Forget everything you think you know about food trucks. During a year of traveling the country researching the topic, I stumbled upon a few truths: gleaming mobile kitchens run by trained chefs who have mastered Twitter can turn out disastrous food. Rickety carts with questionable permits might just turn out some of the best. The "roach coach" moniker doesn't apply to the majority of this country's mobile food operations any more than it does to the majority of this country's restaurants (well, save for the "coach" part, of course). And no, Kogi did not invent the food truck. But they just might have reinvented its wheels.
At least they got the world to sit up and take notice. The L.A.-based Korean taco truck was repeatedly cited as a source of inspiration by food truck owners I spoke to during my travels, and in the time since Kogi rolled out in late 2008, the buzz around food trucks has reached fever pitch. Favoring quirk over pomp, talented cooks and critically acclaimed chefs are ditching the brick-and-mortar standard for kitchens on wheels, churning out incredible food for a new breed of diners more interested in flavor than fuss. Just in time for the biggest recession this country has seen since the Depression, this alternative to the traditional restaurant model proved to be a pretty smart business move for many talented cooks. What with rent or mortgage, tables and chairs, décor, front-of-the-house staff, a stocked bar, and additional labor, the average restaurant costs around $400,000 just to get the doors open. Most of the food truck owners I met across the country spent a fraction of that, more in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $50,000 to get up and running. Sure, there's the disparity in profits to consider, but for the most part these truck chefs are still making a decent living, while reaping the benefits of being their own boss and creating the biggest buzz the industry has seen since the advent of quick-serves.
In fact, the interest in food trucks has become so widespread that in September of 2010 Business.gov, the U.S. government's official website for small businesses, added a page titled "Tips for Starting Your Own Street Food Business," with links to state departments of health, zoning laws, and business permits. Navigating the red tape is often cited as the biggest hurdle for wanna-be food truck operators, so many of whom are itching to get into the game that several cities are being forced to reexamine their mobile food vending laws to satisfy the growing demand. Cities such as Los Angeles, where food trucks have long been legal, have seen mobile food vendor applications quadruple in the past two years, along with complaints from restaurants facing new competition. In response, city council panels have been set up specifically to keep the peace, setting limits on the number of permits issued and establishing new regulations on a continual basis. In areas where street food vending has historically been something of a nonissue, the city governments are scrambling to come up with regulations, as well as decide exactly where they stand on the issue. Case in point, Boston mayor Thomas Menino: to get his city up to speed with his neighbors to the south, New York and Philly, he hired a new food policy director in 2010 and launched a "Food Truck Challenge" to test the waters, with a goal of permitting thirty to fifty trucks by summer of 2011. Similarly, in June of 2010, Cincinnati approved a Mobile Food & Beverage Truck Vending Pilot Program to create twenty designated food truck parking spots in the downtown area; within a month all twenty slots were filled.
Keeping up with the regulation changes, the cities jumping on board with...