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October 15, 2013

Food Trucks are Driving a New Market from Coast to Coast

Call it a moveable feast or meals on wheels. On a bright, sunny end-of-summer day, we’re outside stalking our query: Food trucks lined up end to end in a city park.

 

There are at least 10 choices. So that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, we sidle up to the menus on the side of the trucks and check them out before stealthily moving on. Do we feel like something gourmet or something funky? Grass-fed burgers or biscuit potpie; Chinese sandwiches or barbecue? So many delicious choices, so little time.

Once carrying the ignominious title of “roach coaches,” food trucks are trendy and hip and a new market for the foodservice industry to supply everything from flour to cheese to pizza dough. Starting on both coasts just a few years ago, spurred on by the popularity of The Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network, food trucks are rolling, rolling, rolling through the heartlands.

Which is not to say that food trucks don’t have their detractors. One writer questions whether they bring anything new to the table, so to speak, and indeed, there are the typical food court-type places hawking pizza and falafel in the park on this day. Still others believe they may be taking away business from nearby restaurants. But, given that the service is fast and the food is good and relatively inexpensive, they’re becoming just another facet of life in the 21st century.

Even established brick and mortar restaurant owners are adding trucks to the lineup. “It’s free advertising,” says Chris Boswell, who works for a biscuit food truck that is a moveable extension of its nearby brick and mortar biscuit restaurant. Indeed you couldn’t miss the graphics on the trucks or the paper menus/flyers that do everything but take you by the hand and point the way.

Others believe they’re a great way to try out a new concept without breaking the bank. Zack Hines, a former yoga teacher turned food truck owner, transitioned out of his yoga position because he loved to cook. He was able to launch his grass fed burger business at a lower cost than opening a restaurant. “because we came in three years ago at the beginning (of the trend).”

Not that food trucks are cheap on the wallet – not by a long shot. “The problems are different (than a brick-and-mortar restaurant),” says Daniel Schlachet, who is head chef at a food truck that features pretty much everything-on-a-potato-tot. First, there’s the initial costs of buying a food truck – which can cost somewhere in the neighborhood of a well-appointed RV in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. Then there are those pesky health regulations that are just as stringent as they are for any brick-and-mortar restaurant. The food has to be prepped in a licensed kitchen – usually a rented commercial space or restaurant kitchen - and the owner must have running water and proper storage facilities on board. Then there’s the usual expenses of running any vehicle – maintenance, gas and so forth. Many of the food trucks close during the winter or during bad weather. Others become catering vans. Others roam from festival to festival, parking lot to parking lot, letting their fans know how to find them via social media. Not that the food trucks could sneak up anybody – with their catchy names like Cheese Louise or The Panna Cotta Peddlar – and their bright colored vehicles and graphics that scream out, “look at me.”

As we dart among food trucks, we’re circling around a truck painted a vibrant green when another truck catches our eye. It’s a truck with Tots printed on the side. Never quick on the uptake, we assume it’s a truck selling food for kids (hmmm, what a good idea, DO NOT steal it). Instead the truck is selling tots of the potato kind. The chef hands us shredded chicken and cheese on a bed of tots. We succumb to our inner child. The tots are hot and delicious, just as we remembered, and we wolf them down. “People love them,” says Daniel Schlachet. “They have a nostalgia factor.” Once we stop licking our fingers, we consider trying the New Mexico churro tots, a cinnamon sugar tot base with a drizzle of chocolate sauce, but we’re dieting as usual - and we can justify the tots, but we just can’t explain away that chocolate sauce.

Return of the Tater Tot

In our next blog, we’ll talk to Josh Wolkon who is a successful restaurateur and newly minted food trucker on why he added a food truck to his expanding restaurant concepts and whether or not the truck drivers are in it for the long haul.

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