The Rise of the Food Truck

It’s 11:45 AM and hordes of your coworkers suddenly jump out of their chairs and start filtering into the elevators. Across the street a block-long line continues to grow. On any day in pretty much any big city in the U.S., you can find office dwellers jockeying to read the handwritten menu hung on the side of an old airstream or converted RV, while the owner/chef is hard at work inside, serving up delicious mobile meals. Ask anyone in your office what their favorite sidewalk stop is, and chances are they’ll have an answer. You probably do, too. The food truck has once again become the center of the lunchtime hustle.

Kogi BBQ food truck

From roach coach to rolling gourmet cuisine

Conceptually, street food is nothing new to the hungry, wandering American consumer. Food trucks and their historical equivalents have been a staple of our lunch breaks since the late 17th century, when foot-powered carts roamed the streets looking to satiate the appetites of those wanting a quick bite. Modern-day street fare matriculated from the depths of Southern California, and, when the recession forced talented chefs out of the restaurant and onto the road, their masterpieces eventually ended up on generic paper plates, served with never enough napkins. The concept may not have changed, but the food definitely has. It’s really, really good, and loyal customers are willing to walk, bike, or even drive miles out of the way to get a taste of their favorite fish taco or Cuban sandwich – questionable on convenience, but proof of the food’s lasting impact. The next wave of culinary innovation is being crafted in a cramped kitchen on a street near you. And you have access to all of it; all you have to do is get in line with $10 and an appetite.

kogi bbq tacos

Taco takeover

Though it probably wasn’t the first modern-day food truck, Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck in Los Angeles is widely credited with starting the movement. This legend among food trucks pioneered not just gourmet goods to go, but also astutely took advantage of the rapid expansion of social media. For years, California’s old-school taco trucks fed the impatient and short of cash with the perfect combination of ingredients. Then, on Thanksgiving of 2008, Choi unveiled the new standard. The fused flavors of his $2 Korean barbecue tacos would soon reverberate through the city and beyond. Others took notice of Choi’s restaurant rebellion. Used car lots were picked clean as chefs converted four-wheeled beasts into food sources, offering cheap cuisine born on the streets and perfected inside converted kitchens. With Roy Choi and Kogi as the jewels in L.A.’s street food crown, the modern food truck era hit its stride – and everyone was happy and full.

App-etizers

There was a time when social media was the only way to ensure a taste of Kogi’s savory street eats – the company would alert customers of the trucks’ locations via tweets. Now, for burgeoning food truckers, establishing a viral presence is almost as important as the taste of the food itself. Chef Choi even said it himself: “Without Twitter, it wouldn’t be anything.” That ‘it,’ being the revitalized food truck revolution, is definitely something. And while most of us no longer need a Twitter update to find our favorite truck, having a trusted app is still a quick and convenient way to hit the streets and find something new. After all, those lines aren’t getting any shorter. The best options are going to be specific to your city, but apps like Roaming Hunger for iOS, Eat St. (iOS | Android), and Truxmap for Android buck boundaries to help patrons across the country find what they’re hungry for.

Map of Austin food trucks

What drives the food truck nation?

These days, being able to get outside for a few minutes, grab restaurant-quality grub, and then get back to the cubicle before your monitor falls asleep are some of the main benefits of visiting any of the dozens of food trucks in your area. Hunger and time constraints have provided the foundation for the newest trend in fast food, where convenience has always been king. Offering diverse, cheap food and gaining local trust through the stomach is a great way to ingrain one’s self in the local food scene. And what started out as a way for both provider and consumer to save a few dollars has now become a billion-dollar industry.  Pull up across from a crowded office building, feed the meter, start cooking, and watch the line form. Tapping into the local market has never been easier or cheaper. And sure, having a shtick may help you to stand out from a crowd, but one thing remains constant: if it tastes good, they will come to eat.

line outside clover food truck

From mobile to mortar – and vice versa

Mobile eateries are built to move you with a range of worldly foods, from southern comfort food to Asian fusion – and everything in between. Sometimes, if the food is good enough, cooks can put the parking brake in place and move into more stationary quarters. For eateries like Skillet and Marination in Seattle and Franklin Barbeque in Austin, the recipe for success may have started on wheels, but demand for their mouth-watering meals has allowed for expansion into traditional brick-and-mortar locales. While the novelty may not be there, the lines still are. And not surprisingly, restaurants that got their start in buildings have launched their own army of food trucks, gassed up and ready to drive into the mobile munchies market. Whether you prefer tradition to truck – in the end, we the consumers are the real winners. And as long as our taste buds continue to lead our lunchtime leanings, food trucks will flourish. Now go eat.

Photo credits: Kenji Ross, Lisa @ Sierra Tierra, Stu Spivack, and Raul.

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