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Wednesday Food: The Future of Food Trucks

Are food trucks just a trend or are they a sustainable food service enterprise?

(Let me first say I mean the mobile kind not the stationary carts anchored in Portland’s trendier neighborhoods.  And I’m using ‘sustainable’ in the business sense, not environmentally.)

Chicago’s food truck scene started late.  Because of a number of health ordinances and licensing issues, food could only be sold from a vehicle if it had been prepared elsewhere (a commercial kitchen) and no preparations of any kind took place on the vehicle.  That and a number of other prohibitive laws kept this city well behind New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. in the rise of or return to street food.  Nary a hot dog push cart will you even find in Chicago streets and parks with permits and fines set as they are.  But things began to turn around last year, and Flirty Cupcakes became Chicago’s second food truck– the first was Chicago All Fired Up which existed as an anomaly because of a loophole in the system.

Food trucks are a relatively inexpensive start-up business in the culinary world, a fraction of what a first year restaurant would cost.  Without rent or a full staff to pay overhead is modest, so just one person can provide “restaurant-quality” food at lower prices.  Even advertising costs are minimal as trucks take advantage of social networking and are a form of advertisement in and of themselves.  With the economy failing to regain its footing there remains a demand for cheap(ish) artisinal food.  And because these operations are just emerging they are able to capitalize on other trends/ specialties that consumers are demanding: providing vegan options, gluten-free meals, and local/ sustainable food products.  Plus, mobility has its advantages.  Trucks can access and cater to spontaneous crowds– lunch hour in business districts, dinner on college campuses, after-hours in high traffic nightlife areas.

Yet something beyond growing gas prices has me wondering if food trucks can become a long-term reality in any urban culinary scene.  Maybe it’s because they became trendy so quickly?  Or because I’m naturally skeptical of anything widely popularized by the Food Network?  Will they go the way of tiki bars and Atkins dieting, or are they more permanent like prix-fixe menus and craft beer?

Juries out for me– how about you?

(Photo from my first Chicago food truck meal– many thanks to Joaquin, ‘behind the wheel’ of the Brown Bag Lunch Truck.)

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June 15, 2011 - Posted by | Wednesday Food

2 Comments

  1. I think Chicago will eventually get with the program and realize food trucks are good for tourism and an additional way to generate revenue (permits, taxes, etc). Just look at larger market cities and all the offerings from real food trucks (not just taco wagons). You can get Banh mi, bacon, grilled cheese, mussels and everything in between for around $10. And with more competition that means chefs and entrepreneurs will have to focus on “fresh” ingredients and find ways to capture a fickle market. Plus, food trucks are the one time when I think Twitter is actually useful. Social media outlets let food truckers alert hungry folks where they are heading, when food runs out and what is on deck for the week. Why would this business model fail? Food trucks are the guerrilla warfare of the food industry and more high profile chefs and restaurateurs are getting on board and leveraging their positions and resources to bring top quality food to the streets and the growling stomach masses.

    Comment by Early | June 16, 2011

  2. The only thing I can think of that would cause the business model to fail is its being replaced by something that was somehow more efficient or cheaper and better quality. I have no idea what that could be.

    My sister organized a cocktail event recently for which she made a request to a food truck to stop by. Instead of having to pay caterers or charge an admission fee, party-goers could make their own selections based on what they wanted to spend. Good for the truck owner, good for the patrons, and a hell of a lot easier than organizing caterers for something casual.

    I’m in support of the food truck trend and hope it sticks around. The cupcake craze, however, I can do without.

    Comment by ebolden | June 16, 2011


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