Meals on Wheels: Food Trucks Put Innovation on the Menu

By Carolina Luna

Food trucks, once the unpleasant and monotonous “roach coaches” parked on the streets, are now colorful, outrageous, and exciting mobile kitchens creating ethnic food fusions. From coast to coast Americans are falling in love with food trucks.

World Street Kitchen Food Truck

World Street Kitchen -

And what’s not to love? In Minneapolis, “World Street Kitchen” owned by brothers Saed and Samed Wadi, serves from an exquisite menu inspired by North African and Asian street carts. In Los Angeles, “Louks To Go,” offers Angelinos authentic Greek cuisine from a variety of gyros to Greek-inspired fries like spicy feta and honey mustard tzatziki fries. But these mobile kitchens are about more than simply new international flavors; they are changing the way food is marketed and sold.

It’s clear that food trucks aren’t going anywhere… err, or rather the phenomenon isn’t. Each year the National Restaurant Association (unofficial motto: “the other NRA”) surveys about 2,000 professional chefs on the hottest trends for restaurants in the U.S. The survey reported that for 2012 the humble food truck and other street food would be one of the top trends in the nation. Moreover, a healthy majority of the surveyed chefs said that they would considered launching a food truck as a entrepreneurial business venture.

There’s a lot to recommend the flexible Food Truck versus their brick and mortar cousins. The retail refrain, “location, location, location” is obviously not an issue, and small inventories, staffs, and overhead costs mean they can quickly change the menu to match.

Food trucks also have much lower barriers to entry. From permits and registrations, food, kitchen supplies, gas, insurance, maintenance, and marketing–the start-up price for a food truck can be between $30,000 to $80,000, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands needed to start a conventional eatery. Mobile kitchens also provide chefs with the flexibility to showcase their unique food creations directly to the people.

Surprisingly, the transient food truck is becoming a staple in many American communities. In a world where the public gathering areas are shrinking, food trucks provide an opportunity for the city’s residents to come together and enjoy eating in the truck’s impromptu outdoor cafes. Even when they’re not the main draw, food trucks are often invited to outdoor festivals and concerts, public art exhibitions, and baseball games. A few intrepid couples have even used the trucks to cater their weddings.

Metal Pig Shaped food truck

Of course, these mobile food vendors are also fully plugged in to social media. By using Twitter and Facebook, they keep in touch with their consumers and attract new ones. In the web, one can find numerous websites (e.g. and specifically devoted in following food trucks across the nation, in spreading the word, and connecting consumers to the industry.

According to a consumer survey conducted in 2011 by research and consulting firm Technomic, 91 percent of those who are familiar with food trucks said they view this trend as long-lasting and not as a passing fad. Only 7 percent of food truck customers expect to limit their visits for this year. The survey also pointed out that location is pivotal for this industry; 61 percent of consumers find out about mobile food trucks by “just happening upon them”. The survey in addition mentioned that only one in every five people are not familiar with or have not seen a mobile food vendor in their cities. Its biggest consumers are the”Millennial” generation, a full 42 percent of food truck consumers are between the ages of 18 and 30.

For the local governments and traditional restaurant owners, however, mobile kitchens are not groundbreaking. Instead they represent a threat to public health and their businesses, respectively. California Assemblyman Bill Monning introduced a bill prohibiting mobile food vendors from operating within 1,500 feet of a school. Monning’s reasoning is that food trucks are harmful for kids because it exposes them to “junk food”.

His main purpose, however, is to discourage school children from eating at food trucks rather than at their school cafeteria. Of course, school children should be encourage to eat healthier, but it’s fair to note this bill only applies to food trucks and not to fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Burger King. Therefore, is Monning and his supporters looking out for the best interest of children? Or are they trying to protect the interest of the restaurants and their politically-connected owners?

The Key to Success for Food Trucks

Location is key for food trucks so they park in visible, crowded areas. This usually means a few blocks away from brick-and-mortar restaurants. So the real issue for Monning and his supporters is not that food trucks pose health problems to children, but to the restaurant industry.

The Risks and Benefits Food Trucks Present to Restaurants

For restaurant owners, mobile kitchens take away their business by attracting potential customers. Others argue that food trucks don’t play by society’s rules because they avoid some taxes and regulations. It’s reasonable to say food trucks should face the same regulations as immobile eateries. In a thriving marketplace, however, competition is essential because it’s a driving force for creativity and innovation. Food trucks are not threatening the restaurant industry – if left to thrive they will challenge the conventional restaurant to provide the same hip flavors and versatile menus.

It’s not all about healthy rivalry. “Though food trucks are often equated with chefs and entrepreneurs,” points out Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of the Research and Knowledge group for the National Restaurant Association, “they also represent opportunities for operators of established restaurants to expand their operations and presence, as a majority of consumers say they would visit a food truck run by their favorite restaurant.” In other words, food trucks offer established restaurants a low-risk way to try new ingredients and dishes. Some big corporations have already seized the opportunity. Chain restaurant Chipotle and Jack-in-the-Box have their own food trucks operating in different cities across the nation.

Food trucks offer a convenience, value, and novelty that consumers value. Instead of trying to squelch the nascent market, the successful restaurants will embrace the disruptive “technology” of food trucks. With the increasing integration of location data into social media, food trucks are here – and there, and down the street – to stay.

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