Good Eats Meets Streets
By: Jessica E. Zerrer
Street food is generally understood to be food that is attainable from a food vendor, outside of a formal dining establishment, usually from a stall or cart. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (2007), 2.5 billion people worldwide eat street food every day. For many people, especially in the United States, street food is associated with junk food, snacks, and late-night cravings, accepted for its accessibility but not usually for its healthfulness and palatability. Until recently, upon hearing the words “street food” most Americans were likely to think of hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, ice cream, tacos, and kebobs. Street food was heartburn central. This article aims to get a better understanding of the development of food trucks by looking at street food history, food truck design and marketing strategies, product offerings, bases for food truck popularity as well as the challenges that surround operating a food truck.
A Brief History of Street Food
Street foods have been a part of American consumption habits since the 17th century, found especially in the larger cities on the east coast. In New York City, a love-hate relationship developed early on with street vendors, and in 1707 a city ordinance officially banned street food vendors, also known as ‘hucksters’ (Simopoulos 2000: 26). City officials and business owners cited street vendors as the main source of traffic congestion while retail store owners complained about the presence of street vendors, claiming they stole business not only by providing competition but also occupying space outside of their shops (ibid 26). By the middle of the 19th century, department stores and specialty shops opened which led middle- and upper-class consumers inside to do their shopping. As a result, the street vendor market became a business that the lower classes maintained, both as vendors and consumers.
Street vending in New York City would again rise to prominence in the late 19th century. However, it was almost completely abolished during the 1930’s when the LaGuardia administration abolished the designated street vendor areas and built enclosed markets in order to clean up the streets in time for the World’s Fair in 1939 (ibid 27). Although street food survived these episodes, vendors would continue to face difficult legislation from the city and waning interest from consumers.
Despite various challenges, street food persists and evolves. Once sold from horse-drawn wagons and wheelbarrows, today’s vendors use pushcarts and food trucks to transport and sell their foods to the public. Not only has the mode of transportation evolved but so too have the nature and quality of the food. Early street vendors sold fruit and vegetables from their farms. With the advent of refrigeration, foods like butter, cottage cheese, meats, milk and ice cream became available (ibid 27). In sum, street food has developed from the sale of individual goods to ready-made meals, and within the last decade, street food has come to be much more than the sizzling, greasy, fried, unidentifiable acceptable-only-when-drunk food we’ve come to expect. A major part of this street food overhaul has been the emergence of food trucks selling unique and high-quality comestibles.
Enter the Food Truck
Food trucks have taken a front seat in the world of street food and are part and parcel of the ongoing food revolution, playing a significant role in changing our ideas about where good food comes from. Food trucks serve a wide variety of victuals, from reinvented classics to high-end and organic fare, transforming the street food landscape from hot dogs to haute frankfurters. Many food trucks situate themselves within the local food movement, while many others find themselves in the space between fast food and slow food. Food trucks are perhaps emblematic of what Sidney Mintz, a well-known anthropologist who has written significant pieces on food history and food culture, referred to as food at moderate speeds. The contemporaneous world experiences extremes of slow and fast, local and global, as well as artisanal and industrial (Wilk2006: 61). Richard Wilk, also a food anthropologist, writes, “all the real action takes place in between” (Wilk 2006:61). Food truck operators, and other entrepreneurs, whose products can speak to this‘middle ground’ are attractive because they are not only innovative but accessible.
Food trucks are found in many cities across the United States; however, most are located in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and most notably, Austin, which is frequently regarded as the origin of the renaissance of food trucks.# In addition to the unique gourmet-fare offered, each truck strives to stand out by using provocative names and eye-catching design to carefully cultivate their brands. In NYC one finds The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Patacan Pisao and Berry Fro Yo, while in L.A. Baby’s Badass Burgers, PapasTapas Truck, and Naan Stop are just some of the approximately 150 food trucks swarming the streets. In Austin, hungry folks flock to the likes of Holy Cacao, Man Bites Dog, and Mmmpanadas. Despite these attractive marketing strategies, the food, however, is really the focal-point. New food trucks are serving up everything from fusion tacos to schnitzel to perfectly braised ox-tail. The Rickshaw Dumpling truck (NYC) specializes in Chicken-Thai Basil dumplings, The Good Bike Café (Austin) serves up slow-braised lamb, while Barcelona (L.A.) boasts croquetas de manchego with balsamic drizzled fig salad. Green Truck On-the-Go (Miami) offers the must-have Vegan Mother-Trucker burger, and Scream Sorbet (San Francisco) has over 50 sorbet flavors including saffron-almond, Anaheim chile, lemon lavender and fennel citrus. These offerings have certainly come a long way from deep fried corn-dogs, although there is still plenty of food-on-a-stick to be had!
Not only do food trucks abound in major cities, but they have now found a place in major television networks including The Cooking Channel, which showcased food trucks in its program Food(ography) and will feature Food Truck Revolution in November 2010. The Food Network aired The Great Food Truck Race, with Chef Tyler Florence as host. The show debuted in August 2010 and due to its popularity, has been renewed for a second season. In addition to these programs, information on food trucks is available from a cornucopia of websites maintained by food truck owners/operators, customers and bloggers.# Many cities even have websites that track the location of the town’s food trucks, the average wait time and daily specials.
The advent of contemporary communication technology has facilitated the development of a new food truck culture. Customers can check out their favorite trucks online and track their movement using social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (NYC) has 11,000 followers on Twitter, The Grilled Cheese Truck (L.A.) has 26,000 followers, while Kogi Korean BBQ (L.A.) has a whopping 77,000 followers. Customers can also use websites like MobileCravings.com which provides nation-wide food truck tracking services. The benefits of this technology are simple: not only does it allow customers to easily find trucks but also serves as advertisement. In addition to convenience, the use of social networking sites enables and solidifies foodie communities, allowing for a stronger sense of participation in new food movements .#
The Food Truck Craze: weighing convenience, cost, independence, innovation, and food quality
But the question remains, why are food trucks so incredibly popular right now? Street food has been a commodity available for several hundred years in the United States, and food trucks have been serving up quick treats for over two decades, so the concept is nothing new. Yet, the food truck has taken on new meaning. In an interview with People, Chef Tyler Florence (host of The Great Food Truck Race), upon being asked about the popularity of food trucks commented “I think it started when the economy started to downturn. All these great chefs had a hard time raising money to open a restaurant” (Valencourt date unknown: 1). Florence also noted that eating at a food truck is inherently a social experience, but unlike restaurants there’s another convenience, “it’s not like you have to make a reservation or get a babysitter to eat there” (ibid 1).
Convenience seems to be a reoccurring word in discussions on food trucks, although I must admit, I’m not convinced that’s the crux of the appeal. Sure, you can get good food fast, but aren’t there already a variety of options to meet this demand? Fast-food, street carts, deli’s, bakeries, restaurant call-ahead and take-out, delivery…the list goes on. Most of these food trucks are only open for brief lunch (11-2) and dinner hours (6-9), and at the more notorious trucks, like Kogi BBQ, customers can expect to wait at least half-an-hour in line before they place their order. If expediency and convenience were the main motivating factors, the food truck doesn’t always accommodate the fast-paced life of those on-the-go.
Regarding expenditures, Florence offers a more compelling, although in my view not comprehensive, explanation. When the recession began in the fall of 2008, the number of food trucks grew exponentially – the trickle of new food trucks has turned to a flood. In an interview conducted by Julia Moskin of the New York Times, Michael Wells, a director of the Street Vendor Project notes “We used to get two or three calls a week from people wanting to become food vendors…now we get a dozen” (Moskin 2009: 1). While consumers are cutting back on their spending, a quality food truck snack or meal at reasonable prices is much easier to swallow than the cost of similar meals at traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. Businesses from fast-food chains to upscale eateries created cheaper menus and some even opened food trucks to try to encourage consumers to continue to spend money.
Moreover, for entrepreneurs, there is a considerable cost difference in terms of opening a restaurant and a food truck. Regardless of the record low commercial real-estate prices, the costs of opening a sit-down restaurant are still too high for many would-be restaurateurs. According to a survey conducted by the website RestaurantOwner.com, the average total start-up cost of opening a lower-quartile restaurant (meaning approx. 65 seats) is $175,000-$200,000 (restaurantowner.com). Meanwhile, the cost of opening and operating a food truck is less, although it can vary greatly – the main variable being the price of the truck. Many food truck operators actually rent their trucks, since purchasing a truck and funding the other operational costs still requires a significant monetary investment. Well-used trucks equipped for catering can start as low as $10,000, while gently-used trucks cost around $20,000 (Bellow & Pou 1). According to the L.A. Times, a new fully-equipped food truck can run from $100,000 – $140,000, which includes all the bells and whistles as well as customization (Shatkin 2). In comparison to opening a restaurant, the $50,000 average cost of opening a food truck is relatively low, and a food truck can be up and running quickly. Once opened, the overhead remains low, as the operators are generally the only employees and other costs like décor, electricity, and cleaning – which are substantial for a restaurant – are minimal for a food truck. However, revenue from the food truck will not be as high as that of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Many food truck operators discover that they cannot depend on their income from lunch and dinner ‘street’ business alone; instead they rely on private events and catering (which can make up 40% of total business) to pay the bills (Bellow & Pou 1).
What is perhaps most surprising about food trucks are the owners. They range the gamut from the every-day foodie with a taste for entrepreneurship to the white-collar professional with advanced degrees as well as professionally trained chefs and restaurateurs. Ellen Kinsey and John Spillyards, owners of Holy Cacao, aren’t trained chefs but opened their food truck simply for (who can blame them) the love of chocolate and desserts. The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck is the creation of Douglas Quint, who is a classically trained bassoonist and holds degrees from The Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School. According to its website, Quint’s main focus was always music – until he got himself a Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, armed with nothing more than a concept and no practical experience whatsoever (biggayicecreamtruck.com). Eric Sjaaheim and Tony Cooper, owners of The Happy Pig (Bloomington, IN) both come from culinary backgrounds; Eric trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, while both Eric and Tony work at Restaurant Tallent (under a James Beard Nominated executive chef). They view opening The Happy Pig as a stepping stone to more exciting culinary careers (Sjaaheim). Let’s be Frank (San Francisco), founded by Sue Moore and Larry Bain, started in 2005 with the simple goal of changing the world one hot dog at a time.# Sue was once the “meat forager” for Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, while Larry is a member of the San Francisco Sustainable Food Systems team (letsbefrankdogs.com).
More surprising is that some chefs are leaving their restaurant jobs to open food trucks. Spencer on the Go! is the creation of Laurent Katgely executive chef and owner of Chez Spencer. Katgely serves “French take-away” from his mobile bistro, including grilled sweetbreads and truffled beef bourguignon, all for under $12 (Spenceronthego.com). Chef Roy Choi, co-owner of Kogi Korean BBQ, voted the #2 food truck in L.A., trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked for Eric Ripert at Le Bernadin, recipient of three-Michelin stars. However, Choi gained his fame with his Korean-Mexican tacos served truck-side, and has been voted one of the Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine in 2010.
Why are chefs and entrepreneurs investing more in mobile food? In order to get a better appreciation of the appeal and process of opening a mobile food joint, I sat down for an interview with the owners of The Happy Pig, set to open late November 2010 in Bloomington, Indiana. Owners Eric and Tony said they were drawn to the possibilities of mobile food because they perceive it to “operate on a different circuit” from the fast-food and traditional restaurant industries. Both chefs agreed that operating a food truck enables them to make their food more creative and reflective of their individual tastes, whereas in the brick-and-mortar setting, restaurants generally need to be well-established before they can successfully incorporate more eclectic foods into their menu. Often the final menu decisions in restaurants are a manifestation of various opinions: the vision of the executive chef, the owners, the investors, the regional food preferences, etc. With the intermediary absent, The Happy Pig serves as an exposé of the victuals and eccentricities of chef’s Eric and Tony.
The cooking philosophy of The Happy Pig is “the happier the pig, the better the bacon”, a testament to their ingredient of choice and also to their business objective which is to serve organically grown and locally sourced food. After working in a slow-food restaurant for several years, Eric and Tony have established strong relationships with local farmers and intend to use produce grown almost exclusively in Southern Indiana. Eric and Tony have decided to keep their menu small, in order to be flexible and feature the seasonal produce. The menu items will be priced from $4-$7 and they anticipate catering to two different types of customers: the office lunch-hour and the late-night cravings of hungry (and possibly drunk) college students. This necessitates two different menu’s – the lunch hour being composed of soups, salads, and sandwiches while late-night menu’s will serve “stick to the ribs” types of dishes (biscuits and gravy, chicken and grits, etc.) When asked about their signature dish, they both cheerfully responded “the pork belly slider” (Sjaaheim 2010).
Ultimately, their desire is to make accessible food that is unique and that tastes divine. Eric stated, “food should be honest” and he hopes mobile food will make good food “less mystique oriented and less pretentious.” Both agreed that food in general needs to be made more transparent in the United States, and that people should know to care about where their food comes from and how it’s made. For Eric and Tony, and for many other mobile food entrepreneurs, owning a food truck means being directly responsible for the quality of food and the customer experience offered since the transaction between consumer and producer is more intimate. These owners want their customers to take joy in what they’re eating, and their food is the heart of this experience.
The Challenges of Owning and Operating a Food Truck
As we have seen, operating a food truck boasts attractive benefits like self-employment, experimenting with dishes and flavors, the opportunity to interact more intimately with customers, and the ability to customize your business by designing the truck, menu, décor, and company philosophy. However, not everything about running a food truck is a piece of cake. Cooks have to work in tight quarters and food trucks are regulated by health codes and subject to inspections, just as restaurants are. Any food truck owner will also tell you that every day is full of challenges. Trucks can break down and be out of service for days, resulting in immediate loss of profit. Finding a place to set up shop is a major concern. Food trucks must learn the rules of the road, or the parking lot, wherever that may be. Permitting and parking make the job difficult; each city has its own rules about where food trucks can park. In Seattle, street food vendors are only allowed to park on private property, whereas operators in other cities, including New York, can get a permit that allows them to park in most public parking spots, yet this very law has caused controversy for curbside cuisine.
In an interview done by PBS entitled “Street Smarts: The Proliferation of Gourmet Food Trucks on City Streets” (Oct. 11, 2010), Oleg Vass, the owner of Scnitzel & Things food truck states “not everybody loves a food truck…a lot of people, especially brick-and-mortars, are against us, understandably so when they have to pay $20,000 or $30,000 in rent and I can just pull up in front of this big building. This one building alone can buy everything on the truck” (Street Smarts). Traditional sit-down restaurants can’t compete, in terms of operational costs, with food trucks – the overhead of the former is simply too great. But brick-and-mortars aren’t the only ones upset. Parking spots are incredibly important to all street vendors and turf wars are nothing new for carts selling hot dogs and coffee. According to traditional or ‘old-school’ vendors as they are known on the street, food trucks have broken the code of the streets established among vendors long before the arrival of food trucks. The old-school vendors see the food trucks as unfair competition, and the visibility of the food trucks just adds to their contention. Suffice it to say that street vendors are incredibly territorial, and with the arrival of new food trucks every week, vendors are justifiably anxious. Norman Sweeney, a vendor who tried to block the Street Sweets truck remarks angrily, “They think they can come in with their big fancy truck and push into a spot where I’ve been for 18 years…this spot is all I have left” (Moskin 2). New York City Councilwoman, Jessica Lappin, is the person who deals with all the parking and permitting complaints. She notes, “when people are taking the same spots every day…it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people who live in that neighborhood, it’s not fair to the other businesses, and it’s not fair to the other vendors” (Street Smarts). Some vendors have decided to take action into their own hands in order to protect their spots; food truck operators report being yelled and cursed at, told to stay off the street, and warned with threats of vandalism and arson. In order to alleviate the tension, Sean Basinski, a street vendor turned lawyer founded the Street Vendor Project, a food truck advocacy group, which is now offering mediation services between street cart vendors and food truck vendors. In another effort to bring the two groups together, the Project has organized the Vendy Awards, open to any and all, offering “the Best Street Vendor of the Year” award, the highest award a street vendor can earn. The 2010 winner of the Vindy Awards: King of Falafel and Schawarma.
As regentrification of the food truck continues and food trucks become more popular, the food truck movement will likely evolve from novelty to mainstream. Taco Bell and Subway already have food trucks on the streets, no doubt eager to capitalize on the craze. While I don’t think we need to make fast-food any more accessible, I do hope that food trucks serving quality and difference become standard. A growing segment of the middle class is bored with the Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s and Chili’s which sell everything but lack the personality and individuality in both food and eating experiences. The new breed of food truck is tech-savvy, and insistently epicurean. They are selling quirky people and ideas as well as exciting new flavors at reasonable prices. Locally sourced slow-food coupled with the culinary expertise of well-trained chefs and restaurateurs, once the domain of exclusive and high-priced restaurants is now made available to the middle class. We can eat the fusion and nouveau foods at a fraction of the cost and belong to a network of foodies (connected through online social networks) who are all in on the secret. These new food trucks are a movement against the boring, the bland, the chains, the haute-culture, the fancy and the pretentious. Food truck operators have found the middle ground, good food at moderate speeds by celebrating innovation, creativity, self-expression, accessibility, and most significantly, the pleasure of food.
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