Though it hardly qualifies as fringe, most remain unaware of the surging consumer interest in street food in major metropolitan areas. This month, dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional taco trucks, Los Angeles entrepreneurs rolled out World Fare, the first fully functional restaurant housed in a double-decker bus. Portland, Oregon has long been known as a city where street food flourishes and even indie rockers are getting in on the scene. Former Shins drummer Jesse Sandoval sells traditional sopapillas at Nuevo Mexico, his mobile venture in downtown Portland. Don’t even get us started on New York’s Rickshaw Dumplings or Treats Truck.
We declared street food a fully articulated movement last year and have watched it mature more and more into the mainstream. Lately, in a compelling shift, we've noticed mobile food joints seeking out permanent homes while still retaining their wheels. The reverse also seems to be true as established storefronts take to the streets. Through Trends Treks here at the Hartman Group, we’ve identified key players in the developing movement right here in our own backyard. Let’s take a look at Seattle street food vendors who are speeding ahead of the pack.
Slinging sausages since 2000, Dante Rivera knows a thing or two about street food. In total, Dante's Inferno Dogs operates five hot dog carts in the Seattle area. Dante's is famous for perfecting a Seattle-style dog (hint: it strongly features cream cheese) and catering to both daytime and last-call crowds. Recently, Dante's celebrated the opening of its first service window. The location? A bodega-style shop in Ballard, one of Seattle's hipper neighborhoods (local t-shirts read, "Ballard - A sleepy little drinking village with a Condo problem"). Rivera's pet project is appropriately named Snacks!, exclamation point and all.
Catering to the eclectic tastes of his predominantly Millennial clientele, Rivera knows kitsch is king. With shelves lined with single-serve cereals, Pop Rocks and run-of-the-mill cleaning supplies, Snacks! hits the mark when it comes to marketing to and owning an occasion. Rivera has also placed a strong emphasis on all things local, from ice cream to spreads to candies. Here, you can round out your late-night cravings with local Bacon Jam from mobile eatery Skillet washed down with an iconic Pabst Blue Ribbon. With Snacks! Rivera provides a space for local vendors to showcase their products while selling everyday essentials. In turn, Snacks! has afforded Rivera a brick-and-mortar shop to experiment with new recipes for Dante's Inferno Dogs that are not yet permitted under current Seattle street food restrictions.
Just last week saw the launch of two different sweet trucks here in Seattle. The first: a beloved local ice cream boutique, has added a truck to their posse of stores just in time for summer. The second is a fresh new outfit dubbed Street Treats, a dessert truck selling homemade pocket pies and baked goods. Taking a tip from their more seasoned mobile elders, both Molly Moon's and Street Treats will chart their routes via Twitter.
And who are these elders, you ask? Joshua Henderson's savory venture Skillet has seen widespread success since rolling out its Airstream trailer in 2007. The roving bistro finds itself in different neighborhoods daily, covering every move via Twitter and Facebook. But after three years with no hitching post for their shiny wagon, Henderson and his wife Kelli are looking for a spot to settle down. The self-described "modern American diner" is currently seeking a permanent home in Seattle's food-forward Capitol Hill neighborhood, with plans to open its doors in Spring of 2011. Mobile fans will still be able to visit the trailer on its regular schedule around the city. Much like Dante's kitchen at Snacks!, Skillet's stationary location will allow Henderson to develop and test new flavors for his larger business while providing a steady stream of clientele.
From mobile to mortar and back again, it seems like street food is here to stay. So what do these vendors all have in common?
They harness the power of local
Molly Moon's is serving up frozen confections sandwiched between wafer cookies made with a key ingredient: local favorite Theo Chocolate. "My priorities are local, then organic, and always delicious," Molly Moon's owner Molly Neitzel writes on her blog. Skillet also cites local as a powerful driver, writing, "our goal is to provide seasonally relevant, locally sourced and impeccably executed food." Snacks! showcases their commitment to local not only by the products they carry but the community they cater to. A percentage of all sales from the bodega go to the neighborhood food bank and Boys and Girls Club.
They listen to their fans
Before launching their mobile truck, Molly Moon's asked followers on Twitter to help determine their routes, placing them in neighborhoods where the company's product normally isn't available. Skillet's production of Bacon Jam (often described as "magical" by die-hard fans) originally stemmed from holiday requests for the savory sauce. By creating a dialogue with their customers, mobile vendors have gained loyalty and built a powerful local fan base.
They are fluent in social media
By now, it should be obvious that Twitter is a major player on the street food scene. In the past we’ve warned against using Twitter as a marketing tool for essentially spamming your consumers. Mobile vendors are prime examples of how businesses can authentically harness social media in the right way. Snacks! has no website, just a Twitter account and Facebook page suggesting its clientele are ahead of the curve when it comes to communicating online. Just this week Snacks! urged Twitter fans to come in for root beer floats made with cane sugar and their signature soft serve (assembled in the bottle). For those seeking more traditional treats, Snacks! is also offering up seasonal flavors of Molly Moon's ice cream by the pint.
The take away here (pun intended), is that mainstream QSR and fast casual operators should not underestimate the competitive threat posed by a flexible, mobile entourage of food vendors with an extremely loyal and passionate fan base. Established chefs and vendors taking to the streets affirm that street food is a mainstream, full-blown movement. We're eager to see mobile operations multiply as established vendors nurture an increasingly creative and entrepreneurial food culture. (As long as it's slathered in Bacon Jam, that is.)