Food trucks aren’t just about serving up corn dogs and funnel cakes any more. An increasing number of them are popping up street side in big cities and on downtown squares in small-town America. On any given day, food trucks from coast to coast are serving up everything from gourmet sandwiches and authentic Mexican tacos to slow-smoked BBQ, French-inspired crepes, specialty desserts and more. As throngs of customers gather, the food truck culture continues to explode.
In 2011, food trucks represented a $630 million industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, that number is expected to grow to $2.8 billion by 2017. Today, there are an estimated 3 million food trucks in the U.S. and they’re becoming more organized and creative by the day. A tour of food truck festivals will put down roots in parks and public spaces across New England from June through October. In Austin, a thriving cluster of food trucks known as “The Picnic” has emerged, complete with a sea of shaded picnic tables, restrooms, parking lots and more.
All of this got me wondering, “Is the food truck scene becoming the modern-day picnic?” What better day to put that question to food truck owners themselves than International Picnic Day?
“I think there’s something to that,” said Matt Geller, president of the National Food Truck Association. “Good food absolutely brings people together. For so long, communities have had all these wonderful green spaces but they’ve been underutilized. Food trucks start popping up and, all of a sudden, there’s a social aspect — an excitement. It’s more than a picnic. It’s the modern-day social gathering aspect.”
Geller lives in Los Angeles County, where there are a staggering 2,600 registered food trucks. But the movement — and his take on it— aren’t confined to the coast or even metropolitan areas.
“The modern-day picnic thing is completely valid,” said Jordan Poole, co-owner of Big Rub BBQ, one of a growing number of successful food trucks near the historic downtown square in Bentonville, Ark. “People still love good food, and they love coming together outside with family and friends. The difference today is the quality of food has gone way up and they’re sitting at picnic tables in front of my truck rather than on the grass in a park.”
A few steps away, Fred and Paula Henry are busy serving gourmet crepes out of their food truck, Crepes Paulette. They began selling crepes at the Bentonville Farmers Market and First Friday festivals in 2010. Before long, they had a loyal following and were selling their creations five to six days per week. A handful of blocks away, customers line up daily for authentic Mexican tacos from the Yeyo’s food truck.
“I think what people sense is a fun environment with the food truck scene,” Poole said. “The community has seen us grow over the years and they realize they had a big part in that. Our customers feel connected to us and like a part of that success.
“I honestly couldn’t have afforded a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, but I could do BBQ really well,” Poole said. “By doing the food truck, I was able to open for business and I was in control of the menu, the creativity, the ins and outs of the business. In the beginning, we didn’t even really do BBQ tacos, but our customers kept asking for them so we adjusted. Now, they’re the most popular items on our menu.”
Poole and others I talked to for this story said that as business has grown at their physical food truck locations, so have opportunities to dip into other revenue streams. Private back yard parties, weddings, church events, tailgates and even anniversaries have come calling.
“That versatility is what’s driving the growth of the food truck scene,” Geller said. “I understand where you’re coming from with the modern-day picnic, but it’s hard to lump us into just one category. Food trucks are really whatever you want them to be. Because of that, they’re creating their own sections of the food service industry. They’re creating a new marketplace.”