It’s time to grow or die for Ron Swanby, who brought his barbecue truck and equipment to Kennewick’s Columbia Gardens Urban Wine and Artisan Village a little over a year ago.
Swanby, owner of Swampy’s BBQ Sauce and Eatery, wants to buy a sliver of land at the Port of Kennewick-owned site to build the small kitchen he needs to take his business to the next level and begin earning a proper salary.
He brought the food truck to Columbia Gardens, near the cable bridge, in early 2020. He started shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the economy and forced him to temporarily shut down.
The truck later reopened. Revenue covered operating costs and employee paychecks, but Swanby himself took no salary in 2020.
“The big picture is I’ve been given a timeline. If you’re not making it a business, why are you doing it,” he said. “If I’m going to meet my goals, then I need to grow.”
Ideally, he will secure the land and develop the 600- to 700-square-foot kitchen by the end of the year. If he succeeds, he will move his truck and barbecue station across the parking lot.
Swanby announced his plan to buy the land during the public comment portion of a port commission meeting in March. Normally, real estate deals are negotiated in private, as allowed under Washington’s Open Meetings Act.
Swanby said took the unusual step to make his intentions clear.
“My No. 1 choice is Columbia Gardens. But if it cannot happen in a timely fashion, I will look elsewhere. I will move elsewhere,” he said.
Port of Kennewick commissioners planned to discuss the request April 13, said Tim Arntzen, the port’s executive director. Results from this meeting weren’t available by the deadline for this publication.
Arntzen said he appreciates what Swanby has accomplished at Columbia Gardens, but there are obstacles to selling property.
The commission wants a fully developed master plan for the property before it sells land for private development. At the moment, staff is focused on other priorities, he said. Too, it needs to set a proper price for the site and others within the area.
The challenges are surmountable, he noted. At least two other buyers have expressed interest in Columbia Gardens and a local Kiwanis Club wants space to build a playground.
“Ron raises some good issues not only for himself, but other folks who want to do business at the wine village,” Arntzen said.
Swanby said he needs to adapt the business to reach his financial goals. As a food truck, Swampy’s has reached its operational limits.
For one, Washington law requires food trucks to have a legal commissary kitchen or licensed home base.
For Swanby, that’s Pasco Specialty Kitchen. He pays rent but seldom visits.
The new kitchen will serve as his commissary and will be available to his fellow Columbia Gardens truck-based food businesses.
Having an on-site commissary will let him switch up the menu more than he does now, he said.
It also will let him serve food at Columbia Gardens when the truck is off-site for catering gigs, a common occurrence. For now, when the truck is gone, the business is closed.
He publicizes hours on social media, but the irregular hours are an irritant to both Swanby and his fans.
“Thank God for social media,” he said.
The food truck’s small size and nonexistent storage space limits the amount of food he can prepare. The proposed kitchen would be six times bigger than the truck.
He said he routinely runs out and closes early the four days a week he is open at Columbia Gardens. Without storage, he shops for groceries every day he is open, or as he put it, “I. Shop. Every. Single. Day.”
He would like to open later and more days, but the current set up is too exhausting.
“If I opened more, I would burn out,” he said.
Catering is a growing part of the business that lets him take a salary. He is booked weekends through the summer season.
If he’s allowed to proceed, Swanby said he will create a barbecue vibe but not an actual restaurant. After touring barbecue businesses across Texas, he was struck by the culture around outdoor venues where guests dined under canopies.
The Covid-19 pandemic only reinforced that he does not want to be in the brick-and-mortar business. Instead, he will set up outdoor tables with some sort of canopy.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where I have space I can’t use,” he said.
Swanby is targeting a port-owned site fronting Columbia Drive at the entrance to Columbia Gardens. Property records say the property has 4,356 square feet and a market value of $31,320.
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