Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at) gmail.com

Meals on Wheels

Going beyond mystery-meat hotdogs, spruced-up food trucks offer new options for gourmets on the go. With a selection of locally sourced, artisanal and organic foods, mobile vending is on the move.

With some of the best street food vendors taking to the open road, gourmet food trucks, already part of an established culture in the USA, are driving the movement forward in Europe.

Accelerating demand
In the US, the mobile food vending industry will be worth $630m this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, up from $608m in 2010. This increased popularity is thanks to vendors popping up in cities across the country with ever more sophisticated menus, such as Gastropod’s lamb and fennel mini burgers in Miami, and Cake & Shake’s Haitian mango milkshakes in New York.

Elsewhere, underground food raves and food truck rodeos, where mobile vendors gather in a carpark or unused lot to create a drive-up food fair, are also becoming popular in cities including San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina.

Food trucks speeding ahead in Europe
While the food truck market is less developed in Europe, new awareness-raising initiatives are making inroads. Petra Barran, founder of the hugely popular Choc Star, an initiative to strengthen London’s growing mobile food trading community. This May, eat.st organised #16days, a mobile vending parade including Mexican street food vendor Buen Provecho, hotdog vendor The Dogfather, and the Bhangra Burger Bus, offering a twist on Indian food, in a pub garden in Peckham, south London.

Low start-up costs aid adoption
What’s the appeal of food on the go? For independent entrepreneurs, food trucks offer lower barriers to entering a market than a restaurant or even a small café or deli might. Mobile vendors avoid paying the rent, and outfitting and waitstaffing costs associated with a bricks-and-mortar space, and can hook up to free social networks such as Twitter and Facebook for marketing and publicity purposes.

‘We put the restaurant option on the back burner from the get-go,’ says Laurie Isola, co-founder of mobile Mexican kitchen Tacos Berlin. ‘The start-up costs were high and, for newbies like us, there were too many unknowns. Instead, we began this whole adventure as an outlaw taco table in the park. It was our way to test the market and see if this was something we wanted to pursue.’

The taste of adventure
For customers, meanwhile, food trucks serve up a sense of freedom with their (hand-cut) fries. ‘There’s this romantic idea of moving around,’ Barran says. ‘People love the idea that somebody has broken away from the fixity of life. It’s the ephemerality of it that appeals.’

Food truck futures
While there is potential for growth in the European mobile vending market – after all, cities such as Paris and Amsterdam already have bustling outdoor markets where consumers willingly buy food from street vendors – this growth will likely depend on city legislation on issues such as parking, and health and safety.

‘It may all come down to local regulations,’ Isola suggests. ‘As seen in the US, city regulations can make or break a mobile food vendor’s business.’

Sidestepping such regulations, Barran believes, we are set to see a reconsideration of private and public space as publicans and retailers, keen to be part of the excitement of the food truck movement, welcome mobile vendors to their grounds.

‘More private landowners are seeing the value in bringing food to their pub gardens, for example, and making a new kind of public space available,’ she says. ‘I think there’s going to be a lot of that going on in the future.’

Still, the novelty, adventure and grassroots-participation element of food trucks will always come second to the food on offer, and the most successful operators will find that the future of food trucks lies in ensuring a high standard of sourcing and food preparation.

‘The appeal of Tacos Berlin is our food. It has to be,’ Isola says. ‘Without the food, it’s just a van covered in pretzel decals.’

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15 July 2011