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Taking to the Streets: Food Trucks Picking Up Speed in US Food Scene

These days, it seems like everyone is taking to the streets – top chefs, sous chefs, chefs de cuisine, line cooks, bartenders, and everyone in between. The food truck industry has shown exponential growth in the last several years, outpacing the restaurant industry by 5.5% to 4.3% in the past year alone.

A budget-friendly, low-risk way to experiment, get creative, and go a little outside the box, the appeal of these mobile kitchens is unmistakable. Whether you’re looking to start from scratch, upgrade your existing kitchen, or add a mobile menu to your current restaurant concept, getting to know the food truck's backstory and future trends can help you get rolling.

Food Truck History Ever wonder where the food truck got its start? We did some historical digging to find out. The story of the food truck began in mid-19th century America, when a Texas rancher named Charles Goodnight, invented the “chuck wagon,” said to be the first food truck in America. A portable kitchen, equipped with storage, shelving, and counter space, the original chuck wagon was crafted from an army surplus wagon, carrying, storing, and feeding hungry cowboys as they drove their cattle across the plains. In 1872, the first food stand was set up by a man named Walter Scott, who capitalized on hurried journalists by cutting windows into a covered wagon, and parking in front of a local newspaper, selling “fast food” and coffee. But it wasn’t until 1936 when Oscar Mayer rolled out the first portable hot dog cart and called it “The Weiner Mobile,” that the food truck came out of the shadows and claimed its name to fame. Next came the iconic 1950s ice cream truck, followed by a variety of food carts that started showing up at construction sites, college campuses, and sporting events. A grab-and-go grub fixture in cities like New York, Philly, and Chicago for decades, mid-century food trucks have experienced a retro revolution, evolving into one of the biggest trends on the nation’s food scene. Food trucks have come a long way since their early chuck wagon-dragging days. Once a rolling “roach coach,” the food truck has gone from being a greasy spoon to a trendy treat that caters to everyone hungry for a quick bite; from millennial vegans on main street to corporate execs on Wall Street.

Who and What's Fueling the Food Truck Industry in 2023?

Accessible and Adaptable If it seems like everyone is jumping on the food truck bandwagon. Not only are food trucks great for existing restaurants to scale down their menu, making operations simpler and inventory easier to manage, but having a more limited menu lets you switch up options as frequently as you'd like, providing the opportunity to stay current with trends and cater to customers’ changing appetites for niche cuisine. Adaptability also means you’re less dependent on food supply shortages and soaring food prices.

Low-Cost "Testing Centers" Even the big chains are using food trucks as a testing venue for new concepts and dishes before adding them to their full menu. Using the general public as a testing ground eliminates paying for focus groups and market research, letting restaurants try before buying into a new concept. Food trucks let you gauge public opinion on new items and evaluate their potential for success. For example, if you’re already operating a Cuban restaurant but want to try your hand at Ethiopian street food, let your food truck customers supply you with feedback before you put the level to the metal. Then, once you’re confident in a concept, you can add the item to your menu or open a brand-new brick-and-mortar location.

Meeting Eco-conscious Consumer Demand Efforts to thwart climate change are impacting the way the food service industry operates. Food trucks are leading the way in the race toward sustainable, affordable, and convenient food options. Young customers who frequent food trucks also tend to be eco-conscious and environmentally concerned. Accommodating this demographic with organic, sustainable, and locally sourced options at affordable prices is allowing food trucks to speed past their OG counterparts.

Able to Move Where the Action Is

Probably the best part of a mobile menu on wheels is that you can go where your customers are, whether it be at an outdoor concert, sporting event, or food festival. Partnerships between food trucks and events are win-win collaborations, as the event brings the food truck more foot traffic and the food truck attracts more fans to the events.

Low Start-up and Operating Costs

Unlike opening a new physical location, starting a food truck extension of a restaurant's operation is quick, simple, and cost-efficient, with the average processing time for food truck, permits being just 37 days. Not only is rent next to nothing, depending on where you decide to set up shop, but staffing expenses are minimal.

Stats to Consider

  • The average cost to start a food truck is between $50,000 and $60,000

  • The average processing time for food truck permits is 37 days.

  • The average cost of food truck permits is $28,000

Using Food Truck as a Ghost Kitchen

Using a food truck as a ghost kitchen to your physical operation means less labor costs all -around, and sharing inventory means better bulk-buying pricing. When your vendors see you've upped your orders, you can negotiate for better deals.

More Stats to Consider

  • 47% of millennials have eaten from food trucks

  • The average revenue stream of a food truck is $290,000

  • The average cost of food truck permits is $28,000

  • Portland, Oregon, where residents refer to food trucks as “food carts,” with over 600 in operation in 2022, is the cheapest city to operate a food truck.

  • There are currently over 30,000 food truck employees in the U.S.

  • 2.5 billion people eat street food from a food truck every day!

5 Most Profitable Food Truck Items for 2023 From gourmet burgers to artisan pizza, below are some of the most profitable food truck items for 2023.

#1 - Falafels: A cuisine that uses a majority of less expensive ingredients and a minimal amount of more costly meats, falafels are one of the most profitable food truck menu items. #2 - Burgers: Burgers have been served up by food trucks and trailers from day one, and for very good reason – not only are they portable and tasty, but they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. #3 - Indian Street Food: Another fan favorite, not just on the street food scene, but around the world, is Indian food. Healthy and fresh ingredients combined with portability and lower cost are predicted to make this cuisine reign supreme in 2023.

#4 - Pizza: The early versions of pizza, known as galette flatbread, sold on the streets of Naples as far back as the 16th century, was known as a “dish for the poor.” In fact, some of the best food in the world was created out of necessity to feed the less fortunate. This is probably why pizza, a high-profit-margin menu item, is still one of the most profitable food truck items.

#5 - Grilled Cheese: Like hotdogs and burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches are made with just one main product, which is relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. Because of easy add-ons, for which you can charge a premium, grilled cheese is a highly profitable food truck item. Top 10 healthy food truck trends

  • Vegan dogs and burgers

  • Ethiopian Food

  • Indian Cuisine

  • Falafel Wraps

  • Vietnamese Food

  • Healthy Mex

  • Japanese food

  • Smoothies and Juices

  • Smoothie Bowls

Rolling Across the Nation

Gone are the days when food trucks were a novelty saved solely for late nights and construction sites. While big-city streets like Chicago and NYC have been lined with food trucks for decades, the food truck scenes in these US cities are as delicious and as eclectic as they are a bit unexpected. Philly, PA Philly might be known for soft pretzels and cheesesteaks, but with hundreds of food trucks roaming the city of brotherly love, steak sandwiches are just the beginning. Woven into the fabric of Philly’s food scene since the ’60s, from Chinese food to chicken, burgers to bagels, if there’s grub to be gotten, there's a Philly food truck that serves it.

Major Universities like the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel are sure bets for finding food trucks that cater to students, doctors, and the professional crowd. But, anyone who’s ever been to the Temple University main campus in North Philly can attest - it just might be the food truck capital of the world. With over 150 trucks on the campus streets, you’ll find the best hoagies, boardwalk pizza, cheese fries, and yes, cheesesteaks, in the city. Philly Food Trucks to Try:

  • Spot Burgers

  • Foolish Waffles

  • The Crepe Truck Philly

Orlando, FL Known for its world-famous theme parks and magical kingdom, there’s more to Orlando than princesses and pirates. More than 200 food trucks are currently in operation in Orlando, with the greatest concentration in the Milk District and Williamsburg. The Tasty Takeover is a full-scale food truck block party that happens every Tuesday evening from 6:30 to 10:00 pm, where food trucks have been lining the streets of the Milk District since 2011.

Orlando Food Trucks to Try:

  • Cholo Dogs

  • Hayburner

  • The Pastrami Project

Indianapolis, IN Though not exactly considered the culinary capital of the world, Indianapolis is one of the most food-truck-friendly cities in the nation. From jerk chicken to creative cupcakes, the Indy city food truck scene is quickly becoming as diverse as it is delicious. Indianapolis Food Trucks to Try:

  • Brozinni

  • Caveman Truck

  • Da Blue Lagoon

Houston, Texas Quickly becoming the state’s street food king, this culturally rich Texas town is home to a diverse food truck scene. From Asian fare to southern food beyond compare, Houston’s food truck scene is getting as big as Texas itself. Houston Food Trucks to Try:

  • Bernie’s Burger Bus

  • Nom Mi Street

  • Cousins Maine Lobster

Columbus, Ohio Known best for its breweries, this Midwestern city has a strong food truck scene. Operated mostly by local families and time-honored chefs, there’s a hometown feeling that’s unique on the Columbus streets. Columbus Food Trucks to Try:

  • Ninja Bowl

  • Mya’s Fried Chicken

  • Buckeye Donuts

Miami, FL

A city once known for glamor and glitz, the food truck scene has taken over the Miami streets, seamlessly blending into the trendiest neighborhoods from Doral to South Beach, Wynwood to MiMo.

Miami Food Trucks to Try:

  • Purple People Eatery

  • House of Mac

  • Rafa’s Backyard Grill

  • Kuenko

As the food truck industry revs its engine on streets across America, the consensus seems to be that these mobile kitchens are a trend that's picking up more speed every day.

By Eileen Strauss


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