Nearly 700 people fan out over a spacious grassy park. Youngsters enjoy getting their faces painted while their parents sway to the beat of a bluegrass band. More than a dozen food trucks ply their wares, which range from street-style tacos to frozen vegan desserts.
Is this a blowout weekend festival that comes but once a year? Not quite, it's just a typical summertime Monday night in Longmont's Prospect community. This is "Prospect Eats," which bills itself as "the largest weekly gathering of gourmet food trucks in Colorado."
There's little reason to doubt this description, and it's immediately apparent food trucks are the straw that stirs the drink here as crowds gravitate around their favorite vendors.
Cassia Baranello, who recently celebrated her birthday at Prospect Eats, explains the considerable appeal of this block party on steroids.
"You can hang out with friends, listen to music and eat good food," she says. "You also don't have to do the dishes."
The popularity of these events illustrates how food trucks have come a long way from what Tasterie truck owner Shannon Aten dubs "traditional roach coaches."
Hosea Rosenberg, the champion of Season 5 of TV's "Top Chef" and Blackbelly food truck owner, explains how perceptions have changed when it comes to mobile kitchens.
"For so long, people considered food trucks kind of gross," he said, "but now there's actual chefs cooking."
Aten and Rosenberg's menus show that a gourmet sensibility has displaced such outdated offerings as soggy, premade sandwiches. You're likely to find a Thai pork bowl and shrimp and sausage grits on offer at Tasterie. Rosenberg's Blackbelly spotlights specialties such as a lamb sandwich made from an animal raised on Rosenberg's farm, which shares its name with the truck, his catering business and upcoming Boulder market.
Besides good food, the social aspect is another potent part of these trucks' allure.
"Food trucks are more casual than a restaurant," Aten says. "They're more interactive."
She notes gatherings afford an opportunity to "talk to a neighbor you wouldn't necessarily be able to talk to in a restaurant."
Katey Sliker enjoys going to neighborhood food truck events because of their family friendly vibe.
"Kids can play while you can sit at a picnic table, and they have a great time," she says.
Diverse options also make it easy to accommodate the individual tastes of children and adults.
"If you have a family and one wants a burger, ice cream and pizza, you can do that," says Billy Daniels, who runs Loveland's Chaulkboard Express, a vehicle for tacos, burgers, hot dogs and other standbys.
Daniels notes you can tell family members, "Here's $5; go spend your money and meet us back at the corral."
There are public events such as the Dinner and Movie night combining food trucks and a free film in Louisville's Community Park. Yet, in some instances, local ordinances have made it difficult for food trucks to operate on public property. The private sector, notably breweries not licensed to sell food and homeowners associations, have stepped in to create a space for mobile eateries.
Berthoud's City Star Brewing encourages customers to bring in food from neighboring restaurants. It also regularly schedules food trucks such as Oskar Blues' CHUBurger Bonewagon, mostly on trivia night.
"More than just serving great craft beer, it's important to have other activities, whether it's trivia, events or a food option," says Whitney Way, City Star's co-owner and manager.
Of the trucks, she says, "That gives folks the whole package. It's just one more selling point to bring people in."
The trucks have been a successful draw, explains Way.
"It's great," she says, " ... we have town board members, folks who live in and outside of town who come."
Some homeowners associations in Broomfield, Westminster and Boulder County organize food truck parties on private property, which is the Prospect Eats model.
Laura Bloom, who coordinates a private Boulder-area neighborhood gathering, believes such events make sense in business parks and communities "where there's not a lot of restaurants nearby."
While breweries such as City Star might have only a single truck on hand, larger gatherings, such as some run by homeowners associations, mix things up, so there's significant diversity. Bloom recruits at least five trucks, with four serving savory food and one offering desserts. She also vets each for quality: "I only bring in trucks I've tasted and liked."
But given the many options at some events, picking a food truck can be overwhelming. Insiders encourage experimentation.
"Walk through it like a food court," advises Edward Vanegas, founder of Prospect Eats, "and pick your favorite." On the next visit, he counsels, "pick a different one."
"You can just get tasters and not feel obligated since you're not taking up a table," Rosenberg says. "It's a cheaper way to try things out."
Says Aten: "Ask for a chef's suggestion. "That's always a good idea."
The economics of running a food truck can mean different things to different operators. Rosenberg views his mobile venue as an outreach effort for his other ventures.
"Food trucks are just amazing marketing," he says. "You won't get rich, but it's a roving billboard that gets the word out."
For others, food trucks have been an economic lifeline.
Four years ago, Chaulkboard's Daniels was laid off from his corporate food job. After working with a small business-development center in Loveland, he decided he'd open a food truck, something he figured he'd be doing later in life.
"I thought I'd be doing it when I was 80, just to do something when I'm older. I'm not 80. But I couldn't get a job."
Now, Daniels appears content with the current state of his business.
"Do I want to grow a lot? No, I want to be right where I'm at."
Tasterie's Aten entertains acquiring more trucks or a storefront. That's exactly what happened with Vanegas' Urban Thai concept, which started out as a refurbished hot dog cart, serving such fare as pad thai noodles and fresh mango with sweet sticky rice. He and partner Paul Chansingthong now have a brick-and-mortar venue in Prospect. Vanegas also observes that Comida, a Prospect restaurant known for its Mexican street fare, also originated as a food truck.
Vanegas says food trucks create cascading community economic benefits. A much greater percentage of dollars spent at a local food truck stays in the community than the same amount of money spent at a national chain restaurant. Truck employees are generally from the area and their wages are more likely to stay in the community, as does money paid to nearby suppliers, such as farmers. Vanegas concludes, "It keeps money local."
Community is a theme that comes up again and again with respect to cooperation among food truck vendors and how the parties bring neighborhoods together.
Rosenberg says of the operators: "There's total camaraderie, we're not competitive."
In a broader sense, Kevin Curtis, Prospect Eats' current organizer, sees this event as a chance to "bring Longmont into Prospect."
Looking out at the crowd enjoying the evening at Prospect, he says,"It's a special community-building thing, creating opportunities for people to come out and be together."
As food trucks become increasingly part of the community fabric, what does the future hold for them?
Rosenberg acknowledges what organizers such as Bloom have done to create spaces for food trucks to grow. He also points to the presence of truck pods at events such as Riot Fest, a music festival in Denver attracting hordes, as evidence of food trucks' permanence.
"It's a part of Americana now," he says. "They're here to stay."
Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel contributed to this report.