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The day of the roach coach is dead.
With their innovative flair, pop culture allure, and culinary exploits, food trucks have become one of the restaurant industry’s most en vogue, recession-thumping trends.
Arriving as much from consumer interest as practical economic considerations, the street food fervor spurred a rush of inventive food trucks. Some truck leaders boast lofty culinary credentials; others pair an entrepreneurial spirit with homemade sass. Some source local ingredients and share a socially conscious message; others carry dynamic exterior designs and even some shock value. Most maintain an active social media presence, often alerting customers by way of Twitter or Facebook, while all have garnered attention for their unusual and unexpected addition to America’s foodservice landscape.
Blanketing urban environments on the coasts, led by New York City and Washington, D.C., on the right and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle on the left, food trucks are increasingly roaming the nation’s streets. QSR went in search of America’s top 20 food trucks and found a scene thriving in spirit and surging in momentum.
First Team All-American
Serving: Modern American cuisine
Operating a full commercial kitchen inside a 1968 Airstream Safari, Skillet serves 200–300 guests daily, concentrating its efforts in high-density office areas.
The revolving menu keeps Skillet’s offerings fresh and patrons enthusiastic. Popular plates include a coriander-braised duck, cous cous, mint, pickled cucumbers, and baby beets dish for $13 and, for a budget-friendly $8, maple-braised pork belly, cornmeal waffle, fried egg, and braising jus.
“I was tired of the brick-and-mortar style of serving and wanted to create an environment where great food was served in an environment you would normally not get it,” Skillet’s executive chef Joshua Henderson says.
Next: Skillet Diner coming in 2011, as well as nationwide distribution of the operation’s famed bacon jam.
Serving: Seasonal fare from local family farms
Globetrotting, accomplished chefs Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson created Chef Shack in 2006 to bring street food flair to the Twin Cities—at least from May to October. With two trucks and a trailer, Chef Shack operates at farmers’ markets, a setting that plays to the truck’s local, organic menu.
Chef Shack’s “Bold, Memorable Food” slogan is characterized by two customer favorites: tomato/watermelon gazpacho and organic Indian-spiced mini-donuts, which often spur hour-long lines. Other noteworthy dishes include beef tongue tacos and the pulled pork nachos.
Next: Potential opening of a Chef Shack in the Southeast during winters.
Hometown: Marfa, Texas
Spotted between a bookstore and railroad tracks, Food Shark’s nondescript location doesn’t stop upward of 200 patrons from finding the celebrated lunch truck Tuesday through Friday and the occasional Saturday.
Now in its fifth year, Food Shark began with the purchase of a 1974 Ford truck, Adam Bork’s desire for a new career, and Krista Steinhauer’s catering experience.
“The rest is history,” Bork says.
Although diners flock to try the falafel with romaine lettuce and homemade hummus, Food Shark’s most ingenious marketing step might have been the conversion of an old school bus into a dining car, a one-of-a-kind creation that limits Mother Nature’s wrath.
Next: Food Shark Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, which features Bork’s near 20-year collection of televisions and electronic devices alongside homemade grilled cheese sandwiches.
Hometown: Austin, Texas, & Los Angeles
Serving: Ice cream sandwiches
Embracing the nostalgia of the Good Humor Man and cofounder Natasha Case’s architecture roots, Coolhaus has been serving its made-to-order ice cream sandwiches in an edible, customizable wrapper since April 2009.
With three trucks in its fleet, Coolhaus announces its location via Twitter and Facebook. Dedicated fans wait up to two hours for the unusual dessert experience that features such flavors as Dirty Mint (fresh mint leaves, brown sugar, and molasses), Brown Butter Candied Bacon, Pistachio Black Truffle, and Red Wine Reduction.
Next: Expanding to New York City/Brooklyn and the Hamptons with an eye on other metro areas; launching a prepackaged line in a box resembling the Coolhaus truck.
Spencer on the Go!
Hometown: San Francisco
Serving: Alternative French cuisine
Spencer on the Go! results from the intersection of high-end culinary expertise and an honest entrepreneurial moment. Chef Laurent Katgely, the force behind San Francisco’s distinguished Chez Spencer, was eating at a taco truck when inspiration struck. Within months, Katgely had a truck and a parking spot in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood and was serving French take-away, a rare street-fare find given French cuisine’s formal nature.
Katgely’s specialties, which have been featured on The Food Network, TLC, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, include escargot lollipops, frog legs, lobster salads, and lamb cheeks sandwiches.
Next: “Who knows,” Katgely says.
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Since early 2008, Mmmpanadas has dazzled Austin diners with more than a dozen pocket-size, handmade empanadas, including favorites such as green chile chicken, spinach mushroom (with goat cheese and pine nuts), and pumpkin.
Seeking an effective marketing tool for their empanadas, husband and wife cofounders Cody and Kristen Fields landed upon a mobile unit as the perfect option. They saw it as a dramatic, moving red billboard that would drive attention to the truck and prompt a trial of the ultraportable empanada, which Kristine describes as “the perfect street food.”
Next: Whole Foods’ Southwest Region will soon be carrying Mmmpanadas. “Our ultimate goal,” Kristen says, “is wholesale domination.”
Fojol Bros. of Merlindia
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Serving: Indian with flair
Few operations embrace street fare’s fun-loving ways more than Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, where workers don flashy turbans and fake mustaches while serving Indian food from the fictional location of Merlindia. (Actually, the food comes from a local, though closely guarded, Indian restaurant.)
Described as a traveling culinary carnival, Fojol Bros. made its reputation at lunchtime. Since the truck’s debut on President Obama’s inauguration day in January 2009, Fojol Bros. has sparked a following for its buttered chicken (white meat with a butter cream sauce), spicy chicken curry, and pumpkin with fresh coconut and red chiles.
Next: A second truck, the Fojol Bros. of Benethiopia, seeks to make inroads with Ethiopian fare.
A never-stop-innovating mindset sparked a devoted following for Streetza’s specialty pies, including seasonal favorites such as the savory pumpkin pizza, crab leg pizza, and s’mores pizza. Streetza, launched in May 2009 out of a converted postal truck, can serve hundreds of slices in minutes—a definitive operational advantage.
Just as innovative as its menu, however, is Streetza’s customer relations. Involving customers in choosing the truck’s location (an iPhone app functions as a polling mechanism), exterior design, and pizza toppings, Streetza fashions a story that’s “not only about us, but about them,” says cofounder Scott Baitinger.
“If enough people ask us to come to their neighborhood, we do,” he says.
Next: Plans for 20 trucks to be operating by spring.
Dim and Den Sum
Serving: American comfort food with Asian flair
Few think of Cleveland as a culinary hotbed, but Dim and Den Sum is working to change that. While truck cofounder Chris Hodgson initially planned to roam Boston’s streets, partner Jeremy Esterly suggested they take their act to Cleveland, where food trucks are rare.
With the exception of its signature PBLT (pulled pork, house-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and sirachi mayo), Dim and Den Sum changes its budget-conscious menu weekly, an exhaustive task that keeps service fun, flavorful, and seasonal.
“We passionately love food and people and love being out on the streets … serving our crazy ideas,” Hodgson says of the truck, which frequents markets and high-traffic areas around Cleveland and Akron.
Next: A Dim and Den Sum restaurant in May along with another truck.
Serving: American favorites
Trolling around the streets of Seattle in a pig-shaped food truck—arguably the nation’s coolest-looking truck—Maximus/Minimus captures visual attention. Yet it’s the truck’s savory food that reels in customers.
The signature dish, a pulled pork sandwich, comes in Maximus, slightly spicy with hints of chipotle, or Minimus, a sweet-tinged offering with hints of tamarind and molasses. The locally sourced menu also features slaws, a grilled chicken sandwich, mac and cheese, and a seasonal dessert.
While the iron-colored truck roams local farmers’ markets, little league games, and pro sporting events, it’s the truck’s catering duties that take precedence.
Next: Potential menu changes to add variety.
Second Team All-American
The Buttermilk Truck
Hometown: Los Angeles
Serving: Decadent breakfast
Those clamoring for all-day breakfast have a friend in the Buttermilk Truck, a curbside operation created to appease breakfast-craving tastes. Serving homemade breakfast classics with a twist (red velvet pancake bites, cake donut holes, and biscuit breakfast sandwiches), Buttermilk introduces new pancake flavors each month and debuted cider donuts last fall.
The Grilled Cheese Truck
Hometown: Los Angeles
Serving: A new take on grilled cheese
The Grilled Cheese Truck quickly generated a loyal base for its grilled cheese concoctions, which chef Dave Danhi describes as the “culinary common denominator.” Popular selections include the Cheesy Mac & Rib, the Brie Melt, and the Caprese Melt. Customers can also customize their melt by selecting from a list of additions that includes bacon, avocado, pickles, and turkey.
Pi on the Spot
Hometown: St. Louis
Serving the “best of” deep-dish, cornmeal-crust pizza from its brick-and-mortar stores, Pi on the Spot blends award-winning dishes with philanthropy and business savvy.
Pi uses an iPad as its POS, constructs a mini-park with bistro tables and artificial turf for diners, offers WiFi access, donates remaining product to local food banks, and makes weekly stops at charitable fundraisers, all of which cements
its spot as a St. Louis wonder.
Hometown: Los Angeles
Serving: French fries
Frysmith’s french fry dishes eat as a meal, topped with all sorts of cheesy, meaty goodness, led by the best-selling Rajas Fries, which feature fire-roasted poblano chiles, caramelized onions, and marinated Angus skirt steak with Monterrey Jack cheese.
“Rather than asking, ‘What type of food can I do that isn’t already on a truck?’ … we created a new food concept and decided to use a truck to present it,” Frysmith’s Brook Howell says.
Kelvin Natural Slush Co.
Hometown: New York City
Seeking a sophisticated alternative to the convenience-store slushies he loved as a kid, Alex Rein serves his “grown-up” slushies to nearly 500 New Yorkers every day. The customized, all-natural frozen drinks feature real puréed fruit (raspberry, white peach, and others) as well as other natural mix-ins, such as chopped mint or basil. Customers can add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a float.
Nom Nom Truck
Hometown: Los Angeles
A baguette with mayonnaise and pâté stuffed with Vietnamese-style meats, like lemongrass chicken or honey-grilled pork, the Banh Mi headlines L.A.’s Nom Nom Truck menu. The popular mobile concept, dubbed “the Nominator,” is outfitted in neon green with a happy face. Fans of the truck, who call themselves “Nomsters,” will soon be able to enjoy new specials, including Cajun shrimp and barbecue chicken.
Hometown: Half Moon Bay, California
A 24-foot-long, lobster-red truck, Sam’s became the San Francisco Bay Area’s first gourmet seafood truck when it opened in June 2009. A mobile takeoff of the Sam’s Chowder House restaurant, overseen by celebrated chef Paul Shenkman, the two-fryer Chowdermobile delights with its New England clam chowder and Maine lobster roll, recently named one of America’s top five sandwiches by NBC’s Today Show.
Solar Waffle Works
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
[Too cool for the Web]
Solar Waffle Works arrives from the minds of Portland high school students, who handled market research, truck design, marketing, and health department certification. Also a non-profit program created to help at-risk students transition into post-high school life, the solar-powered food truck serves some of Portland’s most creative fare, including an appetizing maple bacon waffle (five strips of apple-smoked bacon on top of a maple butter spread). Solar Waffle Works sources most of its food from within a 200-mile radius and even offers vegan-friendly options.
Rickshaw Dumpling Truck
Hometown: New York City
A three-truck fleet, Rickshaw has regular customers who rejoice when “Dumpling Day” parks in their slice of the Big Apple. Looking to expand his restaurant’s brand, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar owner Kenny Lao turned to mobile units to share the popular, centuries-old street food, including healthy options like chicken and Thai basil dumplings, vegetarian edamame dumplings, and Peking duck dumplings.
Hometown: Orange County, California
Crepes Bonparte’s mustachioed truck (“Gaston”) features custom-made crêpe griddles where customers can view their crêpes’ creation by a beret-wearing chef while listening to French pop music. Signature crêpes include the PCH (peanut butter, Nutella, and honey), which tastes like a warm Reese’s peanut butter cup, and the Wake-Me-Up Breakfast crêpe, which features fresh-cracked eggs, mozzarella, and pesto.
The Munchie Machine
The L.A.-based Munchie Machine earned a loyal following for its gourmet grilled sandwiches, hand-cut parmesan pesto fries, and delectable Scooby Snack, a peanut butter-and-jelly s’mores sandwich.
Truckin’ Good Food
Jeffrey Kraus opened Truckin’ Good Food in Phoenix to deliver French dishes with hearty Midwestern flair, including pommes frites (double-fried potatoes in duck fat) and sweet crêpes.
A spawn of Washington, D.C.’s popular Sweetgreen eatery, the Sweetflow Mobile serves organic frozen yogurt with seasonal toppings as well as salads and wraps consistent with its healthy lifestyle branding.
Buns on Wheels
This Seattle food truck offers customers convenience—outdoor seating,
rain protection, and a patio heat lamp—alongside natural, clean burgers.
Joe’s on the Nose
A San Diego “drink truck,” Joe’s features artisan espresso, coffee, and tea drinks, as well as various organic hot chocolates and blended drinks.
A Portland favorite, Big-Ass serves its robust, homemade sandwiches with fries on the sandwich, thereby creating Big Ass–specific flavors and combinations diners crave.
King of Pops
Steven Carse mans this Atlanta food cart that serves handmade gourmet popsicles, such as pumpkin pie, blackberry lemonade, and grapefruit mint.
Daniel P. Smith will be covering the fall of the pizza industry in the next issue of QSR.