Special Report | April 2014 | By Daniel P. Smith

What Ever Happened to Food Trucks?

Red-hot just a few years ago, food trucks are entering a new maturity phase.

Food trucks evolve quick service restaurant industry with innovative trends.
Cofounder Natasha Case has turned her popular food truck Coolhaus into a major food and retail player.
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When QSR last checked in with Coolhaus as part of “America’s Top 20 Food Trucks,” in February 2011, business partners Natasha Case and Freya Estreller had just launched their second food truck, adding a roving kitchen in Austin, Texas, to their existing mobile unit in Los Angeles.

In the three years since, Coolhaus has added three additional food trucks (in New York, Miami, and Dallas), opened two L.A.-based brick-and-mortar stores, and wiggled its ice cream products into 1,500 grocery stores across the country.

For Coolhaus, as well as the entire food truck industry, so much has changed in the three short years since QSR profiled the 20 top food trucks. There have been reality TV shows and numerous pop culture references, an accepting public, a rising regulatory environment, and fierce competition. For some, like Coolhaus, the last three years have delivered blossoming, optimistic futures; for others, dreams came and went.

Still, food trucks remain a vibrant part of the American landscape, with an estimated 3 million food trucks scattered around cities on both coasts and across the heartland.

The story of the food truck is a story of past, present, and future, an undeniable tale of change.

From surge to saturation

When the Slapfish food truck first rolled onto the streets of Orange Country, California, in January 2011, co-owner Jethro Naude says it was one of the few trucks roaming the Orange County area. But by the end of that same year, Naude says, the local food truck scene had grown exponentially, from less than a dozen trucks to, by his count, more than 40. The competitive environment intensified and spots once easy to come by—on the street and at food truck events—became increasingly difficult to secure.

“As I see it, the food truck is a home run from the marketing standpoint, but from a financial standpoint, it’s just there.”

“And we were right in the middle of this fight,” says Naude, who had originally turned to a monthly lease on a food truck when he struggled to generate the capital to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The surge of food trucks in Orange County and in other U.S. markets was not all that surprising to foodservice professionals considering the economic conditions with which it coincided. As unemployment rose during the recession, eager entrepreneurs—from bohemian, artist types to white-collar workers victimized by the economic downturn—looked at the food truck as an opportunity to seize their own fate, if not some fortune.

Some viewed the food truck as an alternative career; others were inspired to act on lingering ambitions. And of course, food trucks had the “it” factor in the food world.

Truck operators were forward thinking with their food, their marketing, and their interaction with guests. Culinary creations, from Korean tacos to gourmet cupcakes, were novel and unique, and operators leveraged social media to connect with customers beyond simply noting the lunchtime location. Food trucks built relationships by sharing information about their founders and their food, creating authentic connections and fans excited to contribute word-of-mouth buzz.

Alluring and energetic, the food truck scene flowed with charm and spirit, and few barriers to entry. With start-up costs ranging from a few thousand dollars for a leased truck to low six figures for an elaborate, customized mobile kitchen, many hustled into the food truck game between 2010 and 2012.

Even Portland, Oregon, a devoted foodie town that has claimed an active food cart scene since the mid-1980s, could not escape the rush. (In Portland, stationary food carts positioned in lots remain the norm, an alternative to the mobile kitchens commonplace in many other cities.) Brett Burmeister, managing editor of Food Carts Portland, a website that tracks the city’s vibrant food cart culture, says Portland hosted about 300 food carts in 2009. That number has since doubled, while the city has also witnessed the addition of mobile food trucks.

“It was almost like a gold rush,” Coolhaus’ Case says. “Everything was so turnkey. Someone would have an idea and they were on the road weeks later.”

Of course, much as our nation’s ambitious, wide-eyed western settlers discovered in the 19th Century, gold can be tough to come by. Today, many, including those deeply involved in the food truck scene, such as Case, Naude, and Burmeister, feel food trucks have plateaued.

“Over time,” Burmeister says, “the shine comes off the penny.”

In many cities across the country, food trucks have battled hefty competition and bureaucracy, including higher costs for licenses and permits. In 2009, for instance, the Coolhaus founders remember being asked to vend at First Fridays in Venice Beach, California; now, Case says, trucks pay a considerable amount to have a place at the event and make less money given the more saturated market.

For many, persistent operational challenges became too much to bear. Weather concerns, truck breakdowns, labor scheduling, planning, and purchasing stifled many an entrepreneur’s quest to make the food truck a sustainable enterprise.

“A food truck is not something you open and make a ton of money,” says Lisa Wood, who runs two Big-Ass Sandwiches food carts in Portland. “It’s a grind. You might be slamming business for about half the year; the other six months, though, it’s a battle.”

And as food trucks increased in number and attention, with many consumers substituting a food truck visit for a quick-service purchase, several major quick-service players responded with a ramped-up value proposition, NPD Group restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs says.

“It’s tough to go up against that muscle,” Riggs says.

The constant fight, the seemingly never-ending struggle, strangled some food trucks, sending them to the industry graveyard, while once-motivated operators, burnt out from the battle, turned over their keys or sought new adventures or growth avenues in the foodservice arena.

“I think many rushed into food trucks thinking it was a panacea, a cost-effective way to open a restaurant, but they saw just how challenging and unrelenting the environment was,” says Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association.

As a result, the appeal of the happy-go-lucky entry into the food truck marketplace has seemingly subsided.

“As the investment of time and money has gone up, the excitement has faded away,” Naude says. “I think the good ol’ days of the food truck are gone.”

A significant impact, a strategic future

This, of course, is not to suggest that food trucks are on the verge of falling into any abyss. According to a report from Intuit, food trucks are expected to be a $2.7 billion industry by 2017. Moreover, food trucks have been an unmistakable force injecting the industry with some much-needed dynamic energy.

“Food trucks made the food industry sexy again,” Naude says.

Young chefs and culinary newcomers used trucks to push food in novel directions, such as authentic global dishes, fusion cuisine that merged ethnic flavors, and sustainable, farm-to-table offerings. Able to take greater culinary risks given that they were not married to a particular menu, food truck operators propelled an evolution in food culture and posed a healthy challenge to restaurants, which explored the streets for examples of culinary ingenuity. Some of the more successful food trucks, including Coolhaus and Slapfish, began opening brick-and-mortar spots, further enlivening the restaurant scene and heightening industry development.

“When the underdog began posing a challenge, it made many restaurants dig deeper,” Case says.

Food trucks also pushed the restaurant industry on the technological front. Uniquely tied to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, now ubiquitous marketing tools in the arsenal of brick-and-mortar outlets, food trucks simultaneously expedited the spread of advance ordering and mobile POS, compelling the industry to view customer interfacing through a new lens.

“These technologies might have been developed with trucks in mind, but restaurants quickly found their value,” Case says.

Then, as is prone to happen as the marketplace continues turning, a funny thing happened: Brick-and-mortar restaurants, once staunch enemies with food trucks, began investing in trucks of their own, seeing the mobile kitchens as a great way to expand their brand and market reach in an inefficient, cost-effective way. Established quick serves such as Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, and Qdoba had trucks patrolling the streets, while various independent operations also put their brand onto four wheels.

“Food trucks became a two-sided coin,” Jackson says.

As making a living in the food truck space alone becomes a more challenging proposition, many foresee the food truck becoming the means to an end rather than the end itself. A truck, for instance, might help build buzz around a brand with demos and samples, capture catering opportunities, and function as one piece of a broader brand strategy that might include a brick-and-mortar restaurant, wholesale distribution, or a more well-rounded, effective catering business.

The food truck scene remains alive, yet it is increasingly being positioned in this new light. Entrepreneurs, many industry insiders say, will continue to enter the market with trucks, but do so with a more strategic business plan in hand. The truck will allow individuals to test their concept, build an identity, and generate critical insights on location, menu, and pricing before moving forward with a more elaborate investment of time and money.

Burmeister estimates that in Portland, about one third of the city’s newest food carts are already doing just that: entering the market with a business plan and a strategic vision, rather than merely a whimsical dream and a few tasty recipes.

“These folks believe they’re going to be successful and have a plan they’re committed to,” says Burmeister, joking that he now receives press releases announcing the debut of new carts and trucks, a once unthinkable, even comical, concept.

Many of these upstart food trucks will be looking to follow the path of Slapfish, which turned its 10-month food truck run in the O.C. into a burgeoning brick-and-mortar concept that aims to have eight units in operation by the middle of 2015.

With the Slapfish truck, Naude fine-tuned his concept’s seafood menu, trained staff, penetrated the market, and studied potential brick-and-mortar sites. More importantly, though, he leveraged that successful 2011 truck campaign to secure the necessary financial backing for a physical restaurant. Once he signed the first commercial lease, a spot in Huntington Beach, California, he immediately returned the food truck to his leasing dealer.

“We got in and got out,” Naude says. “As I see it, the food truck is a home run from the marketing standpoint, but from a financial standpoint, it’s just there.”

Throughout late 2011 and early 2012, then, Naude chronicled Slapfish’s journey from food truck to brick-and-mortar restaurant on social media. When the fast-casual eatery opened in April 2012, fans lined up around the block.

“We didn't open up hoping we would have customers,” Naude says. “They were there waiting for us.”

Existing concepts, meanwhile, seem ready to continue embracing food trucks as a worthwhile brand extension traveling to pre-planned events that allow the operation to put out a limited menu and efficiently manage its use of goods and labor. It’s a marketing vehicle, not the sole source of income; it’s used strategically and sparingly, not rolling down the streets on a daily basis.

Naude, in fact, is contemplating resurrecting the Slapfish truck, utilizing it as a roving billboard for the brand focused exclusively on catering and special events.

“When you’re able to go to specific private events, you can get paid up front, know the numbers you need to hit, and avoid the bureaucracy. That makes the truck more appealing than if it was the prime source of revenue and, from my vantage point, that’s what makes the most sense,” Naude says.

For Jackson, the veteran Texas Restaurant Association CEO who watched distinct food truck climates emerge in cities such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the rise and repositioning of food trucks is a familiar tale of change, of entrepreneurial evolution and marketplace transformation.

“The restaurant industry is one that’s always in transition and food trucks are experiencing that right now,” Jackson says.