With the growing popularity of food trucks in the United States, some people tend to believe that the concept of mobile food is a recent invention. But “street food” has been a part of the American dining experience since the 17th century and has evolved from chuck wagons and push carts to trucks and even bustaurants.
Though customers today have a chic and hip impression of the food truck industry, mobile food vendors and entrepreneurs started with humble and challenging beginnings.
One of the precursor of food trucks are pushcarts. Since the 1600s, pushcart and street vendors in New York City already had a difficult relationship with local officials. In 1691, a city ordinance was issued stating that street vendors can only start selling their goods two hours after public markets had been opened. And by 1707, street food vendors were completely banned in New York City in an effort to prevent congestion and also due to complaints from retail stores and restaurants. But despite strict regulations, street food and other pushcart vendors continued to thrive in the city at that time as property owners and the police were agreeable to bribes. Some of the popular wares were pretzels, breads, meat pies, fruits, and sandwiches for garment, construction, and delivery workers looking for filling yet affordable meals.Another forerunner of modern food trucks were chuckwagons. A type of “field kitchen”, chuckwagons were popular on the prairies of the United States providing cooked food for cowboys and miners. Its invention in 1866 is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas cattle rancher who modified an Army wagon and fitted its interior with storage drawers stocked with kitchenware and food supplies.
By 1872, a food vendor with the name Walter Scott conceived of the lunch wagon. Modifying a covered wagon by adding windows, Scott sold sandwiches, pies, and coffee to pressmen and journalists in front of a newspaper office in Providence Rhode Island. The rise to the demand of lunch wagons led Thomas H. Buckley to start manufacturing various models that featured sinks, refrigerators, and cooking stoves.
The invention of automobiles also had an impact to the evolution of the mobile food industry. Mobile canteens, which at this point nearly resembled modern food trucks, were permitted by the US Army to operate on stateside army bases around the 1900s. Ice cream vans are one of the first mobile food vendors that use modified trucks and gained popularity by 1950s. Around 1960s, bigger food trucks started selling familiar products like tacos and burgers to blue-collar locations like construction sites and factories. But these trucks gained a bad reputation due to substandard health practices and dirty vending locations giving them the nickname “roach coaches”.
But after the recent recession forced many restaurant chefs to lose their jobs, the food truck scene was once again transformed as established and aspiring chefs brought gourmet dishes to the streets. Though limited due to certain restrictions including pricing and operations, food trucks offered customers products they would normally experience in restaurants. Around 2000s, the negative reputation of mobile food disappeared as creative businesses started to attract attention. Ethnic and fusion cuisines have become popular wares of food trucks and with online technology, entrepreneurs connected to more customers than ever before.
Probably one of the most successful and inspiring food truck businesses is Kogi Korean BBQ. Combining Mexican and Korean food, Kogi grew from a single food truck operation in 2008 to a fleet of five trucks today. Initially, Kogi did not have any fixed locations but, in addition to its trucks, its operations now include order counters in the Alibi Room and sit-down restaurant Chego (specializing in rice bowls). In partnership with David Reiss, Kogi’s co-founder chef Roy Choi opened the A-Frame restaurant that conveys the Hawaiian idea of “aloha”.
The success of Kogi Korean BBQ and its founders can be attributed to their great food plus utilization of offline and online promotions. Kogi’s popularity started when it began going to bars and giving free samples to bouncers, who enjoyed the products and spread the word about the food truck. Kogi also took advantage of the digital space, approaching bloggers to try their food so they can write about it, which in turn increased the business’ online presence. Twitter also has been a driving force for the business as it used the social media platform to announce vending locations to customers. This led for Kogi Korean BBQ to be proclaimed by Newsweek as “America’s first viral eatery”.
The mobile food industry has changed dramatically throughout its rich history. Yet, some of the problems that food truck owners once experience remain like opposition from restaurants, dynamic local regulations, and logistical limitations. But change can also be a good thing as the advent of automobile technology, online social media platforms, and culinary creativity transformed a once negatively viewed industry into the trendiest way of eating on-the-go.
Knowing the industry’s history can help entrepreneurs appreciate the current tools available, learn from the mistakes or be inspired by the successes, and anticipate what may come next to ensure that their food truck business will be remembered as one of the greats. And sometimes, with a bit of creativity and innovation, a mobile food business may even set the trend and redefine an industry.