Guest Post Written by Astrid Rhea Campbell
It would be an understatement to say that food trucks are popular. The food truck business breathes new life into local street food and events, with so many diverse options that are different depending on your location. These meals on wheels are a staple in American culture. You’ll find them everywhere — from Los Angeles, all the way to New York City. It’s hard to walk along the country’s bustling roads without bumping into at least one mobile food truck, especially since there are more than 23,000 of them across the United States.
There are different reasons why people have come to love these mobile food stalls, but to understand why, we need to delve into a little bit of history. In this article, we’re going to be talking about the food truck craze and the reasons why it has become such a well-loved phenomenon.
Where It All Began
As popular as food trucks now are, they must have started somewhere. The modern food truck can count two possible ancestors, both from the 1800s. The first was the lunch wagon. The NY Times writes that the food truck industry can be traced all the way to 1872, to a vendor by the name of Walter Scott. He cut windows into his humble wagon and parked it in front of a local newspaper office in Rhode Island. His menu comprised of sandwiches, pies, and coffee, which he served to pressmen and journalists.
Another possible ancestor for food trucks originated in Texas — the chuck wagon. In 1866, a cattle herder named Charles Goodnight customized his old army wagon with shelves and drawers, which he used to store cooking implements, cutlery, and spices. As he traveled across settlements to transport beef, he’d also sell food to the people he passed by. The menu of a typical chuck wagon offered beans, cured meat, coffee, and biscuits.
It's hard to single out one of these two options as the first food truck, but what we do know is that these wagons quickly became popular. More and more people began to copy Scott and Goodnight’s business strategies. Soon, these, too, evolved. Crafty entrepreneurs replaced rickety wooden wagons with large automobiles, capable of holding more food and serving more hungry customers, which began to grow in number, too.
The Food Truck Revolution
Fast-forward to the 1970s: This was when the industry began to branch out. At the time, the food world was mostly composed of brick-and-mortar establishments, with the only mobile food stalls being ice cream vans. But one day, a man purchased a retired ice cream truck and converted it into King Taco, a food truck with a variety of Mexican treats to offer. His name was Raul Martinez, and his was the first taco truck to grace the streets of Los Angeles — and would be followed by thousands more.
Martinez’s pioneering mobile food stall business is credited for being a driving force to the industry's growth. His actions would spur more people who were aspiring food entrepreneurs to open their own food trucks. Before long, there were sandwich trucks, burger trucks, hotdog trucks, and more. But popularity really skyrocketed in 2008. The great recession caused a lot of chefs to be laid off, and with so few restaurants looking to hire, these chefs opted to take matters into their own hands. This was when the food truck craze officially started, and the popularity of mobile food trucks soared. Before long, they were present in street corners and a staple in different events, like music festivals, parades, and outdoor community events.
Former restaurant chefs breathed a new life into the food truck industry, offering some form of gourmet cuisine that people would never have seen as street food. Popular menu choices include Chinese dumplings, Indian halal, and a wide array of American favorites. Customers loved it — so much so that local governments had to require food truck owners to pass inspections, like traditional restaurants are. Since then, the industry has continued to flourish.
Here are Three Reasons Why America Loves the Food Truck Industry
1. Gourmet for Less
When you pay for a meal from food trucks, you’re paying for the product they offer and its preparation. That’s it. Know that you’re not paying for a waiter to take your order or for a kitchen crew who’s going to wash your cutlery. In short, ordering from a food truck is a lot cheaper than ordering from a restaurant. In fact, ZenBusiness’s article on starting a food truck business highlights the low initial investment that goes into this type of venture, especially as compared to brick-and-mortar restaurants. The average cost of putting up a food truck is at $125,000, while restaurants typically cost anywhere from $275,000 to $2 million. If you think about it this way, the concept is a fantastic business venture.
The difference can be sizeable in key areas like Los Angeles and New York City, where chefs can make a living for themselves on a bare-bones budget and four wheels before eventually scaling up to start catering and maybe even open their own restaurant. A shining example of the latter is Raul Martinez and King Taco, which is now something of a renowned fast food restaurant in the United States.
2. Convenient Meals
If you find yourself rushing to work on an empty stomach, you simply don’t have the time to sit down and dine at a restaurant. Your best bet for a meal are food trucks. Meals from this special brand of street food can be eaten on the go. Plus, food trucks are everywhere. So, if you need a quick lunch, you won’t have to go far from your office building, especially if it’s by a bustling street.
3. Spoiled for Choice
Finally, there’ll always be many new things to try, because food trucks serve all kinds of cuisines. Want to try some Asian-inspired finger foods? There’s a food truck for that. Craving a good old-fashioned hot dog? There’s a food truck for that, too. Dessert after a satisfying meal? Tons of food trucks for that! If you really want to experiment well, try looking for food trucks specializing in fusion cuisines. Korean-Mexican kimchi tacos sound crazy enough to be delicious!
A Tough Time for Food Truck Owners
But recently, the food truck industry has been struggling to keep afloat. When the pandemic hit, everyone was ordered to get inside, and the economic downturn forced thousands of companies out of business. Food truck owners were no exception, and they lost their primary means of income. Since then, they’ve been struggling to make ends meet.
Now that regulations have become a bit more lax, food trucks have started operating again, but many owners are still facing financial difficulties. They simply aren’t making as many sales as they used to. The Lantern reports that the best way to support food trucks and their business is to buy their food and tip them. If that isn’t possible, you can continue to support them by shouting out their business on social media. You could also tell your friends about their dishes. These word-of-mouth promotions are a very helpful marketing technique that can help them get back on their feet. The boost in popularity might just be what they need to get their sales back up.
Final Word on Food Trucks
Food is a cultural phenomenon, and food trucks are proof of its richness. Their presence is felt in nearly every known location in the country, with all kinds of cooks conducting business and marketing every form of cuisine one could think of. It’s so well ingrained into American culture that it’s hard to imagine life without it.
We hope that food trucks will continue to serve us far into the future. The next time you’re out on the street, why not buy a meal from one of your local food trucks? It’s a difficult time for people everywhere, so we should do as much as we can to help each other get by, especially in these uncertain times. Plus, it’s exciting to think about what dishes food trucks will have to offer once the pandemic is over.
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