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.
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?
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.