Food trucks as an ethnic pastiche: are they the new emblem of the American dream?

For the last decade or so, it’s been not too difficult to spot a specific type of vehicle parked on the street or driveway in residential neighborhoods.  Here’s an example in a quiet lower-middle class part of Alexandria, Virginia:

Yes, it’s the formerly ubiquitous (but hardly obsolete) food truck.  Before its explosion in popularity about a decade ago, this mildly controversial alternative to fast-casual dining enjoyed a prelude in a few select big cities; Philadelphia particularly comes to mind, where a panoply of white cargo mini-trucks would perch at various locations throughout Center City and West Philadelphia from early morning until mid-afternoon, catering to students and workers for a low-cost nibble at breakfast or lunch.  I mention Philadelphia specifically (and not New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or other pedestrian rich cities) for two reasons: I know it well because I once lived there, and the food truck scene in Philly long distinguished itself for its eclecticism.  It wasn’t just hot dogs or cheesesteaks or those squashed-looking Philly style pretzels (though it had all of those).  Even in the mid 2000s, when I discovered them, the Philadelphia food trucks were Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Greek, kosher, vegan, and the prices were stupefyingly low.  It was easy to find a fulfilling meal—big enough to satisfy at dinner—for a clean $4.  And it was pretty respectable, hastily prepared in usually four to six minutes while people would mill about in a row, waiting and shooting the breeze.  It was a subculture.  Still is.

The food truck fad that swept the nation in the late 2000s used places like Philadelphia as its launchpad and ramped it up a few notches.  It’s problematic trying to pinpoint exactly what prompted the promulgation of these portable canteens, but the shifting economics during the Great Recession are a popular culprit: demand for fast casual eating surged at the same time that many well-trained executive and sous chefs at high-end restaurants were losing their jobs.  They sought an option that allowed them to start their own eateries without a huge down payment; even a new truck with kitchen capability is, in 2021 dollars, likely to run well under $100,000, which is far less than the costs for opening a new franchised location of Subway—in itself among the cheapest of big-name fast-food restaurants.  (By comparison, it takes seven figures to set up a KFC.)  Food trucks, therefore, are a fantastic way for an aspiring new restaurateur to get his or her feet in the door.

By 2012, food trucks were a hot commodity in any city with a viable downtown entertainment scene.  The fact that people associated the movable kitchens with recreation itself represents a sea change in the industry; the all-white carts in Philadelphia were purely utilitarian, for workers or passers-by to fill their bellies, not a social venture in itself.  But the food truck scene in the last decade has evolved to append itself to outdoor music concerts, microbreweries that lack full kitchens or the licensing to prepare/serve food, or even “food truck festivals” which assemble several (or even dozens) of food trucks in a vast parking lot.  The various trucks only partly compete with one another, since they aren’t all selling cheesesteaks and kielbasa; in fact, it’s likely that none of them are.  While one truck might offer Nashville hot chicken, another offers banh mi subs, a third offers köfte kebabs, and its neighbor serves Japanese tempura.  The competing ethnicities warrant comparisons to a mall food court, except that the offerings are usually much greater, and the whole undertaking earns clout since most or all of the trucks are homegrown.  These festivals/rallies/rodeos elevate the humdrum food truck into a multicultural smorgasbord, a spirited gathering of foodies, and, like the one featured in the photo, the decorated trucks themselves help enhance the brand.  Within a year or two of the successful launch of a food truck festival, live music served as an accompaniment, and the food was the primary attraction.  Add bocce or cornhole or street performers and it’s no less festive than the typical Fourth of July extravaganza.

As accomplished and innovative chef-entrepreneurs ventured into the food truck industry, it should come as no surprise that the prices pushed skyward.  It no doubt helped that the heritage of food trucks as a low-cost lunch option during the work day in big-city downtowns helped ease public tolerance for a $12 banh mi sandwich, even if the willingness to pay those sort of prices in a city the size of (for example) Fort Wayne was heretofore unprecedented.  The new-wave food trucks were more expensive than the old-wave ones, and they were more expensive than most fast-food or even the fast-casual, so the bigger competitor ultimately was the industry whose recession pinch prompted the food trucks’ original proliferation: full-service, sit-down restaurants, whose prices were either comparable or still higher.

This injection of a new competitive enterprise has left the food trucks’ position fraught with controversy.  It’s not hard at all for a mobile entrepreneur to find a lively entertainment strip (or a prosperous neighborhood main street) with a wealth of hip local restaurants, perch the truck on a prominent corner, and siphon business away from the bricks-and-mortar establishments nearby.  The food truck does not hire servers, or hosts, nor does it have a table bussing option (it has no tables) or the attendant dishwashers.  Its business license functions differently, and it falls into completely different considerations regarding property taxes.  As a result of these conditions, regional hospitality industries have often petitioned local governments to subject food trucks to greater regulations, impeding their growth.  Among the most onerous were those in mid-2010s Chicago, where the food preparation had to take place in a fixed commercial kitchen; the truck could only serve as a “food warmer”.  The relaxation of these regulations proved elusive; even after Chicago permitted kitchens in the vehicles themselves, the City restricted them from parking within 200 feet of an existing restaurant, thereby preventing them from setting up camp just about anywhere downtown where workers are likely to congregate.  The libertarian publication Reason continues to adhere to its anti-regulation principles, lambasting cities’ “protectionism” against food trucks in the age of COVID-19, again keeping them from driving out their bricks-and-mortar competitors.  While I understand the publication’s writers are sticking to their principles in this regard, they neglect to devote an equal degree of criticism to the regulations imposed on sit-down restaurants amidst coronavirus lockdowns.  Keeping in mind that, during peak pandemic, bricks-and-mortar restaurants essentially had to operate like food trucks, offering carryout only while still staying fixed in one location with a bunch of dusty tables and chairs to maintain (and a wait staff to furlough), I can at least offer an olive branch to the fixed-location restaurateurs who felt a government-induced squeeze that made them the losers in a win-lose pandemic proposition.

Regardless of how the public responds to COVID-19 as summer approaches—the peak season for food festivals—food trucks have evolved since the Great Recession from a novelty to a best practice for starter restaurants.  And that means the initiatives manifest a risk tolerance we don’t typically expect in bricks-and-mortar.  Including the branding.

food trucks in Alexandria, Virginia, in an immigrant-heavy neighborhood

They call it “Tokyo in the City”.  But what city is it, exactly?  The letter I in “City” looks like a silhouette of the Empire State Building.  But this food truck is sitting parked in a residential area in Alexandria, one of the largest cities in metropolitan Washington DC.  Why not include a silhouette of the Washington Monument?  It’s just as recognizable—probably more so—and clearly more emblematic of the city.  Though the photo dates from May 2021, it’s not entirely clear to me how active this food truck is; the Facebook page hasn’t received a post since 2014.  Yelp suggests it was still active at least before the dawn of the pandemic.  Can we form judgment about the neighborhood itself, or what else is parked nearby?

food trucks in Alexandria, Virginia

While Tokyo in the City is on the street, the driveway to the same house offers another food truck: Bangkok House.  This lower-middle class neighborhood of 1950s-era housing is certainly a hotbed for immigrants, but the general profile in the area is either Latin American (especially Salvadoran) or Middle Eastern or southwest Asian (Afghan).  Not Thai or Japanese.  I’m hardly one to criticize immigrant cultures (or any culture for that matter) trying their hands at whatever cuisine they wish to share; may the winners flourish.  But the low capital investment in food trucks may prompt some fanciful incarnations, much the same weird undertaking that one might encounter among bricks-and-mortar restaurants in a low-income area.

Placed within the greater context of entertainment and hospitality-oriented small biz, food trucks may ultimately most effectively serve as a stepping stone: an initial attempt for a less affluent entrepreneur to cut his or her teeth in something that allows versatility through its non-permanence.  Over time, the more successful food trucks can “graduate” to leased space within the ever-popular food halls.  And, if they eventually seek more autonomy and a discrete structure associated with their brand identity, they can lease permanent space in a building with an entrance all their own.  And while they won’t likely get Reason magazine to take their side, they won’t need it, because they’ve transcended the physical and legal hurdles to prove their innovative product has a steady coterie of loyal buyers.  Even if the empanada costs fifteen smackers.

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11 thoughts on “Food trucks as an ethnic pastiche: are they the new emblem of the American dream?

  1. AvatarChris B

    Sigh. I miss Philly cheesesteaks. And pretzels. Here in Hoosierville, cheesesteaks are on not-Italian bread, not-thinly-enough-sliced beef, with provolone cheese and green peppers. It’s as if no one’s ever been to Pat’s…or a Philly truck.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Yeah, a home-grown equivalent to Tony Luke’s has yet to breach the Circle City’s boundaries. Not even Pat’s or Geno’s, really. They seem to be doing better with Philly-style pretzels, at least from the place I recall in Meridian-Kessler (not sure it’s still there). Maybe not authentic Philly, but at least different enough from the standard Bavarian style to have an identity all its own.

      Isn’t there a hoagie place in Butler-Tarkington? Never been there, but I remember it getting pretty good ratings.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        Now that I’ve been off the northside for a decade and a half, I am relatively unfamiliar with all the restaurants. A real hoagie now and then would be nice, though whole wheat bread isn’t hoagie-authentic.

        Penn Station comes closest on cheesesteaks but they don’t seem to understand that it’s working-class food made with fake cheese from a can. And, of course, they’re closed at 2am. I think Steak and Shake missed that possibility and now that the chain has been ruined, perhaps one of the other grilled-hamburger places will see fit to add the item. But…there aren’t enough of us expatriates to keep them in business, I suspect.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          The shortage of expats may indeed be a problem. Then again, I remember thinking how ugly and unappealing a Philly pretzel looked the first time I tried it. But it survived beyond the aesthetics or poor presentation because it is very much its own thing. And Philly pretzel places are now at least reasonably easy to find scattered across the country. But for whatever reason, cheesesteak is (outside of Penn Station) something few regional entrepreneurs seem willing to try. At this point, I suspect in five years it’ll be far easier to find locally run places that serve Detroit-style pizza than it will to find similar establishments that serve Philly cheesesteaks. And Detroit-style pizza is nowhere near as much a signature Detroit dish as the cheesesteak is in Philly.

          Having not been to a Steak-and-Shake for at least five years, I’m still unclear what ruined the chain, though I’d agree it probably is ruined. All I see is IBJ articles and the comment boards, which are highly subjective. Even under that controversial guy who’s run the place for 10+ years (Bigliari?) it seemed to do well through the mid 2010s, growing even in its presence in the Northeast. It was a big deal when they opened one in Times Square, which I’m sure is gone now (of course, after the last year, does Times Square have any restaurants left?). Was it a sudden drop in quality or a slow ebb concomitant with the over-expansion? Are they gonna go full H.H. Gregg?

          Reply
          1. AvatarChris B

            SnS under Biglari implemented and stuck with a discount menu ($4 meals) that couldn’t begin to pay the staff and overhead necessary to support actual table service and quality food. And tips on two or three or four $4 meals wouldn’t attract much quality serving help.

            Consequently tables were often dirty/uncleared and waitstaff and managers-on-duty indifferent. 3 of our last 4 visits (spaced about a year apart) were not good. We’ve just stopped going as there are better QSR and fast food experiences available.

            (I’m one of the folks who comments on those IBJ stories about SnS, btw.)

            Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    Hey! Props for mentioning my home town! (Fort Wayne). I am probably retiring by fall and would like to visit the old stomping grounds. Had no idea it has an excellent food truck scene. (It has, or had, an excellent gourmet brew pub, Junk Ditch)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      I have to confess: I just threw the Fort’s name in, as a sample of a mid- to smallish Middle American city, primarily because I suspect it has a good food truck scene. Or good enough. If it can muster some good breweries and a third wave coffee shop downtown–which Fort Wayne clearly CAN–then I don’t imagine it’d be hard to claim a food truck scene. The ethnic mix in Fort Wayne is such that food trucks should be a great way for smallish Burmese or Bosnian or Darfuri restaurateurs to get started before they establish a permanent location.

      And of course, as you noted, they really do have a place called Junk Ditch. A built-in site for hipsterhood.

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Awesome burgers. Would fit right into a Bay Area hipster neighborhood (with similar prices). Heck. If it wasn’t for the fact that I detest winter and am not fond of the corn belt landscape, Fort Wayne would be a cheap retirement locale. Amazing real estate prices. 🙂

        Reply
        1. AvatarChris B

          One of Indiana’s best destination restaurants, Joseph Decuis, is just down Highway 24 from the Fort in Roanoake, and just a little farther is a decent small winery, Two EE’s. Both are worth a drive from Central Indiana now and then.

          Reply
  3. AvatarDianaLeigh

    I would love to see the food truck scene really take off. It seems so creative and entrepreneurial to the nth degree. My actual experience is minimal, but not entirely positive. I have seen the trucks run out of food. I have purchased some food and then not have a satisfactory place to eat the food(problem when not finger food.). I have been to an event where food trucks that were listed in the advertising simply did not show up. All this is par for a quickly-created restaurant by often inexperienced vendors. This is not to say that some food trucks probably are managed quite well.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, I’d say it runs the gamut, like all restaurants. But food-truck operators are probably a bit more risk tolerant since there’s less capital at stake. But you raised a very good point that I had neglected: in the old days of food trucks (those white Philadelphia trucks before things got so fancy) were almost always finger food, or, at the very least, they made it easy to tote around–e.g., if it was chicken fried rise from a Chinese food truck, they’d serve it in sealable tin that could stay warm for a while, along with the necessary plastic utensils. Many of the new-wave trucks serve fancy food that is messy, but also uncovered, so it could both get cold and spill easily. And we have little choice but to eat it right away. And yes, since the kitchens are tiny and have little room for storage (and probably virtually no freezer space), they cannot easily replenish supplies…and run out quickly. But the creativity still transcends the setbacks!

      Reply

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