Tate Norden founded Iron & Grain Co. in 2015. Hungry to create more regional experiential dining experiences, in 2016, he developed the concept for GastroPark, a family-friendly, indoor/outdoor venue with a dynamic selection of local food trucks, craft beers, and wine.
NAN PRICE: How did your interest in entrepreneurship begin?
TATE NORDEN: I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My parents dabbled with entrepreneurism and romanticized owning their own business, but they never really took the leap. Having a family can certainly prevent people from taking that leap. Watching my parents experience the ups and downs of employment made me want to be in control of my own professional future. I also knew this was the time to take the leap, before life’s other responsibilities came into play.
NAN: How did you decide on the food industry? And why food trucks?
TATE: Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure which route I was going to take. Out of college, I worked for a media company that sent me all over the country doing strategy and sales for different types of audio marketing campaigns. One of the accounts I worked on was a Nestlé Purina brand. We created a food truck for dogs. That experience sparked my interest in the mobile food experiential dining space. I got to execute sampling appearances for Nestlé Purina at food truck events all over the country—Boston, Chicago, San Diego, down south, and here in Connecticut at Celebrate West Hartford.
I got to experience the food culture and the food truck culture in a lot of different places and see how it was evolving. I talked to food truck operators, who stressed the importance of private event revenue. That’s where I got the concept of Iron & Grain—wanting to create a food truck built around experiential dining in a way that wasn’t just your typical box truck but was more like a restaurant that provided food and bar services. Starting with the Iron & Grain food truck was a way to dip my toe in the water before seriously going into this whole food truck park exploration.
NAN: So, you knew you eventually wanted to grow the concept to a park.
TATE: In visiting other alternative markets with Nestlé, I saw a lot of cool experiential dining concepts for opening food truck parks. Some featured trucks on a fixed or rotating basis, some featured pop-ups. They had different ways to help restaurants. That’s actually what planted the seed for the GastroPark, seeing how these types of concepts have become popular, not just because of consumer demand, but also because of the economics.
The cost of owning and operating a restaurant has become very expensive. And, if you want to rake in that market space, it’s a huge risk. You’re really mortgaging your future. So, we wanted to create a space that was going to be a venue not just for people to come together, but for small businesses to test their business assumptions. A new business could do a couple of pop-ups, then maybe try a truck and expand. Or, those with an established food truck business could use the space to keep growing.
Food trucks are a great way to support locally owned and operated businesses, too. These are your neighbors. These are everyday people who are following their dreams to become business owners.
As a state and as a community, we need to provide more venues to allow people to pursue their small business dreams. That comes in the form of things like experiential dining concepts or farmer’s markets, giving people opportunities to showcase what they can do. There are a lot of tremendously talented people in this state and in this area. But there needs to be venues for people to get their foot in the door and to be show their face, their food, their product, their culture to the community.
I think GastroPark can be a space that can bring people together in a safe area while getting to really experience all the local small businesses that the state has that are sometimes hard to find because of a lack of opportunity.
NAN: Tell us a little about getting the project off the ground.
TATE: I started the project singularly; however, I’ve been working with a team that includes two co-founders. GastroPark is and always will be a collaborative effort.
In the summer of 2016, I approached the town of West Hartford to implement zoning for food trucks and food truck parks in general. In the spring of 2017, the town passed the first initial round of food truck park ordinances or zoning—there have been a few since then. And then, in August of 2017, we purchased this property.
Since then, we’ve been working through the various zoning challenges. We had to put this property on the sewer line, so that required multiple easements and dealing with the Metropolitan District (MDC). In February 2019, we found out we had to move all our parking from the front of the building to behind. So, we had to build this a retaining wall, which obviously took considerable time and resources. That’s been a huge and costly setback.
NAN: It’s been a long process. Have you been worried you bit off more than you could chew?
TATE: I think everybody has doubts, but I remain a firm believer in my ability to not only execute this concept, but to let the concept execute itself. Things take time. It’s definitely had its frustrating moments. It’s like when you’re hiking and you see a false peak and you think you’re so close, but then you realize you have a little farther to go. I haven’t been dissuaded by that. It’s been a great lesson in patience.
NAN: When do you anticipate GastroPark will open?
TATE: The Coronavirus has impacted some of our funding and naturally slowed down our progress, as you might expect. My goal is to get the outside with a walkway to access the restrooms fully finished for August. Once we’ve got the doors open, we’ll have time to complete the rest of the indoor seating area to be ready for the cooler weather.
NAN: In what ways do food trucks create economic opportunity for small businesses, especially during this pandemic?
TATE: Food trucks are almost a recession-proof type business. Food truck owners can lower their overhead and tighten their belts when things get tough. At the same time, they provide a very efficient food source when it comes to a pandemic because food trucks have fewer people involved in the food production process. One to four people oversee the process from start to finish. So, there’s a lot less opportunity for potential cross contamination, which is obviously a top-of-mind concern right now.
Our ability to provide a large, open outdoor space where people can socially distance dine and can access mobile outdoor kitchens that are being operated by far fewer individuals, I think, is ultimately a wise thing.