Twists, Turns and Trends for the Modern Food Truck

The original incarnation of a mobile meal was usually a late night last resort or a pit stop for lunch on a busy day, not necessarily somewhere you’d think of waiting in hour-long lines.  They were home to common street fare such as your average hot dog or maybe a generic sandwich.  No longer is any of this the case.   Food carts are now the trendiest hot spot, a place with loyal followers who expect nothing less than gourmet cuisine…at a reasonable price, of course.

FoodTruckToday you can truly get just about any type of delicacy just by walking down the street (and probably waiting anywhere from 10-40 minutes).  An article on Eater.com, says that the Rib Whip truck in San Francisco boasts it’s on-board smoker, to serve up pulled-pork and beef brisket.  To add even more variety to the bunch, Coolhaus, itself peddling gourmet ice cream sandwiches, has developed a food truck…for dogs.  The Phydough Truck, launched on January 8th in Los Angeles, serves up cookies, ice cream and bake-at-home dough in such flavors as Duck Fat, PB & Bacon and Foie Gras, all of which can be eaten by man’s best friend and their human.

Why the sudden shift to mobile food (other than the fabulous fare)?  Like everything else, the economy has had its effect on the restaurant world.  In a Los Angeles Times article, former Hermosa Beach mayor and current owner of Barbie’s Q, John Bowler, said that it cost only about $40,000 to open his truck about $160,000 less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant.   That’s not to mention that while most restaurants stress about location, location, location, if your place is on wheels, you can pick and go where the customers are.

Unique advertising and good timing can also be thanked for the boost in trucks in a downturn economy.  Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites have played a huge part in the transportation food industry.  Owners and workers can simply put up a status with today’s specials or tweet their lunch location, head there with their goods and (TA-DA!) throngs of customers.  Well, there is a bit more to it, but that is the basis of many of these roaming restaurant’s marketing plans.  John Ban, of West Coast Tacos in Indianapolis, said, “Social Networking has been a great advantage for our business because we have not spent any money on marketing.”  He went on to touch on just why this new tech tool is so invaluable.  “We have a more personal relationship with our customers through social media.  It allows us to interact with our fans around the city very easily,” said Ban.  However, like any business, especially a new one, timing is always the easiest in with an audience.  Ban’s West Coast Tacos, saw the food truck boom in other cities, like L.A., and felt the time was right to jump on the chance to be the first to start up the trend in Indy.

If low costs and cheap marketing are making you want to jump in your van and serve up some grub of your own, you may want to first know that there are some significant downsides the non-traditional restaurant scene as well.

The major bump in the road for so many vendors has been getting permits for serving in a vehicle.  Many cities have strict rules about what can and cannot be done inside a vehicle, which can put a damper on serving items that aren’t pre-packaged in a kitchen before the day begins.   In recent weeks, several articles have come up on crack downs on food trucks in Chicago.  One such article, on food.change.org, said that “Chicago officials claim that these anti-food truck ordinances (no altering food and parking up to 200 feet from a restaurant) exist in order to protect consumers’ health and safety.”  However, in Chicago and many other cities, a majority of the squabble has been that restaurant owners worry about having food trucks competition, park right outside their business and taking away customers.

Another obstacle the vehicles face is also due to that wonderful upside mentioned earlier: location.  While it’s beneficial to be able to cruise around to customers, being relatively unsheltered from the elements can pose a few problems.  Going out in the frigid, frosty mess for lunch can be a little less than inviting which cuts down on customers.  In an article in The Washington Post when asked how the cold has affected business, “Operators of four trucks say their sales have dropped by 40 to 50 percent from peak numbers.”  That isn’t even taking into account money lost on food, gas, etc. that must be spent on a daily basis to keep the business going and those inside the trucks warm enough to operate.

So far these obstacles haven’t stopped food truck operators from working on fresh and creative ways to keep on going.  In Oregon, many mobile businesses are attempting to get licensing to sell alcohol, according to OregonLive.com.   The article states that selling brews would give owners of food trucks the chance to “make a living in the increasingly crowded Portland food-cart industry while also attracting customers to neighboring mobile restaurants.”   And while not a possibility at the moment, there may even come a day when a restaurant may not only sport wheels, but also wings.  Recently an article on Curbed Los Angeles even reported that an architecture class at USC, taught by Jennifer Siegal, challenged students to create the future of the business.  Submissions included everything from wings that caught rain water for future use to a donut delivery system that will drive over a car and drop in pastries and coffee.

Until wings can be made small enough to prevent trucks from hitting passersby, before a new super social media site is created and pending any delicious new delicacies, the success of food trucks today and in the future can be summed up with this advice, courtesy of John Ban:  “Make sure your product is of very high quality, because the number one reason why our business grew was because our Tacos were made from the best ingredients and meats. This created numerous return customers for us and they spread the word about our Taco Truck. Word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing. People always listen to recommendations from another person, but people don’t always pay attention to commercials or advertisements.”

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