The biggest brand in the food truck industry today is no-brand. Yup, that’s the news: what was once a packaged and commercial food kingdom par excellence now often features custom-made, unique eateries with chef-prepared, real, gourmet and ethnic specialty foods.
Not so many years ago if you went to one of the festivals that dot the summer landscape in the U.S., you could count on drinking sugary pop and slushes and eating deep-fried onion flowers, fried potatoes, “canned” barbeque, ice cream, packaged cakes and cookies and the ever-present cotton candy. Anyone who wanted a “vegetable” beyond the fried potatoes and onion flowers was lucky to discover commercially produced cole slaw. A little strolling around the grounds was hardly enough to work off the negative effects of three days of festival eating.
And food trucks on the streets of towns? Never! As much as street foods are a culinary phenomenon in other parts of the world, especially around the Mediterranean, they were banned from U.S. towns that wanted to maintain a particular image.
But here’s some restaurant news: the food truck industry isn’t what it used to be. Things are changing…rapidly. Madison, Wisconsin, welcomed food trucks into its streets since the early 1980s, and today it’s just as likely you’ll find food trucks parked near businesses that don’t have many nearby lunch options as well as a variety of public parks. Madison has a unique reviewing process, which takes place annually in September:
“All carts and anyone new who wants to vend the following year must participate. A panel of eaters samples food from every cart and evaluates, weighting 40% to food, menu and taste; 40% to the look of the cart; and 20% to originality. Carts also rack up seniority points and get subtractions for any code demerits (though this is infrequent). The scores determine site selection for the coming year.”
These unique food carts featuring fresh, delicious, sometimes locally sourced, sometimes organic, ethnic and gourmet items are a win-win-win-win direction for the food truck industry. Diners and “foodies” across the country love trying different foods and enjoy coming to areas that feature so many options in a casual setting. Entrepreneurs and chefs welcome the opportunity to enter the food industry and test out items without the enormous financial commitment of brick and mortar eateries. Brick and mortar restaurants see trucks as a way to showcase their offerings. Towns like Madison that have open their doors to food trucks enjoy the opportunity to attract people to town centers and benefit from the revenues and enhanced business environment.
One barbeque food truck team likes to tell about the time they went to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in West Helena, Arkansas. One of those partners was vegetarian and frustrated with the lack of options at the festival so started making falafel on the outside burners of the smoker. While the barbeque lovers joked that no one would ever choose falafel over the traditional smoked beef sandwiches and fries, people quickly lined up for the falafel sandwiches with traditional Middle Eastern salads and tahina. Soon the lines were longer than for the barbeque, and soon after, the owners decided to turn their truck into a vegetarian operation.
In communities like Madison and at many festivals, custom-made green smoothies are as accessible as sugary commercial slushes. Madison features Middle Eastern food, Venezuelan food, Tibetan food, wraps of fresh, locally sourced foods, vegan eateries, Peruvian food, Indian food and made-from-scratch wood-fired pizza among its 42 trucks, to name just a few. Portland, with its larger population and welcoming atmosphere, hosts 440 active carts.
Business News Daily lists 10 unique food trucks from around the country that offer “so much more than just mobile meals,” advising that entrepreneurs can learn a lot from their innovation and creativity. These trucks include the following:
Bacon Bacon in San Francisco, serving up bacon in a variety of unthought-of ways. Del Popolo, a mobile-based pizzeria also in San Francisco, working out of a repurposed trans-Atlantic shipping container. Fire Truck Crepes from Denver, a repurposed fire truck featuring “crepes for every craving,” sweet and savory. King of Pops in Atlanta, offering a variety of popsicles for a hot day with unique, real flavors. MacMart Cart in Philadelphia, “taking macaroni and cheese to a whole new level.” Maximus/Minimus from Seattle, “all about options – that is, the option between hot and spicy foods, and sweet and tangy foods.” Recess from San Diego that offers customers a “playground” of things to enjoy while they enjoy a lunch hour that is a true escape. Snowday from New York that calls itself “a vehicle for social justice,” offering locally sourced foods all involving maple syrup. The Silver Seed from Fort Collins, Colorado, with a delicious variety of vegan and vegetarian foods. Wafels and Dinges from New York City selling nothing but Belgian, Brussels and Liege waffles with toppings (dinges). As towns recognize the value of the food truck industry and entrepreneurs see it as a way to enter the food business to the delight of customers, individual creativity and ingenuity are the limit and the requirement. Application approvals to serve at festivals increasingly depend on the ability to offer something unique. Cotton candy might not make it in a day when the food movement generates a public taste for real food.