Food on the Run
Every time I visit my family in Oahu, the trip isn’t complete for me until we’ve gone up to the North Shore for a plate of shrimp scampi from Giovanni’s. This business was founded in 1993 and was the first shrimp truck to set up alongside the road and sell its food to passing motorists and locals. Many of the trucks are in the Kahuku area which is known for its aquaculture, so it’s likely that the shrimp on your plate today was swimming in the nearby ponds yesterday. When you consider the quality of the food, the setting (the North Shore of Hawaii!), and the ambience of sitting at a picnic table in a covered pavilion next to a monkey pod tree while a tropical breeze blows, it’s an unmatched experience.
Flash forward almost 20 years and foodies on the mainland are discovering what the islanders have known for decades: Food from trucks doesn’t have to be limited to doughnuts and sandwiches prepared elsewhere and sold out of the side of a lunch wagon. The current food-truck trend seems to have been jump-started with the birth of Twitter and a chef in Los Angeles who combined Korean BBQ with Mexican tacos then tweeted his location as he drove around town. He became an almost overnight sensation and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. At last month’s National Restaurant Association (NRA) annual show in Chicago, a Food Truck Spot devoted completely to the mobile food movement was twice the size of the exhibit from the year before and featured six such vehicles.
The relatively low financial barrier to entry (compared to a bricks-and-mortar location), less government regulation, and lower overhead costs have many budding entrepreneurs staking their own spot on downtown streets and lots selling burgers, cupcakes, soup, salads, grilled cheese, crepes, and just about anything else that can be prepared in a limited-space environment with minimal equipment. And adding the final missing piece of the puzzle, earlier this month the Pera Turkish Taco Truck in New York City was granted the first ever liquor license issued to a food truck.
As Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) noted during the NRA show, other advantages of the trucks include “.. They serve as billboards for the brand, appeal to social-network savvy Milleninials and influencers, and can serve as test outlets for established restaurants.” They are also convenient and offer more freedom for creativity and innovation.
However, the movement is starting to experience significant resistance and complaints from local traditional restaurant operators who see these upstarts as rivals who face far less scrutiny and regulation while luring customers out their doors and into the parking lots. Lawmakers are also taking notice, questioning the ability of inspectors to routinely visit the kitchens the way they do street-level restaurants. The question of illegal grease dumping has also been raised. Local codes vary, so those interested in exploring this avenue need to carefully do their due diligence. For example, Chicago does not allow cooking in the truck, so the operator must have an off-site kitchen for food preparation. Other communities limit the length of time a truck can park in one spot.
To help counter some of the criticism, provide a single point of contact for the industry, and promote their business, the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association was formed in January of this year. More than 100 member businesses have joined so far, including traditional restaurant operators California Pizza Kitchen which has a mobile kitchen in southern California, and Fatburger, whose Fatmobile is available for fundraisers, corporate parties, and other events. Similar organizations have formed in Florida and Washington, DC, and a national Mobile Food Truck Vendors Association is now online.
NRN’s Lisa Jennings summarized the mini-industry last year: “Time will tell whether the popularity of gourmet food trucks is passing, but one thing … is certain: As in the brick-and-mortar restaurant world, the bad truck operations will disappear once the novelty wears away, and the operators that offer quality products will find niches that work for them.”