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.

Danhi retains his day job while building the rolling business. So does Scott Baitinger, a partner in another truck that has cheese as a key ingredient.

Baitinger and pizza veteran Steve Mai operate Streetza in Milwaukee, a mobile pizza concept. The duo and a venture capital investor plan to expand by year-end to 17 trucks in 14 cities.

Streetza serves 16-inch pizzas for $21, or $3.75 by the slice. Many of the pies are based on Milwaukee culture, neighborhoods, and even Twitter followers.

The mascot race between innings of Brewers games at Miller Park provided the idea for the Brew Crew Sausage Race pizza, featuring Italian, Polish, and chorizo sausages; bratwurst; and hot dogs. “From day one that was a big hit,” Baitinger says.

As with many food trucks, Streetza uses a commissary to prepare items for its mobile menu. Crusts are par-baked before the truck leaves, and the final baking is done on board after the toppings are added.

Preparation is key for food trucks in Chicago, because the city prohibits cooking in them, says Matt Maroni, who runs Gaztro Wagon. He serves naan, the Southeast Asian flatbread, with meat, seafood, vegetables, and condiments.

Typical “naan-wiches” are wild boar belly, fig and bacon relish, fontina, sage, and brussels sprouts for $9 or warm lobster, bacon, potato and leek hash, and brie for $12.

“Our food is definitely American, but it’s often based on foods from the street in countries around the world,” Maroni says.

Early morning prep is required for The Cinnamon Snail, a northern New Jersey truck that often visits New York. Its breakfast and lunch menus focus on vegan, organic items.

Owner and chef Adam Sobel often rises at 2 a.m. to make pastries in time for the breakfast rush. His menu includes a Santa Fe, New Mexico, favorite, blue cornmeal pancakes with pine nuts for $8, and a breakfast burrito with scrambled tofu for $7.

“We change our menu relatively often and seasonally,” Sobel says.

Technomic’s Higar says breakfast is a growing food truck favorite, as are desserts.

Indian spiced mini doughnuts were the first items sold in 2008 by Chef Shack, which has grown to three trucks in the Minneapolis area. The trucks now feature a diverse menu, from grass-fed beef hot dogs to squash blossom quesadillas.

The trucks operate May through October, when locally sourced ingredients are available, says co-owner Carrie Summer. Besides, winter is too cold for people to wait in line.

The owners use the down time “to get away to try different cuisines from around the world,” says Summer, who talked by phone from India, home of her favorite food and spices. She brings that knowledge to her menu in several dishes, including curries.

The interest in mobile desserts is the reason Marisa Lown, owner of Seattle specialty baker The Radical Cupcake, is retrofitting an old Airstream trailer into a food truck.

Lown says her organic, allergen-free, and often-vegan baked goods can easily expand into a traveling format.

“We will offer a daily rotation of cupcake flavors, one or two types of cookies, cake of the day, and more,” she says. “People can tell us what they want.”

Lown is among many chefs expanding from a fixed location to a rolling one.

“More restaurants are going mobile, and many others are thinking about it,” says Mobi Munch’s Villaman.

Some quick-service restaurants have had mobile units for years for catering or marketing.

Arby’s Mobile Kitchen is now in its third incarnation. The tractor-trailer has a full kitchen making free food samples at dozens of events. It has meat slicers and milkshake mixers to help make the company’s original roast beef sandwiches and jamocha shakes.

“There is no better form of advertising,” says John Gray, senior vice president of corporate communications and public relations at Arby’s.

Carl’s Jr.’s Star Diners are tricked-out lunch trucks—eight in all—used mainly for events. This year, one was dispatched to Houston to help promote the company’s first unit in that city, says Beth Mansfield, CKE Restaurants’ director of public relations.

Gold Star Chili went a step further. The Cincinnati chain’s Chilimobile makes catering and promotional stops, but it also operates as a retail food truck, selling its core menu items: cheese coneys and three-way chili (spaghetti, chili sauce, and shredded cheese).

“We see it as a brand differentiator,” says marketing director Charlie Howard. “It’s a multiple threat—a sales and marketing opportunity.”

Some traditional restaurants have even added street food to their menu.

California Tortilla, a mid-Atlantic fast-casual Mexican chain, introduced a Korean barbecue taco as a limited-time offer. The steak and kimchi item was so popular that the company is considering whether to put it on the menu full time.

“It has a great, bold, intense flavor,” says Keith Goldman, vice president of operations.

Meanwhile, several truck operators, including Kogi, have parlayed their trucks into fixed restaurants.

“This is a more recent development,” says Kyle Johnson, who runs Food Truck Fiesta, a website that tracks food trucks in the Washington, D.C., area.

Some chefs “have stated in the past that they preferred to open brick-and-mortar restaurants, but the economy was preventing them from obtaining a bank loan,” Johnson says. As a result, they “resorted to opening a food truck instead.”

He predicted more food truck owners would open restaurants in an improved economy.