If you live in Orick or are planning to pass through the area to visit Redwood National Park this summer, chances are you will have a hard time finding a fresh, hot meal.
This is something the Orick Chamber of Commerce is trying to remedy, as the town has long suffered from a food scarcity problem. Chamber President Donna Hufford said the organization is eyeing Humboldt food trucks as part of the solution to increase food options in the area for both residents and tourists. The chamber recently did an all-call to Humboldt Food Trucks on Facebook, in hopes that a few might be interested in staying for the summer, which is the most economically lucrative time for the small town of about 300 people and a heap of elk.
"We considered getting a food truck up here and we were hopeful that someone — who's established already a little bit south of us — would maybe have a day or two free, and they could come up here and set up," Hufford says.
Last summer, Orick received attention from an NPR reporter who visited and noted its dilapidated ambiance was reminiscent of the "setting for a zombie movie." One year later, little has changed. While the redwoods stand tall and strong, the buildings and businesses nearby are withering, closing down or, in the case of the Green Valley Motel, getting demolished in the name of renovation.
Hufford recalls several places to eat locally when she first came to Orick back in the 1970s. Among those, the Palm Cafe — formerly connected to the Palm Motel — which closed after numerous health code violations. The hotel reopened under new management but the restaurant was never revived. Popular Mexican restaurant La Hacienda also shuttered, according to Hufford.
"We've just encountered a loss of food service here in our community," says Hufford. "We've had at least a half a dozen different places that food was available over the years, and now we are down to just the Snack Shack." That's EdeBee's Snack Shack, which serves burgers, fries, tots and hotdogs. Alternatives, including fresh fruits and veggies, are scarce, according to Hufford. The town does have two small convenience stores: the Orick Market and the Shoreline Market. These offer snacks, but minimal fruits and vegetables. Neither carries fresh meat, so most residents make the more than 30-minute journey to Eureka, McKinleyville or Crescent City to do their grocery shopping.
"Orick has many people who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness," says Lisa Bell, the community school coordinator for the Orick School District. "When the power goes out from winter storms, it's particularly hard on the Orick community because many people here don't have back-up electrical or gas stoves to cook with, as was the case last winter, not once, but twice. "A food truck or two would have really helped our community. Not everyone has a vehicle or a reliable vehicle to travel over the hill to Klamath, or the 112 miles round trip to Crescent City, or even the 40 miles round trip to Trinidad to the markets, and there are no farmer's markets in Orick."
Food trucks could help bring both variety and better food access to the area, but there are conditions that might make it difficult for someone to maintain a business long-term. That's why Hufford says the chamber is looking for a seasonal partner from summer to the start of fall in September or October, when visitors come through town and a truck's profits would be highest.
"We're right here on the highway; we're the gateway to the Redwood National Park. The visitor center off the beach often gets a thousand visitors a day. That's just people that stop there," Hufford says. "So we have tremendous traffic going through the town and a food truck would be very visible, and I think what we believe would be a profitable spot for them."
Orick School District Superintendent Amanda Platt, agrees. "Anyone who sits for just a short time will see the stream of vehicles with out-of-state plates that cruise right through, because there is no reason to stop," Platt says. "We need more than a food truck .... Orick is a gem, unparalleled beauty and gateway to the redwoods. Little known fact: It is a World Unesco site."
Hufford says about four or five truck owners have expressed interest, but they would likely have to make a year's salary in about the six or seven busier months to make a reasonable profit selling in the area year-round. "One of the hold-ups is that [the interested food truck owners] were looking to be here more permanently, you know, maybe every day, and when we envisioned it, we were thinking maybe a truck might come up here a couple days a week, and then another truck might come up a couple of days a week, something like that," she says.
Trucks also need access to a kitchen. According to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, trucks must be used "in conjunction with a commissary," where food is prepped, cooked and stored. Trucks must also report to the commissary each operating day for cleaning and the restocking of hot, cold and or potentially hazardous food. "There are a couple of commercial kitchens," Hufford says. "But so far, no one's been able to connect with those entities to see if they could rent that space."
It might be wishful thinking, but Hufford says the chamber would like to find the means to purchase one of the existing vacant buildings to lease as a restaurant. However, it hasn't come up with a funding source.
The Redwood Region Economic Development Commission has helped get Orick funding in the past by securing the new owner of the Palm Motel, Hufford's son Gregory Hufford, a loan to renovate. He even offered a temporary free spot for a food truck, if the town can secure one. Donna Hufford says she still hopes the cafe will reopen again, as well.
RREDC Executive Director Gregg Foster says one of the area's greatest challenges in bringing in new business is its lack of local governance. "They have the Community Services District and they have a chamber, but they don't have, like, a government entity that's solely responsible for them, advocating for them getting projects done," says Foster. "So we're doing what we can to help and kind of keep their voice heard."
While the hunt for a food truck continues, Orick residents can at least rely somewhat on monthly food delivery. Bell says the school district provides a location for Food for People to deliver groceries and for Open Door Medical Services to come in on the third Thursday of the month. But it isn't enough to fill the gaps in service.
Bell says the school is trying to educate youth on growing their own fresh produce through a community garden program but the local elk are beating them to the harvest. "We love the elk in Orick but it's very hard to keep a garden without having the elk eat it," Bell says. "Some of our planning money was authorized by the state to fund a tall fence to help keep out the local elk herd, for a community and school garden." She added the district just received a sizable soil donation from Royal Gold and is hoping to get funding to purchase a hoop house for growing plants, teaching outdoors, or giving the community a place to meet during the rainy season.
Other community leaders, such as Donna Hufford's daughter Kimberly Frick, Ron Barlow, chairman for the Orick Community Services District, and Leonel Arguello with Redwood National State Parks, echoed the calls for additional investment into the community's infrastructure and restaurant business. The old La Hacienda building could be revamped, but its kitchen needs major repairs, according to Frick. So for now, they are championing a food truck as a good temporary solution and economic driver.
"When there's food here, we will spend," Arguello says. "But we're sitting there in our offices eating leftover soup from the night before because there's no food."
Carly Wipf (she/her) is a freelance reporter based in Eureka.