Todd Barricklow is a 41-year-old artist and engineer who's always been into food. The ceramicist spent seven years working at a pizza parlor and after graduating from Sonoma State University as a studio art major, went on to become the artist in residence for the Arts/Industry Program at the Kohler Company in Wisconsin, where a majority of his work focused on food and digestion. Though Barricklow had paid his dues in the art world, exhibiting his ceramics all over California, it wasn't until he traveled through Japan and Amsterdam that he felt inspired by the city's bike culture to conceive a contraption that get him noticed by the food world: the taco bike.
Barricklow and I chatted recently about international street food, his first taco bike, and whether or not he'll be keeping his day job.
How did you start building bikes? I went to Japan in 2001 and was really impressed by their bike culture and street food scene. We ate food from what appeared to be meter maid vehicles with fire pits on the back. One of our favorites came from this little cart that served steamed yams wrapped in newspaper with no condiments—it was that simple, and it was delicious. In 2008, my wife and I went to Paris and Amsterdam and in between eating crêpes from sidewalk pushcarts at 2 a.m., I became really obsessed with these cargo bikes, which are three-wheel bikes built for carrying cargo, that are everywhere. I have about 30 pictures of my family from that trip, and more like 500 of these bikes. When I came home, I started building by cutting up different bikes and welding pieces together. I built crazy bikes, one of which has two eight-foot wheels. I take my kids to the grocery store in it and ride it to the pub. Around town I became known as the guy who makes bikes.
When did the taco bike come to be? My friend Timothy Holt, co-owner of the San Francisco restaurant Weird Fish, told me he's had a three-wheel bike chained to a post in front of his restaurant for two and a half years. One day he approached me with the idea of putting a griddle on it so he could ride around and make and sell tacos. We worked on the logistics for a while; he told me what he really wanted, and I told him what was actually possible. We also had to take the health department's requirements into account.
What did the health department require? Three sinks: one for washing food, one for washing dishes, and the third for washing your hands. That's not possible, of course. I had a friend who wanted a waffle bike, but he became too frustrated by the health department and decided not to pursue it. They're incapable of deviating from their list of requirements. At one point they told him he must have food grade rubber tires. Despite its one sink, the taco bike is up to code and it doesn't have any rats or roaches, which I'm sure you can't say for a lot of restaurants. The bike is also really green; it has a grey water container for collecting the waste water from the hot water sink. We're leaving nothing behind but empty wallets and full bellies.
Tell me about some of the taco bike's other features. The bike's upwards of 200 pounds because it's like a mini restaurant on wheels. Timothy has a segmented grill; the first section is for tortillas and the other three are partitioned off so the fish doesn't touch the vegan options. It also has a dining area where the condiments go and a slot for money so Timothy doesn't have to touch it while cooking.
How long did it take you to build the bike? What challenges did you face along the way? It took about three months and a lot of that time was spent standing around with a beer in my hand, scratching my head, and wondering, "How the hell is this going to work?" Conceptually, I found it challenging. I didn't know if it was possible to have a small restaurant on three wheels and if it was, could you still peddle the bike? The most difficult part was tracking down all of the parts I needed. I was ordering parts from RV supply stores, home brewing stores, camping stores, chemical and liquid processing stores, and industrial restaurant supply stores.
What do you have in the works now? Are you building any other food-related bikes? I'm currently building three simultaneously. The first is for a guy in Oakland who wants to use it more as dispensing bike. He's going to cook the food at home then the bike will have a steam table that keeps everything at 140°F. The second is for my wife, who wants a crêpe bike, so hers is going to have a big, fat round griddle that's bound to the bike so it doesn't bounce off. The last one I'm building is to use as a reference if more people commission me. It will have the basic features; I'm calling it "The Standard."
Would you consider turning this into a full-time business? My wife and I have been talking about that. I'm still trying to decide. I could see myself opening up a little shop around the corner and hiring friends with similar skill sets to make the parts, that way assembly would only take a day or two. What interests me even more is selling these bikes as kits, with instructions for putting them together, with the most basic parts provided, and a list of retailers for other part options. I feel like these bikes are going to completely explode or totally die down and if it's the latter, I don't want to be the guy who took out a two-year lease for a space to build these things.
Do you think taco bikes stand a chance of replacing taco trucks? I'm not sure if it will happen, but I'd love to see that. For the most part, I'm happy to see bicycles taking over everything. The last thing we need is to be using more things with motors. The great thing about these bikes is they're the ultimate in micro-local distribution. Timothy was saying that there are so few sunny days in San Francisco and when there are, he's stuck in the kitchen for 10 hours a day. With a few hours of prep work, the taco bike enables him to go out in the community, talk to people, and distribute his food locally; he never goes further than a few blocks from his restaurant. It's the best-case scenario: it lowers overhead for him and the food is cheap. I was thinking I could build a sink bike, a grill bike, a condiment bike, etc. and these bikes could line up on the street and form a fully mobile restaurant. Let's have bikes take over!