Food News

Dining with Wheels: Food Trucks Still Thriving

Food trucks have a long history, so why do they still seem so fresh?

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

There’s a level of novelty that still exists around mobile eateries. We regard them as new and exciting, the start-up disruptors of the restaurant industry. But why should food trucks still seem so novel? They’re not exactly a new part of our culinary landscape.

The Genesis of Food Trucks
The idea of mobile food peddlers is almost as old as the country itself. New York first began regulating vendors selling food from pushcarts in the 1690s, back when it was still New Amsterdam. In 1866, an enterprising Texas cattleman named Charles Goodnight invented the first chuck wagon as a way to feed traveling cowboys. Of course, we all know mobile restaurants have a long and storied tradition in Providence, where in 1872 a man named Walter Scott began serving lunch to ProJo employees out of a horse drawn wagon, creating the diner as we know it, and Haven Brothers has been a fixture since 1893. How can a concept so old and ingrained in our culture still generate so much buzz and excitement that only this year did Motif, a local arts and culture newspaper, decide to launch Rhode Island’s first-ever Food Truck Awards?

Perhaps it has something to do with the modern reinvention of the mobile eatery – let’s call it the nouveau food truck. Up until very recently, the food truck experience was mostly limited to a basic ham or tuna sandwich purchased from a “roach coach” at a work site, a dirty water hot dog from a cart outside a baseball game or perhaps some carnitas from a mobile taqueria. For most of our food truck loving history, Haven Brothers was about as upscale as it got.

Food Trucks Pick up Speed
In the latter part of the previous decade, however, food trucks started to-go gourmet, a trend generally traced back to Los Angeles and chef Roy Choi. In 2008 he hit the streets with Kogi BBQ, his Korean-Mexican fusion taco truck; it quickly became a culinary sensation, with huge crowds following as he shared locations via Twitter. In one fell swoop, he established the blueprint for the nouveau food truck: classic street food reinterpreted with modern, gourmet twists; fast and affordable munchies peddled mostly to nightlife crowds; a hip, chef-driven culinary vision; and a reliance on social media to drive business. From there, a thousand mobile eateries bloomed.

The folks behind Providence’s Chez Pascal brought the trend here around 2009 when they launched Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile, Rhode Island’s first full-fledged gourmet food truck – which was in itself a spin-off of the Hewtin’s hot dog cart they had previously pushed in surrounding parks. Their high-end hot dogs and house-made sausages and charcuterie were an immediate hit with hungry diners. While Hewtin’s mostly worked the farmer’s market circuit and weekdays in downtown Providence, many others soon seized upon the opportunities presented by college students and bar patrons.

The burgeoning food truck movement had its breakout year in 2010, with a slew of major developments and good news throughout the industry. The California Mobile Food Vendors Association, the first group of its kind, was formed, and the US government added “Tips for Starting Your Own Street Food Business” to its small business resource website. That same year, the National Restaurant Association opened 1,500 square feet of exhibition floor space at its annual convention to food trucks, and Zagat announced they would begin reviewing trucks in their 2011 guide. But things really exploded into pop culture in two very big ways that year: in April, Roy Choi was awarded Food & Wine magazine’s coveted “Best New Chef” honors, and in August the Food Network debuted the reality competition show The Great Food Truck Race. The trend was officially in full swing.

Regulating Regulars
These days, food trucks are familiar sights, but a certain novelty still persists. On Wednesday nights at Narragansett Town Beach from 6-9pm, for example, you can find Buddy’s Hot Rod Dogs, a classic car retrofitted to serve up hot dogs, hot wieners, burgers and pulled pork sandwiches. Other food trucks to make appearances are Shuckin’ Truck, who serves up fresh shucked local oysters and littlenecks, Eddie’s BBQ, specializing in a wide range of barbecue favorites, and Lady Copacabana, introducing curious foodies to Brazilian street food with an American twist.

It’s both a blessing and a curse for the business owners. On the one hand, the sense of casual fun and culinary adventure that has come to define modern food trucks means that chefs can expect legions of hungry diners, particularly at events. EatDrinkRI’s Truck Stop, a benefit for the RI Community Food Bank, has sold out for four consecutive years and Sunset Farm food truck has shown up to numerous festivals where they also have a habit of selling out of their wares.

The flipside is that local governments are still unsure how to deal with mobile food businesses, and often subject them to outdated regulations or seemingly arbitrary rules. Food truck chefs still must earn their living at the whims of various municipalities and state agencies, all with different and at times unpredictable rules. In addition, operators must obtain a separate vending license from each municipality in which they want to do business – usually around $150-$300 per town, each with their own process and waiting periods, and some even requiring an appearance before the town council – rather than one statewide permit.

Narragansett, for instance, gives food trucks quite a bit of leeway. The town seems to welcome food trucks for public events and allows them to peddle at the beach twice a week, but there’s no real system in place to govern where and when else they are allowed to operate in one of the state’s most popular summer destinations. South Kingstown is taking a page from Narragansett and considering a similar tactic.

Westerly has taken an entirely different approach. They only allow food trucks to sell at one-time events with one-time permits. The cost of violating the rules? Up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $500 for each infraction.

The Future of Movable Feasts
What does the future hold for food truck culture? For the most part it’s looking bright. Cities and towns are starting to understand the benefits of their presence as more and more people seek them out and more events welcome them. Will the trend go the way of frozen yogurt, with demand petering out and businesses shuttering, or gourmet cupcakes, which have become ubiquitous to the point of passé. In the end, it may be chefs who leave the food trucks at the curb, following the lead of Matt and Kristin Gennuso from Chez Pascal, who retired Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile and shifted the concept into the brick-and-mortar Wurst Kitchen inside their restaurant. Poco Loco, too, has opened an actual restaurant (though they still operate their truck), and Like No Udder, the vegan ice cream truck, recently moved into a storefront, keeping the truck on reserve for events and catering. Rather than evidence that the food truck trend is slowing down, developments like that are proof of its merits. For some chefs, running a mobile food business is not the end, but rather the means: a small-scale, relatively inexpensive way to test out and refine a culinary vision before making the transition into a full-fledged restaurant. In the meantime, we get to enjoy all this delicious food.

food trucks, food trucks rhode island, motif magazine, food truck awards, california mobile vendors association, best new chef, roy choi, lady copacabana, dogs mobile, kogi bbq, haven brothers, naragansett, providence, shuckin' truck, like no udder, wurst kitchen, john taraborelli, sunset farm