America's latest food craze really isn't so new. Just go back to your childhood summers when the only thing that could break up baseball games or pool parties other than a mom's voice was the sweet siren call of the ice cream truck rolling into your neighborhood.
Take that image - except replace kids with business professionals and switch out the ice cream man for a gourmet chef - and you have food trucks, coming to a city near you...if they haven't arrived already.
Growing up in Morocco, Yassir Raouli likely never heard an ice cream truck's melody. But after trying multiple ventures in New York City - waiting tables, managing night clubs and opening an online clothing shop - Raouli came up with an idea, Bistro Truck, that could carry him to retirement.
"I did research, and I wanted to start a restaurant. I always wanted to have my own place," he says. "What made sense was the food truck."
If you still haven't caught on, the food truck is exactly what it says it is. An entire restaurant, from the kitchen to the cash register, is self-contained in a truck or van. Food truck owners, who often double as the chefs, drive their restaurants to the people rather than letting the people come to them. From there you start to notice differences.
There are food trucks that cater only to the lunch crowd, and others to only the dinner rush; some do both. A number of food trucks are nomadic, posting a week's-worth of locations on sites such as Twitter and Facebook and making them reliant on their customers' Internet savvy to guide them to their current locations. Others, like Raouli's operation, are parked daily at the same spot in the same neighborhood.
It's the emphasis placed on the quality of food that defines the current wave of food trucks. Aside from the venerable ice cream man, people have been eating street food in the United States for decades - at hot dog carts in Chicago or brat stands in Boston. But over the last few years customers across the country have had the pleasure of myriad gastronomic options. Los Angeles has a kosher taco truck (Takosher). Kronic Krave Grill serves South American arepas four days a week in downtown Austin, Texas. And, not surprisingly, in Portland, Ore., owners pushed the politically correct limit with Kim Jong Grillin', a Korean BBQ food truck named after the controversial North Korean dictator.
"I think we kind of revolutionized it," Raouli says of Bistro Truck's menu, whose daily specials feature items like chilled watermelon soup, kofta kebabs and strawberry panna cotta. "We were one of the first to offer gourmet food."
Whether Raouli spearheaded the gourmet food truck revolution may be arguable, but the success of his Bistro Truck is definitely not. In late August 2010, on the one-year anniversary of its opening, Bistro Truck was named one of five finalists for New York City's annual Vendy Awards, a food truck competition whose quirky name belies the competitive seriousness of the event.
Bistro Truck's nomination should give the business some much-needed notoriety that can offset the obstacles facing food trucks. For example, at traditional restaurants any mishap can be mitigated by a dessert or cocktail on the house. Food truck owners, however, are often limited to a first impression. Patrons get in line, order their food, make the payment, grab their food and go. There's so little time for interaction with the customers that the vendor must nail the experience to ensure repeat business and positive word of mouth.
On the other hand, there is the advantage of intimacy. "We cook everything in front of people, so we have a one-on-one interaction with a customer - better than what we would have at a restaurant," Raouli says.
That's the exact reason Fares "Freddy" Zeidaies - three-time Vendy finalist and the winner of this year's Vendy Cup - got into the business. He has the experience of previously owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant, one that generated solid business but left him unfulfilled.
"I decided I didn't want to do it anymore," Zeidaies says. "It was not fun. It was not me. What I want is to be around the people, not just around the kitchen."
So nearly nine years ago Zeidaies reinvented himself as "The King of Falafel & Shawarma." He started paying rent to a parking meter rather than a landlord. Zeidaies faithfully stations his King of Falafel food truck at the same intersection in the Astoria community of Queens, serving Middle Eastern cuisine. Zeidaies is far more satisfied with his street operation. "I love it when they give me that thumbs up," he says, but he also cautions traditional restaurateurs from naively getting into the food truck business.
Asked if traditional restaurant skills translate to food trucks, Zeidaies says not necessarily. "I thought it was so similar, but not now," he says. "I once had a nice full head of hair; I was healthy. Now I have a bad knee and I'm tired at the end of the day. At a restaurant, if you don't want to go in, you have employees or a manager who can take over. You can call an agency and they'll send you a sous chef. But not at a street restaurant."
In addition, the initial challenge of finding a parking spot notwithstanding, food truck vendors must deal with the natural elements. "You have to get out in the hot weather, the cold weather," Zeidaies continues, which may explain why food trucks are booming in climate friendly places like Southern California.
The elements are only part of the difficulties. Gay Hughes, owner of the Original Mobile Tea Truck, which made its way around the suburbs of Boston for years, actually sold her truck in May 2010 and now operates a successful expanded Mobile Tea Shoppe, a stand she sets up at farmers' markets and craft shows.
About operating the truck, Hughes says, "Each town had its own complicated set of legalities. I often set up at the National Park sites because it was easier dealing with the Federal government than the local agencies - that should say it all." Hughes also notes the arduous physical demands of the job. "All the up and down, bending and lifting...Frankly, it was quite tough on my body."
There are also those tight quarters to contend with. "You've got about eight feet [of space], and each person has to man a station," Zeidaies says, explaining that his truck has one person overseeing the grill, one cooking the rice, another preparing the sauces and a fourth person covering the everything else (the cash register, packing the food, etc.). Limited space also affects the initial prep work.
"With a truck, you have to find parking, and then you have to prep all your food once you get there," Bistro Truck's Raouli says. "It takes about an hour to an hour and a half after you find your spot."
The picture Zeidaies and Raouli paint might scare off interested restaurateurs. Or, just maybe, they want to limit their competition, because they both agree that food trucks, unlike other fleeting fads, will remain a strong, albeit unconventional, presence in the restaurant industry.
"The food truck business, if you do it well, you're going to be very successful," Raouli says. "We live in a city where you have tough critics, and people's expectations are high. The best are going to be here for a long time and the weakest are going to be gone before they know it."
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