Trailer Food Scene

The most famous trailer park in America: The future of the South Congress lot that became a top tourist destination

The most famous trailer park in America: The future of the South Congress lot that became a top tourist destination

Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_po boys
Photo by Tiffany Harelik
Austin Photo: Places_Food_hey_cupcake_exterior
Photo by Rachel M
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_werst tex
Photo by Tiffany Harelik
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_coat and thai
Photo by Tiffany Harelik
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_po boys
Austin Photo: Places_Food_hey_cupcake_exterior
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_werst tex
Austin Photo Set: News_Tiffany Harelik_trailer food_south congress_Nov 2011_coat and thai

On a Wednesday afternoon in September, a sole production assistant was sent to the food trailer park at 1603 South Congress Avenue. Starting at Hey Cupcake! and making his way down to towards the Mighty Cone, the young man was asking folks inside the trailers to sign film releases. 

“They’re going to be shooting a couple of actors by the trailers,” the young man explained. Signatures were given and waivers signed, an increasingly common occurrence at a trailer park that has served as a backdrop to everything from engagement shoots to television shows and a national campaign for AT&T.

(“They” ended up being Terrence Malick and “a couple of actors” turned out to be Rooney Mara and (sigh) Ryan Gosling.)

The food trailers are a relatively new addition to the South Congress landscape. In 2009, a hotel development project fell through, leaving the lot empty. Mighty Cone came first, followed a few months later by the Hey Cupcake! Airstream on the opposite side of the lot. Since then, a few dozen trailers have set up shop in the lot, serving everything from snow cones to sandwiches.

On weekends and First Thursdays, every spare inch of gravel is taken over by local artisans and craftsmen. The fair-like atmosphere draws crowds from all over who revel in the “Austin-ness” of it all. But, in June, owners of the trailers received notice that a new company had taken ownership of 1603 South Congress: SOCO ATX Development, a division of CSE, the umbrella company that also houses C3 Presents, the event powerhouse behind ACL Fest.

Though the trailers have always operated on a month-to-month lease, this notice of new owners sent rumors flying.

“Will the hotel finally get built?”

“Where will the trailers go?”

After all, how long can an empty dirt lot on Austin’s most famous street really stay empty?

On an unseasonably chilly Sunday evening, Jamie Rice is sitting in front of Fry Baby, the fried foods trailer she opened with her mother in February 2011. Though it’s cold and almost dark, customers keep coming. As she jumps up to attend them, Rice greets them with a “Hi, honey!” before taking their order.

“They’ve been telling us since we first moved here we may have to leave,” explains Rice as she sits back down. “There is always a sense of impending doom.”

Since taking over this summer, SOCO ATX Development has maintained almost complete silence about the lot’s future. Rumors run rampant between trailers; gossip is exchanged during slow times during the day. When a land surveyor showed up a few weeks ago, eyebrows were raised, but business carried on as usual. The lack of information coupled with the change in ownership has many trailer owners believing that end is nigh. 

Last week, owners learned that the end would come sooner than many hoped. SOCO ATX would be terminating leases in March 2013, just days before SXSW. Though the trailers have heard this before, there is a sense that this time they’re serious.

“There’s nothing we can really do,” says Rice. “I just hope it keeps getting pushed back.” In the tradition of Austin small businesses, when the lot finally does succumb to development, these trailers will most likely soldier on, popping up in various corners throughout the city. “It’s a shame,” says Rice. “But we just have to proactive.”

Unless something is done on a city level to block construction of a new hotel, the South Congress trailer park will be forced to disperse.

For now — well — for the next few months at least, Austinites and visitors can still stop by for a chicken cone or a cupcake. And while there, marvel in the fact that a few Austin entrepreneurs unknowingly turned a dirt lot into a tourist destination.