A funny thing happened when food trucks took to the streets of America. Restaurants survived.
Sure, a few cities around the country may be starting to see a backlash by brick-and-mortar restaurants against the myriad mobile kitchens that have proliferated in a brutal economy. Every dining dollar counts these days, and a party of six eating dumplings or duck confit from a come-and-go curbside truck cuts into the income a "real" restaurateur needs to pay for everything from linens to dishwashers to rent itself.
But many savvy entrepreneurs see the trend as a win-win situation. Wolfgang Wannabes can get a relatively low-budget start on the street and build a following, while established restaurateurs can collaborate to make extra income, whether by renting kitchen space at off-hours or actually doing the cooking for the fly-by-day vendors.
And if imitation is the most trustworthy form of flattery, this is an even busier two-way street. More and more restaurateurs are starting to take their food on the road, validating the whole concept, while curbside cooks are increasingly opening restaurants without giving up on their first ventures.
Matt Geller, a founder of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association that has mobilized since January in Los Angeles, says there is no way to quantify how the truck movement is affecting restaurants, although he sees the biggest impact in areas with few or no food choices where workers are now thrilled to be able to buy ambitious braised pork belly or just a simple burrito. Restaurants that offer "ambiance, a bar, great food" will never be affected, he says. (Location, location matters more than ever now that food is "movable and malleable," Geller adds.)
Established restaurateurs may complain that food trucks have an unfair advantage because they don't pay rent, but Geller notes that they still have to pay for commissary space to clean and restock their "kitchens," they pay for licenses and food and staff, and they pay for rent on storage space and commissaries to do most of the prep work. And then there is the energy and the cost of social media: Because trucks are literally on the move, they need Twitter and Facebook to get the word out on where they are and when, plus what they are serving. Websites are so 2009.
On the plus side, Geller says, trucks develop something close to cults. "Restaurants have customers," he says. "Food trucks have followers." The difference lies in the devotion--the latter will follow their food wherever it is.
The food truck phenomenon has obviously exploded in the last year, partly inspired by Roy Choi of Los Angeles, whose Kogi trucks have served thousands and thousands with crossover Korean/Mexican cuisine, including kimchi quesadillas. And talk about a business model: He not only famously grossed $2 million his first year but was also just named Food & Wine magazine's best new chef of 2010, even though he doesn't have a stockpot to stew in like the nine other winners with free-standing restaurants and fixed expenses to cover.
No wonder vendors from Miami to Minneapolis and beyond are getting into the mobile act. Portland has become the Disneyland of food trucks, with areas set aside to create "food courts" that attract even bigger crowds. Seattle is edging toward allowing carts, and New York is nearly overrun. Now the Los Angeles area is beginning to emulate the Portland model, setting aside not just parking spaces for food trucks but clearing lots where four or more trucks can gather to draw bigger crowds for more income.
An aspiring Choi may have a somewhat easier time of it than a would-be Adriá , too. In the bushwhacked economy, more resources are available for entrepreneurs with literal taste. Classes and seminars are being offered on the ins and outs of starting a truck: dealing with health department and other regulations, licensing, navigating parking rules and other issues. And Geller estimates a food truck cutting every corner can hit the road for as little as a $25,000 investment at a time when restaurants still draw up business plans for $1 million or more.
For trucksters who just want to roll, not cook, restaurants sometimes provide the mobile cuisine. Pojol Bros. in Washington, D.C., for instance, dispenses curries but won't disclose which Indian restaurant cooks them up.
At the same time, more and more, "grounded" restaurants are expanding into Streetland even as food trucks are moving into set locations, like Calexico in New York City, which evolved off the streets of SoHo to a cafe in Brooklyn with a built-in following. Top-rated Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami recently started sending a food cart to farmers markets and other locations. Boucherie in New Orleans dispatches its Purple Truck to clubs on a "Que Crawl." Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill in Los Angeles have also taken to the streets. Even cult icon David Chang and superstar chef Daniel Boulud in New York City have not been above putting food out on the curb, at least for promotional events.
But for now, the street game is really suited to the individual entrepreneur. Geller says food carts can do catering even easier than real restaurants can. Hosts who want to put on parties with a choice of cuisines can hire more than one truck. Events that once required restaurants to serve throngs under tents can now be handled solely by mobile vendors. (Who understands better the vagaries of al fresco cooking and serving?) Food trucks can also band together to do festivals--a recent one organized by Geller's group in Los Angeles attracted 18,000 people paying $5 apiece (plus more shelling out $30 for VIP tickets).
In many ways, the food truck phenomenon echoes the takeout takeover of the mid-'80s in America. Shops like the Silver Palate in New York City introduced the concept of restaurant-quality fare that could be bought to go, to eat at home on your own table. It was revolutionary at the time. And somehow the restaurant world not only survived--it expanded, too.
Regina Schrambling is a writer in New York City.