The language barrier made it difficult for these businesses to apply for life-saving government grants and paycheck protection program loans. Spotting an empty lot near her restaurant, Chiang approached the lot's owners with an idea.

Grace United Methodist Church, which owns the property, had coincidentally been trying to determine the best use of the space to benefit the community. "Years ago, we offered it to the city to place recycling bins so our community can be better stewards of our resources. It was helpful, but we could do more," says Aaron Giesler, senior pastor at Grace United Methodist Church. "We’ve been neighbors with Judy for many years, and she has a heart to help people start businesses. When she approached us with the idea of a food truck park, because Grace United Methodist Church desires to be a vital part of our community and help community members succeed in life, this just made a sense to us."

The idea evolved over the course of a year, with serious work beginning in early 2022. "At first it was simple, get board approval and ask the City to move the recycle bins to their current location," says Pastor Aaron. "Judy purchased a couple of trucks. After that, an engineer drew up electrical plans, our church did some long-range planning, we received City approval and buried electrical lines. We laid sod, installed shade structures and bought some seating." Now the site on the corner of Louisiana and San Antonio is a permanent home to five food trucks, all Asian or woman-owned: La Cocina de Ana, StackersABQ, Mobiyaki, Rising Star 2 and Viet Flavor.

Pacific Rim Food Park was supposed to have its soft opening earlier this month. But PNM was still lagging behind in the installation of a critical transformer. (Organizers want the place to be "generator free.") PNM finally came though, though, and the food park is now ready for business. During the park's rescheduled soft opening, Judy Chiang was a blur of action, setting up trash cans, encouraging vendors ("Brian, I love your yakitori!") and advising diners ("South American empanadas: very good!")

The inviting outdoor eating space will officially open to the public at large with a food, music and entertainment-filled party the day before Halloween. "On October 30 Grace Church will host a Trunk or Treat with lots family-oriented, Halloween-themed activities," promises Giesler. "Also on that night, the food trucks will have their grand opening. Once the food park is fully operational, the park should be open seven days a week. Each truck will set their own days/hours. Most trucks plan on being open for lunch and dinner. In the morning our drive-thru coffee shop will be open, and there are plans to serve breakfast burritos and biscuits and gravy for breakfast." For the time being, Pacific Rim Food Park expects welcome visitors four days a week (Thu. through Sun., 11am to 8pm).

Organizers are already thinking about "phase II." The site will eventually have room for more trucks and hopes to host other events like farmers' markets. "We have applied to the city to have 10 food trucks my next summer," promises Chiang, who has already lined up Thai, Korean, Indonesian and even Afghani cuisine vendors. "We have three Afghan refugees working here already," says Chiang. "We want to make life better for them, safer for them."

"We only have five trucks, because we didn’t want to start too big or get too far in over our heads. This is our first time doing something like this," admits Giesler. "Plans to expand are in the works, but we want to do what is best for our current trucks and for the community the church serves," says Giesler. "Grace Church wants Pacific Rim Food Park to be a place where people from different walks of life can meet over some of the things every one of us have in common—the need for one another, the need for food and the desire to be a part of a strong, healthy community."

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