Summertime brings a new surge of food-truck activity each year, from events like Truckeroo in the Washington, D.C., market and Food Truck Fridays in Charlotte, N.C., to cross-country tours by chains like TGI Fridays, which launched a food truck stocked with free samples in the hope of reintroducing young consumers to the casual chain.
Lee Campbell has been making customized trucks and RVs for 25 years, and he added mobile kitchens into the mix about 10 years ago, when the demand began to grow. His company, Manassas, Va.- based S&L Customs Food Trucks & Trailers, outfits and retrofits trucks, transforming them into mobile kitchens.
In recent years, he has seen a rise in food trucks doing ethnic cuisines, seasonal seafood concepts and higher-end fare. Made-to-order gourmet meals can be tough to pull off in a food truck, he said, because customers expect the whole transaction to take three or four minutes, but chefs are striving to create new fast flavors.
Food trucks started coming into their own in the U.S. about five years ago, as chefs in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles sought to feed growing demand for new cuisines and freshly prepared fare. They flourished in the recession years, as consumers sought less-pricey dining options, according to a report from research firm IBISWorld. Industry revenue grew about 12.4% annually in the five years to 2014, and today the U.S. boasts nearly 4,000 food truck companies that employ 14,424 people.
Some chefs start them as a more affordable way to launch a culinary business, a steppingstone to the world of brick-and-mortar eateries. Others, like Kogi BBQ founder Roy Choi, create thriving, multi-truck businesses that go on growing even as they build restaurant empires.
A number of established restaurant chains including Starbucks, TGI Fridays, White Castle and Taco Bell have been using summer food truck tours to build brand awareness, and Walt Disney World in Orlando recently announced plans to open a Food Truck Park for the theme park’s four mobile eateries, as Eater and other news outlets reported.
Even IBM has gotten into the act, with a food truck designed to demonstrate the recipe-creating skills of its Watson supercomputer. Watson’s Cognitive Cooking Systems algorithms incorporate cultural, regional and scientific knowledge to develop palate-pleasing recipes. On the truck, chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education turn the recipes into real dishes such as Austrian Chocolate Burritos and Portuguese Lobster Rolls.
But most mobile eatery operators are still small culinary entrepreneurs who drive out each day to feed their fans and earn a living.
S&L is a sponsor of Truckeroo and Food Truck Fiesta, the Washington, D.C.-area food truck tracker that organizes the monthly event, which showcases about 25 trucks from the long and increasingly diverse roster of are mobile eateries. The list holds plenty of the traditional Korean BBQ, hot dogs and ice cream, but these days it also includes a Hawaiian concept called Hula Girl, Beltway Latin Cuisine, Bratwurst King, Crepe Love, and an Indian kitchen called Naan Stop DC.
The area, and others, are finding ways to make food truck operators feel welcome. Mobile Cuisine has issued a list of Top 20 Cities to Open a Food Truck, based on a host of criteria including the current size of the local food truck industry, licensing fees and the freedom to operate under existing laws. San Antonio, Texas, took first place, and Tampa, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., Albuquerque and Indianapolis rounded out the top five.
The IBISWorld report also looks at the effect laws and local ordinances have on the ability of food trucks to operate, and concludes that some places have made it easier for these small businesses to get started, while others have imposed parking restrictions, limited operating hours and banned food trucks from setting up near brick-and-mortar eateries. The report advises state and local governments to find ways to make it easier for small mobile food businesses to survive and grow, and some are heeding those words.
California, one of the states that first embraced food trucks, put a new rule into place on July 1 that’s designed to make it easier for food truck customers to pay. The state Board of Equalization’s new rules say that food truck customers can assume sales taxes are figured into the posted price, a move aimed at moving the line faster.
Competition has also been on the rise, leading a forecast for slower growth and smaller profit margins in the years ahead. Campbell has also seen a bit of a slowdown lately, especially when it comes to new custom truck business. What has been picking up is the retrofitting business, as trucks change hands and new owners want to customize them to their own standards and cuisines.
He also anticipates that there will be a big focus on food truck safety in the aftermath of last week’s explosion of a propane tank on a food truck in Philadelphia, which injured 11 people. Prospective food truck operators should be prepared to pay between $25,000 and $50,000 to properly outfit a mobile kitchen, and they need to take care from the start they’re working with certified truck builders that follow federal standards, he said.
What’s the trendiest food truck you’ve seen so far this summer? Tell us about it in the comments.
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