Chalk up the food truck renaissance to a variety of reasons: the economy reducing budgets, the same economy pushing would-be restaurateurs toward a cheaper and more available business model, and a natural side effect of urban sprawl.
In Los Angeles, the renaissance was for all these reasons and more. “One of the things that makes LA’s chemistry uniquely suited to food trucks is the office culture, especially in conjunction with the driving culture,” said Jeff Miller, Los Angeles editor of Thrillist.com. “If you’ve been at an office for two years, you’ve been eating at the same handful of places since you started. Before, you used to have pizza and burgers. Now, you have pizza, burgers, sushi, Thai food, fusion tacos – a revolving collection of eateries – that all come right to your office.”
Miller estimated that Thrillist has broken at least 20 food-truck stories in Los Angeles. He emceed the first-ever LA Vendy Awards and organized the Thrillist Best of the Best Food Truck Rally, which drew hundreds of attendees.
Not everyone is in favor of the food trucks, however. Many cities have lingering doubts about cleanliness. In Los Angeles, that is about to be resolved – with the enthusiastic cooperation of truck owners – by subjecting mobile food vendors to the same health department letter grading system as restaurants. But in cities from Washington, D.C., to Denver to Chicago, it hasn’t been that simple.
“Chicago continues to stall on the food truck ordinance because of the potential of health code violations,” explained Audarshia Townsend, owner of food blog 312DiningDiva.com and Chicago contributor to Huffington Post.
Not everyone is as diplomatic, though. In mid-December, a Chicago Sun-Times headline read, “Restaurants choke on food trucks proposal.” This echoes another commonly held sentiment that Chicago’s restaurant owners are the ones making it tough on the food trucks and would prefer to stamp the food trucks out altogether if possible.
The locals have been good about finding loopholes, though.
“Last summer, a few food truck owners found their way around the laws by selling prepackaged hot meals and sandwiches,” Townsend said. However, she, like many, would prefer to see more. “The local food media is 100 percent behind fully equipped food trucks in Chicago,” she said.
Photo: Michelle Colignon
Cameron Davies, owner of Boardwalk on Bulverde in San Antonio, opened his food truck park to give a permanent space to the city’s trucks, many of which he helped become street-ready. “I build these trucks, and I see how much money goes into the fabrication. Each truck tries to go to a different location, and it seems like everywhere they go, they get hassled. I see the frustration they face,” he said.
Davies created a permanent space that’s accessible, family-friendly, and convenient to the swiftly growing food truck population of San Antonio. He charges the trucks minimal rent to set up there, and he’s creating a dining/entertainment destination around them.
Photos: Courtesy of Jean and Austin Tsai
“I said, if I get three trucks, I’ll open. I might wind up losing money at first, but eventually the trucks will come. I announced the park on Wednesday, and by Friday I had every truck in the city.” That was only eight trucks, though within three weeks Davies was in the process of expanding the park to accommodate six more.
Offering the full tailgating experience, complete with darts and horseshoes, movie nights, etc., and even a full bar in the works, Davies wants to create a “... hip spot, but one that’s family-oriented.” It is the first of its kind in San Antonio.
Perhaps the appeal of mobile restaurants lies therein: They’re bringing the adventure back to affordable eats. Whereas just two years ago, $5 would get you nothing but a fast-food meal or a takeout burrito, now it can get a bison burger, a plate of Korean tacos, or a midnight crepe with Nutella® spread ... and a movie. If you’re really lucky, you might even get a table.
Lena Katz is the founder of travel pop site ZingiTravel.com and a senior travel contributor to the luxury portal JustLuxe.com. She's also a regular travel contributor to ABC News, the Hollywood Reporter and many other national media outlets. When not appearing on networks from ABC to WeTV as a travel expert, Lena enjoys tripping around the United States in search of unsung travel/pop-cultural treasures.