Food revolution in wake of food truck growth

by Morton Sosland
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It is nigh on to impossible even to guess how many readers of this journal or executives of the food industry have eaten at one of the food trucks that have recently captured so much media attention. Many newspapers and business magazines have carried feature articles describing the amazing popularity of food trucks — vehicles parked on streets offering walk-up customers foods made and sold as the specialty of the operator. While most vehicles feature offerings within the fast-food category, in that they are served with haste, the offerings are for the most part totally different from what is expected when ordering fast food. Yes, the trucks compete with restaurants and food service establishments for the attention of food-buying customers. But how they compete and what they offer reflect a breadth of innovation so wide that it has prompted one astute observer to declare, “Food trucks are a little like food processors.”

Why this was said and how appropriate it is becomes an issue of importance to the companies that compete as food manufacturers. How can the numerous food-selling trucks found on popular street corners in large metropolitan areas be called food processors? Standing in the long lines, sometimes 50 to 60 people long, that are a feature of these trucks at meal time provides the chance to observe the inventiveness and novelty that go into making and selling, for instance, South Korean foods in a Mexican taco. The change from what once were carts selling frankfurters cooked in hot water and placed on cold buns and the array of offerings by trucks signals what is at work here. Rapid growth makes for a development that may not be neglected.

According to studies of this phenomenon, many of the food trucks are operated by young people trained as chefs looking for an easy and inexpensive way to try their hand at making and selling food. At work is the large investment required by a restaurant start-up, as well as the problems in maintaining popularity of a specific site. Compared with these realities, the advantages of a food truck moving to varied locations become obvious. Even though the items offered might stay the same from day to day, finding a new set of customers eager to try something new is another great plus for a truck moving to different and usually unplanned locations.

As simple as this method of food marketing might appear, the lessons for food manufacturers are quite complex. First, the customers of food trucks obviously are attracted by features that are not often assigned to making or marketing food. Sure, a food truck might feature “healthy” fare, but that is not the main selling point for large swaths of this booming food sector. New and good taste reign supreme. Second, standing in line to buy food to be eaten wherever, often just standing about, does not relate to the convenience that is frequently cited as all-important for food marketing. Trying to find a truck that offers food wanted at that particular time implies a customer willingness to search for a specific truck, again a practice not tied to food marketing success. The Harvard Business Review, the source of the quote about food processing, also says of the food truck phenomenon: “Consumers are telling us that they prize drama over utility, scarcity over ubiquity, novelty over the guaranteed sameness of the national brand.”
Whether this phenomenon signals a fundamental shift in what consumers want in food preparation and marketing is far from decided. Yet, the innovations and the new approaches that work with the food trucks do appear to cast doubt on what has been the accepted path to success in food processing. Dramatic changes have occurred in food manufacturing over the years, and, yes, some of these revolutions have been sparked by new places at which to buy and eat food.

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