WASHINGTON, DC, August 21 (by Jaclyn O’Laughlin for RIA Novosti)
“Attack of the Killer Potato” isn’t a horror film about a crazed spud on a murderous rampage. It’s a hamburger loaded with hash browns and barbecue sauce – available only at a mobile “food truck”, the hottest trend sweeping the U.S. restaurant industry.
“Food truck owners march to the beat of their own drum,” said Dylan Watkins, owner of the Burger Monster food truck in Orange County, California. “What I really like about owning a food truck is that it gives you a lot of time and freedom to grow as an entrepreneur.”
“I love the culture and people,” explained Watkins, whose customers can also satisfy their palates with “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” – a roasted mushroom sandwich adorned with tomatoes, cheese, avocado spinach and garlic herb spread.
Watkins’ mobile restaurant is just one of an estimated 7,500 “food trucks” operating throughout the United States, industry experts say. But numbers are growing by the week as the U.S. food truck frenzy expands, changing the way Americans dine – and expanding their culinary horizons in the process.
Food trucks have evolved from rudimentary hot dog stands on city street corners to sophisticated mobile eateries that offer a variety of gourmet food items for the consumer on the go, such as a lemongrass chicken taco or a strawberry-lemonade cupcake.
The current incarnation of the American food truck dates to 2008 when a mobile eatery called Kogi started selling Korean barbecue tacos in Los Angeles, according to Richard R. Myrick, editor-in-chief of Mobile Cuisine Magazine and author of “Running a Food Truck For Dummies.” And, the craze has quickly spread to almost every major city and state in the United States.
“Food trucks are not just in major population centers,” said Myrick. “Some have to operate differently according to different municipality rules, but the concept is the same with preparing food on the truck.”
The Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, for instance, illustrates vividly how quickly the food truck phenomenon is spreading. One year ago when blogger Stephanie Hawkes started writing about the food trucks there on her site DFW Food Truck Foodie, there were nine trucks. Now, there are 65 with plans for 40 more by the end of the year.
“In Dallas, the trucks rove and they are in different locations each day throughout the city,” Hawkes said.
“It’s convenient. You can walk out of your office building or drive down the street and get a gourmet meal right on the corner for an inexpensive price, and you don't have to get dressed up to eat there.”
The U.S. National Restaurant Association (NRA) confirms that consumers are seeing more food trucks in their communities. The group cites convenience for consumers and low costs for owners operating in a sluggish US economy as among reasons for the surge in popularity of the food truck.
“Within the industry, food trucks have offered business opportunities during the economic downturn when it was challenging for entrepreneurs to get access to credit and financing to launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant or expand an existing one,” said NRA spokeswoman Annika Stensson.
Industry experts say food trucks also offer owners who aspire to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants in the future an excellent way to test market their products and business ideas.
“Food truck owners will start a truck in different parts of the city to have a test kitchen to see what the reception is like in these areas, and to see where they want to be before they open a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” said Hawkes. “And, then when they open their restaurant they already have started a customer base.”
Andy Nguyen, who is co-owner and cook of the Lemongrass food truck in the Washington, DC area, would like to open his own restaurant one day but admits it is cheaper to own a food truck.
“We took a leap of faith to do the food truck,” he said. “My wife eats at food trucks all the time and we decided to do a food truck, because they are so popular now and it seemed like a good idea.”
For now, Nguyen is still getting used to the adjustment of being a small business owner. He left his full-time job as a project manager in the IT industry nine months ago to work 17 to 18 hours per day on his food truck.
“There is lots of preparation and lots of work to be done,” he said.
Doug Maheu, owner of the Washington, DC area truck, Doug The Food Dude, said he also works long 12-hour days and gets no break or day off during the summer months.
“You have to have a passion for it,” he said. “Your start-up cost is considerably less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, your day-to-day cost is less and you don’t have to have nearly as many employees.”
Celebrity chef José Andrés has also joined the frenzy and recently added a food truck by the name of Pepe to his large repertoire of gourmet brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Sean Wheaton, who is a chef at many of Andres’ restaurants, said the truck’s cuisine is focused on the food the famed chef ate while growing up in Spain.
“It’s another way to get Andrés’ brand out to the public, and it’s another level of service and an outlet for us,” said Wheaton. “It is also fun and interactive.”
Social media have also helped spur the food truck craze, with food truck owners taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to post real-time updates on their shifting locations to make it easy for consumers to locate them.
Hungry patrons can even download smart phone apps to keep track of their favorite trucks and know when they are within walking distance from the office so they can grab a quick bite to eat on their lunch break.
And there is also still the time-tested word-of-mouth marketing method, which was how Calina Coronado, who is a nurse in Bethesda, Maryland, found out about food trucks in the DC area.
“It was kind of a random thing for me to do; it was out of my norm,” Coronado said, recalling the time a friend suggested they meet for lunch at a food truck.
“It was my first time eating from a food truck – and it was a great experience!”
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