Tate Norden started the Iron & Grain Mobile Bar and Grill back in 2015. The food truck, the first in Connecticut with a liquor license, was a rebirth of sorts for Norden after his previous life in the marketing world. One of his agency’s clients was Nestle Purina, and Norden helped them create a food truck for dogs that went all over the country.
As he became aware of the bustling food truck culture throughout the nation, Norden knew it was something Connecticut needed. But it wasn’t just about the trucks; it was about experiential dining as a whole. Norden says that traditional restaurants, even in the midst of a pandemic, aren’t going away, but people are always on the lookout for different, more casual experiences with plenty of options where they can try new things and meet new people.
GastroPark officially opened in October on New Park Avenue in the Elmwood section of West Hartford. (Unofficially, Norden began giving food trucks a place to park at his unfinished site back in April in response to the shutdown.) A rotating schedule of trucks, including regulars like Craftbird, The Green Grunion and Bear’s Smokehouse, pull into the U-shaped lot Wednesday through Sunday and set up shop. “All that we really ask of the trucks is that they have a passion for their product and they try to work with us in promoting their brand and their appearances at the GastroPark,” Norden says. “But really we’re trying to let them be entrepreneurs. We just want to provide them with a venue.”
The number of trucks varies from two to four depending on the day. On an unseasonably warm October Friday night we enjoy food from Taphouse Street Kitchen and Gmonkey — Sultan Kebab had been there during lunch hours — and cocktails and craft beers from a beverage kiosk. On a cold December Wednesday afternoon we sample offerings from Fuego Picante and Cousins Maine Lobster. “There’s a lot of extremely talented chefs and culinary minds in the state of Connecticut, and throughout the region for that matter, but the cost of opening a restaurant is very high right now,” Norden says. “We hope that places like the GastroPark can be a stepping stone for somebody who’s looking to test out an idea or launch a concept.”
There is plenty of well-spaced outdoor seating (with heat lamps on every table) in a gravel courtyard betwixt the trucks and the building, a remodeled former auto repair facility that was scheduled to open for inside dining by the end of December. Norden says the interior will be rustic yet modern with a beer garden feel. In addition, Small State Provisions operates a microbakery in the space and will provide baked goods and coffee in the morning hours.
While it may appear that Norden is being opportunistic by opening a food truck park at a time when indoor dining has been massively scaled back, that’s simply not the case. The frustration many restaurant owners have been dealing with over the past year when it comes to zoning, regulations and protocols is nothing new to Norden. “I’d love to sit here and say that I had a crystal ball and knew this was gonna happen,” he says. “But no, we’ve been working on this — I first approached the town of West Hartford in 2016.”
637 New Park Ave., West Hartford
Open Wed.-Sun. (hours vary)