Emerging Concepts | June 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Food for the Road

The growing number of mobile units provides a variety of flavors for brands looking for menu inspirations.

Food trucks are on a roll.

Whether they’re parked along the streets of Los Angeles, in a Miami shopping center, or at a Chicago corporate highrise, the trucks are as trendy as it gets in the restaurant business.

Folks are lining up at mobile counters in cities across America to gobble down everything from gourmet fusion food to specialty cupcakes from chef-entrepreneurs.

“They’re popping up everywhere,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel International. “They have huge appeal because they are an inexpensive way to get into the food industry. Owners also have more control over how they can operate.”

Restaurants and quick-service chains have joined the fray with their own trucks.

The growing interest in the segment has created even more cross-pollination: truck chefs opening brick-and-mortar units, restaurants adding street foods to menus, and, in some cases, developing whole concepts around street food.

“This is going on all across the country,” says Kevin Higar, director of consulting and research for Technomic Inc. He recently spent three months crisscrossing the nation and talking to food truck operators who typically set up shop at different locations each day.

Unlike brick-and-mortar restaurants that have large menus, food trucks have become popular, particularly among 25- to 45-year-olds, for their distinct, limited offerings.

“You find people with a strong passion and the skill to make two or three or four things really, really well,” Higar says. Then these items filter out to other chefs because “we’re really good at ripping off ideas and making them our own.”

Twitter and Facebook are key to food trucks’ success, helping followers find out the trucks’ location on any particular date, as well as the day’s menu. It also builds the kind of relationships that leads some chefs to name menu items after customers or customers’ pets.

“Truck owners really have to do social networking,” Giandelone says. “They aren’t going to have a marketing budget. For customers, it’s more like an adventure because of ever-changing menus and ever-changing locations.”

In a few cities, food trucks gather at one spot for a temporary food court. In Miami, truck maker Food Cart USA promotes these events several days a week.

“It’s been great for the industry and an easy way for customers to come out and try all different types of great food,” says Crystal Ramirez, the company’s manager.

A typical evening may see a chorizo and sirloin burger from Latin Burger and Taco, Jefe’s fish tacos, crêpes from Caza Crêpes, and Big Daddy’s discos voladores.

Food trucks have their roots in moving military canteens, Old West chuck wagons, New York City food carts, and street vendors worldwide.

Catering trucks have traveled the pavement for decades. Featuring a refrigerator case, warmer unit, and griddle, they regularly visit several blue-collar workplaces a day, serving sandwiches, pastries, and similar items.

As Hispanic construction workers grew in numbers in California in the ’80s, entrepreneurs refitted trucks to create moving taquerias, known as taco trucks.

But a new breed of chef-impresario has now found a niche for various gourmet efforts from a truck.

The recent recession is a major reason the food truck culture took root and grew, says restaurant industry veteran Ray Villaman, a principal with Mobi Munch, a mobile foodservice infrastructure company.

“We saw a lot of the old taco trucks go belly up in the economic downturn,” he says. At the same time, white-tablecloth eateries also suffered, and “a lot of fine-dining chefs were looking for their next move. They jumped at these trucks.”

Their numbers are still small. Of the 4,000 food trucks with permits in Los Angeles County, “probably 3,500 are Mexican style,” says Josh Hiller, co-owner of Road Stoves, which rents trucks and provides other services to mobile chefs.

“There are only a couple hundred that could be categorized as gourmet trucks,” he says.

Road Stoves has worked with many of the new breed, including the owners of Kogi BBQ, which led the wave of upscale mobile chow.

Roy Choi, a Culinary Institute of America grad and the truck’s chef, “is the poster child for igniting the movement,” Villaman says.

Kogi got its start on a rainy weekend in November 2008, says Alice Shin, creative director for the Los Angeles enterprise that has grown to five trucks and several traditional restaurants.

Its fusion of Asian and Mexican food, notably marinated barbecue meat and kimchi in tacos, didn’t find many takers at first, Shin says. But word of mouth and the tactical use of Twitter and other new technology eventually made the truck a phenomenon.

Kogi’s culinary success is in Choi’s ability to mix Mexican and Asian ingredients in portable food. The brand has several regular items, including the signature short-rib tacos for $2.10 each, plus daily specials.

Fusion is a major food segment for trucks nationwide. There are Mexican-Filipino, Peruvian-Japanese, Jamaican-American, and Asian-South American combinations.

Ironically, Kogi started partly because restaurant recruiter Dave Danhi couldn’t get Choi a regular restaurant position four months before the truck hit the road.

Now, Danhi is also a partner in a rolling food emporium, The Grilled Cheese Truck. Like many trucks, it visits several spots a day during a Tuesday-to-Saturday schedule.

The menu is based on another popular truck style: comfort food. Prices range from $3 for an American Cheese sandwich to $7.75 for the Brie Melt, which features brie, homemade fig paste, and smoked turkey or bacon on black peppercorn potato bread.

The spotlight item is Danhi’s Cheesy Mac and Rib Melt, which combines Southern-style mac and cheese with sharp cheddar, slow-cooked pork barbecue, and caramelized onions on buttered, fried white bread.

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