Food Trucks: A Touch of Travel
For foodies, food trucks conjure up an appetite! On their menus is just about everything: dim sum, tacos, Indian dosas, shawarma, gumbo, Chinese, Brazilian barbecue, gyros, pancakes, cupcakes, Filipino halo-halo, sushi, Mexican ice-cream. While some have fixed menus, other food truck owners experiment with new flavors and ingredients, with novelty as their selling point. Yes, lots of authentic, ethnic food, and still more fusion recipes!
With historical roots in the US, food trucks started out in downtowns by office buildings, where office-goers wanted to grab a quick bite. The nationwide explosion in recent years can be traced to the mobile fleet selling taqueros across Los Angeles and the success enjoyed in 2011 by Kogi, the self-proclaimed most iconic Los Angeles and Orange County based taco truck that birthed the Korean-Mexican taco movement. “They are fast, it is so nice to eat outside, they are cheaper, and they offer more ethnic food—all of which I love,” says Susan Smith Rosenbaum of Glen Ellyn, IL. But, how do you find them? Some food trucks stay put at certain locations while the on-the-go ones have to be followed via their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
“Whenever I’m in DC for work, I try something different at the various food trucks at this one location,” says Erica Nelson, of Wheaton, IL. “It’s always packed and there is such a great fusion of foods. Eating at food trucks is a social experience, a communal eating experience.” Rosenbaum recalls her time at the University of Texas, when food truck vendors grilled fajitas at corners by 6th Street downtown, even at 1 a.m. “Food trucks also give you a flavor of the city… and the places you visit. Of all the things we did there, it stood out,” she adds. “Eating at food trucks brings back the feeling of being travelers,” she says, reminiscing about the time she travelled around Indonesia and experienced all the food-carts.
What began as a downtown phenomenon has morphed into an attraction, a food destination and a way of celebrating summer across America. June 2 was the date for the Food Truck Festival in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and June 4 for one in Evansville, Indiana. There was another Food Truck Festival on June 17 in Altoona, Iowa, and across the country in Houston, Texas. Chicago Food Truck Fest was on June 24 and 25, and Arlington Heights, IL, hosted its Food Truck Festival on July 8. These are just a sampling.
That said, food trucks owners have their share of woes. Currently, 70 licensed food trucks operate in Chicago with about 30 others in the rest of Illinois. That’s down from the 130–140 food trucks in Chicago alone in 2012, according to Gabriel Wiesen, President of the Illinois Food Truck Association. The 2012 ordinance “prohibits the trucks from parking within 200 feet of any business that sells food (including convenience stores and pharmacies), and from remaining in the same spot for more than two hours. Parking violations range from $1,000 to $2,000 per infraction, whereas health code citations start at $200,” according to a Chicago Reader, March 2017 article. And those aren’t the only legal hurdles. When food is cooked on board, rather than as prepackaged meals, Chicago food trucks have a hard time both cooking and selling their food in a limited span of two hours. Unfortunately, Chicago isn’t the only city to give its food truck vendors a tough time.
Restaurants realize that if you can’t beat them, join them. Farhaan Khan recalls how an offshoot of a restaurant, the Tony’s Pizza food truck arrived like clockwork at the office campus in Wheeling, IL, ready to dish out hot and piping pizza for lunch. “I didn’t have to worry about bringing lunch and it is always easier if food comes right to your office than going anywhere,” Khan recalls. What was his first experience eating cheese pizza out of a truck soon became a three to four times a week habit. “The taste was very consistent so everyone knew what they were getting.”
Unlike many food trucks where food is cooked in the mobile kitchen, Tony’s Pizza had a pre-made selection, kept hot in their truck. The truck stopped for less than 10 minutes before its visit to the next office campus.
And then there are still other food trucks like Cupcakes for Courage that not only serve up delicious goodies, but contribute a percentage of their earnings to causes, like cancer research and organizations like Ride Janie Ride. Their website states, “Kathryn, my elder sister, was diagnosed in May of 2010 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During her treatment, to keep our spirits lifted, we dreamed up many different cupcake flavor ideas and baked and tested the winning ones when back home. Cupcakes and baking were an escape from the realities of battling cancer, little did we know it would become what it is today: a food truck & bakery cafe.”
If you’re getting ideas because you want to be a chef who is in charge of the menu himself, or don’t have a whole lot of cash to put down for a restaurant, or want to get a taste of the restaurant industry before committing to brick-and-mortar, then food trucks are the happy medium for you.
Naazish YarKhan (www.writersstudio.us) is a writer, editor and a college essay coach and has contributed to NPR, PRI and more.