Roach Coach to Hipster Fare: the Rise of the Food Trucks

(This week's column is a little different. This is a paper I wrote for my hospitality and tourism class.)

Few entertainment options have gone through such a dramatic transformation as the formerly humble food truck. Once despised by connoisseurs and dubbed roach coaches (Lempert) by those who viewed them as unsanitary and unsavory, these mobile food kitchens are now hot commodities with devoted followers hunting them down via twitter and other apps (Romano). By using a mix of convenience, sustainability, social media and intriguing fusions of more traditional food styles, food trucks have gone from objects of scorn to culinary idols. They have taken over the space of what used to be one of the most successful restaurants in the world (Walker) and are now invading Europe (Coffer). This rapid change in status is fascinating.

Twenty years ago, in 1989, mobile food was almost entirely confined to pushcarts, with the owners concerned about superficial details that helped draw crowds (Durocher). Umbrellas touting the brand or type of food being sold were critical, as were attractive wheels and an interesting body of the cart. Consultant Ray Petit said "Color is needed to draw customers' attention to the cart. Brightly colored umbrellas, canopies, or food displays all help to catch the eye. It's important to remember that the entire cart is a merchandising tool." Much like food trucks today, these pushcarts would often congregate near large offices, with more than fifty carts at a park near the Albany, New York capital building. The carts offered more than just hotdogs, with mobile salad bars, ice cream, pizza and slightly more exotic food like souvlaki available.

In 1990 catering companies were beginning to roll out mobile food trucks, but they were expensive, a hundred thousand each, and used to give the caterers an option of cooking onsite (Townsend). One corporate executive said "In many cities, we have to find an existing kitchen, such as a school or college kitchen, and rent it for the duration. No one gives us their kitchen for nothing." By using the mobile trucks they were able to provide their own kitchen, one their employees were familiar with.

By 1998 the kiosk, a forerunner of today's gourmet food truck, was cited as a growing trend, "the fastest progressing segment in the food industry with an estimated 15.8% growth in 1997" (Kiosk Culture). Disney World alone had 120 themed food carts, with many fresh fruit and vegetable options, along with a small vegetarian menu.

In 2009 sustainable food trucks began hitting the market, including a truck put together by MIT students that offered vegetarian, locally sourced food (Sustainable Food Truck). By the following year trucks like Border Grill's were designed to run on biodiesel, which was also used for powering the generator on board the truck, allowing the truck to run on the cooking oil generated by all of the restaurants (Rowe). This not only saved on fuel costs, but gave guests another reason to feel good about using the food truck.

In March of the same year social media and food trucks were now closely linked. Chef Roy Choi, proprietor of the extremely popular Kogi Korean taco truck, credited Twitter with his phenomenal success (Romano). He used Twitter, YouTube and his blog to engage customers, inform them of the truck's whereabouts, let them know when he is running late and involve them in the truck's success via contests and the posting of fan videos. His campaign paid off with crowds of hundreds lining up when he tweeted the truck's next location.

By the end of the year the backlash against food trucks, a sure sign they are popular, had begun. A councilman in Los Angeles complained about Kogi's success, saying it wasn't fair to brick and mortar restaurants, which have a higher overhead (Sanson). In what sounds like a possible case of police harassment, he "forwarded complaints from traditional restaurants to the police department, which has been issuing tickets to truck owners for minor violations. The truck owners, in turn, stated the L.A. police were being used to stifle competition." Food trucks were accused of "stealing" customers of the more traditional eateries. A policy analyst responded by saying "The restaurant owners should instead be trying to win customers through better food, prices and services, and embrace the competition because the free market is what we are supposed to believe in this country." This sparked a debate that continues to this day.

Not every restaurateur was against the food truck concept. Baja Fresh purchased a food truck chain to supplement their brick and mortar eateries in October of 2009, the same month the cheating food truck piece ran (Baja Fresh). The newly purchased company, Calbi Fusion Tacos and Burritos, also sold Korean short ribs, just like Kogi.

So popular had food trucks become by mid 2011 other types of businesses were looking to emulate the success of the mobile eateries (Lempert). Phil Lempert, a contributing editor of Supermarket News, described food truck chefs as passionate multi-taskers who excelled at their business and asked how supermarkets would learn and grow from the new breed of entrepreneurs.

In July of the same year positive public opinion of food trucks was at a new high, with 91 percent of respondents who were aware of food trucks (eighty percent of everyone polled) saying they believed food trucks were more than a passing fad (Technomic). Interestingly, despite many trucks massive success with social media more than sixty percent of those polled said they stumble across food trucks by chance. 54 percent also said if they hadn't eaten from a food truck they would have gone to a fast food restaurant, implying that sit down brick and mortar restaurants that worry about losing guests to food trucks may not be in as much danger as they fear.

In January of this year food trucks were drawing ink not just for being savvy, affordable and interesting; but also for being an attraction to cities themselves (Jennings). Consultant Aaron Noveshen said, "Cities want food trucks. They create buzz and excitement. They create a liveliness to urban centers. People like them." That's a far cry from the old "roach coaches" that drew some hungry people, but mostly derision.

Meanwhile the food truck frenzy was expanding to Europe with such offerings as burritos, American style barbecue and Moroccan fish (Coffer). While mostly still in England, one lone food truck was braving the inhospitable to mobile food city of Paris.

The final proof of the food truck's rise in popularity may be that the Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that was making almost forty million dollars and serving more than half a million guests per year (Walker), is now a food court with four food trucks offering a variety of foods ranging in price from around three to ten dollars (Tavern On The Green). The formerly humble food truck has definitely arrived.

Works Cited
"Baja Fresh Mexican Grill Chief Executive David Kim and Investors Acquired Calbi Fusion Tacos and Burritos." The Food Institute Report 12 Oct. 2009: 5. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Coffer, David. "Pop-up Restaurants, Food Trucks Go Global." Nation's Restaurant News 5 Mar. 2012: 14. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Durocher, Joseph. "Going Mobile." Restaurant Business 20 May 1989: 222+. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Jennings, Lisa. "(17) Food trucks: Trend Keeps Rolling into New Markets, Creating Tension with Stationary Operators." Nation's Restaurant News 23 Jan. 2012: 22. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

"Kiosk Culture Fast and Fresh Fits." ID: The Voice of Foodservice Distribution June 1998: S16+. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Lempert, Phil. "What's Next for Food Trucks and Supermarkets?" Supermarket News 4 July 2011. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Romano, Andrew. "Now 4 Restaurant 2.0." Newsweek 9 Mar. 2009: 55. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Rowe, Megan. "Meals On Wheels: Are You Ready to Launch a Road Version of Your Restaurant? Here's a Reality Check." Restaurant Hospitality May 2010: 30+. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Sanson, Michael. "Are Gourmet Food Trucks Cheating?" Restaurant Hospitality Oct. 2009: 6. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

"Sustainable Food Truck Debuts: a Vegetarian Option Joins MIT's Mobile Food Ranks." FoodService Director 15 Jan. 2009: 8. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

"Tavern on the Green Reopens as Food Court." Nation's Restaurant News 8 Nov. 2010: 6. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012

"Technomic Study Says Food Trucks Have Staying Power." Travel & Leisure Close-Up 21 July 2011. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Townsend, Rob. "Mobile Kitchens Become Foodservice Driving Force." Restaurants & Institutions 22 Aug. 1990: 175+. Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Walker, John R. Introduction to Hospitality. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.