There’s a joke on the show 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon’s boyfriend is trying to start a mobile hot dog business. He pulls up in a white van labeled “Manhattan Hot Dogs,” which gets shortened to “Man Hogs” as he slides open the door. Trust me, it’s a great visual pun. But the idea behind it is that trying to start a business selling food out of a mobile unit is considered a reasonably sound business plan. The joke pokes fun at the name—not the customers who would readily purchase meat from a guy in a van. Because as suspect as that may seem, buying food out of a vehicle is actually a long-standing American tradition.
The food truck as we know it now is a modern invention, something that’s equally a business in itself and a stepping stone to something bigger. “Food trucks are hospitality incubators,” writes the New York City Food Truck Association. “They give entrepreneurs a chance to test out their operations, brand, and food in different areas of the city, and hone their concept before taking the leap to open a brick and mortar.” They are also fodder for TV shows, movies, and lots of think pieces about The State Of Food Today. Now you’ll even find them at weddings.
But if anything, the brick and mortar restaurant is a more recent concept than that of buying food from a temporary setup, whether it’s from a cart, a market, or out of a truck. We may have nicknamed them “roach coaches,” but historically Americans have been quite comfortable getting their food on the streets. Now the food truck has, in many ways, come full circle. Here we take a look at how Texas chuck wagons, a brilliant Korean taco entrepreneur, and the gourmet boom helped secure their ubiquity.
All illustrations by Max Schieble
Texas Chuck Wagons and Prototypes, 1800s-1974
The history of the food truck is deeply intertwined with the history of street food, everything from the hot corn girls and oyster carts of New York City, to women hawking tamales on the streets of San Antonio. The food truck’s direct lineage can be traced to the Texas chuck wagon, born in the post-Civil War cattle boom. “To move a herd of cattle overland meant crews of cowhands had to live in the open for months at a time,” writes the American Chuck Wagon Association. “The need to feed and care for these mostly young men resulted in the development of the chuck wagon.” Cattle herder Chuck Goodnight is often credited with being the first to outfit an old U.S. Army truck with kitchen supplies and easy-to-store food like coffee, cornmeal, bacon, and salted beef. Soon they were a ubiquitous image over the Texas landscape.
A more immediate line can be drawn between ice cream and taco trucks to the gourmet options we see now. “As a kid [growing up in Los Angeles], when I thought of food trucks I thought of taco trucks,” said Phil Shen, co-author of Food Truck Road Trip: A Cookbook. Some credit Raul Martinez of King Taco as the first to pioneer the concept. Martinez converted an old ice cream truck into a kitchen and began selling tacos out of it in East Los Angeles in 1974. Though there were mobile kitchens selling Mexican food around, this is how the “taco truck” was born.
A Korean Taco Revolution, 1993-2008
“The credit for the first gourmet food truck usually goes to L.A. and the Kogi truck,” says Shen. Roy Choi’s famous Korean BBQ taco truck hit the streets of L.A. in 2008 and forever changed the food climate. But Shen actually points to a different scene as the real start of the gourmet truck revolution—the North Shore Shrimp Trucks of Oahu. The first was Giovanni’s, which opened in 1993. “They served this amazing garlic shrimp plate over rice,” says Shen. “And I think eating shrimp from a truck—that’s as gourmet as it can come. That happened way before the mainland got a hold of it.”
Still, Chef Roy Choi’s Kogi truck solidified the idea of the food truck being a place where you could get restaurant quality, innovative grub out of a vehicle, a prospect especially appealing in 2008 as the economy nosedived. “I remember I was in L.A. and hunted them down, and it was insane,” said Shen. “Even before the truck showed up there was a line down the block. It’s crazy to think that people would wait 30 minutes to try something like Korean fusion tacos.” Kogi also pioneered the food truck’s symbiotic relationship with social media, being one of the first to utilize Twitter to promote their location. “It started triggering that concept of millennials and food,” said Shen. “Back then it wasn’t the case that everyone was a foodie, but I think the food truck industry pushed that along.”
The Gourmet Food Truck Boom, 2009-2012
In 2009, New York Magazine said food trucks had “largely transcended its roach-coach classification and [are] now a respectable venue for aspiring chefs to launch careers.” In 2010, Zagat began including food trucks in its guides. By that time, the cuisine coming out of trucks around the country was hard to ignore. Shen first discovered the scene when he and Kim Pham moved to Portland, OR, and were directed to food trucks when looking for quality, cheap grub. Most of the people they encountered had begun their businesses in the few years prior, and they were some of the earliest adopters. People were catching on to the quality of food that could come out of a truck. In 2010, the “Great Food Truck Race” premiered on the Food Network, and trucks began to offer themselves up for rental for business meetings or weddings.
Part of what made food trucks so appealing is that they were just cheaper to operate than restaurants. “We met some chefs that worked in Michelin star restaurants who couldn’t afford to open a restaurant, but who wanted to share their food with the world,” said Shen. And whatever permits, fees, and parking tickets factor into the cost, it’s still often the cheaper option than opening a permanent location. “It’s a great opportunity to let them share their food, and I think as food lovers we’re grateful for that. There’s no barrier in a food truck. And you get to eat it for a great price.”
Food Truck Rallies and A Move Towards Permanency, 2012-2014
The beauty of the food truck is that it’s mobile. It can be anywhere, or more accurately, anywhere city ordinances allow it to be. But increasingly, “food truck rallies” are making it so that food trucks stay put. Many cities have encouraged specific areas where food trucks can congregate, and all it takes is driving to one spot to have five or six to choose from. While it may seem antithetical to the purpose of a mobile food truck, Shen thinks it’s an important development. “It reminds me of street food in other parts of the world. If you go to Southeast Asia there are night markets, and you walk in and there is food everywhere,” he says. Having them in one place “pushes this community feel.”
Street food may be an outdated term at this point, especially given that more and more food trucks have translated their mobile businesses into permanent locations or small chains. Places like the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Curry Up Now, Calexico, and Foxy Falafel have all opened restaurants after finding success with their trucks. Other brands have opened multiple trucks in multiple cities. Kogi even opened a taco stand in LAX. “Street gourmet is probably the term that’s more appropriate nowadays,” says Shen, and that no longer has to mean you’re located on the street.
The Fight to Stay Alive
“Food trucks might not be as trendy and new anymore, but it’s part of daily life,” says Shen. They’re also growing apart from their guerilla dining roots, which comes with its own set of pros and cons. On one hand, greater acceptance and popularity mean more things like designated food truck spaces and food truck associations to support and advocate for the rights of food truck owners. On the other, increased awareness means increased scrutiny from the law, with more regulations about where, when, and how food trucks can operate. And it doesn’t always look easy.
It would be disingenuous to say ‘food trucks are here to stay.’ The latest boom has merely capitalized on decades of tradition and innovation. They are an institution born of necessity, whether it was the necessity of cattle herders needing food on a long trek, of people needing cheap food on a lunch break, or of accomplished chefs needing to share their talents in a way that didn’t put them in debt. What has changed, however, is our expectation of what we can get out of a food truck. It’s no longer beans and jerky, or quick tacos, but innovative “gourmet” options. It will shock nobody if you say you got your truffled grilled cheese or lobster roll or vegan quinoa burrito from a ‘guy in a van.’