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Food Trucks: Harbingers of Flavors on the Horizon

It’s not like they’re new. Food trucks have been around for more than a century, initially as chuck wagons for ranchers driving cattle. They were popularized decades ago by Californians smitten with the taco truck culture imported by Mexican immigrants. Still, the love of food trucks did not reach glamor proportions until recent years: They’re now fodder for reality television (“The Great Food Truck Race”) and have become a serious force in food culture. 

food truck

Modern-day food trucks harness the power of local food, making high-quality, fresh dishes available to people as they walk along the street—the epitome of “food everywhere” or, as The Hartman Group calls it, the “roadside pantry.” Another sign of their modernity and hipness is that many roving food trucks use only websites and social media to market their menus and changing locations. They form relationships with customers online, too, sharing stories about themselves and their food, which promotes the idea that they’re an authentic place selling real food. The dishes they serve, from comfort food to authentic global cuisine, are often creative enough that nearby restaurants copy them. These days, one of the nearby restaurants might even be owned by the food truck purveyor. 

Consumers love the fresh, interesting food a truck can offer when they’re on the go. The Hartman Group asked Charlie, a typical New Yorker, to visit some of that area’s most popular food trucks, which he found listed by media outlets and the Vendy Awards, the “Oscars of Street Food.” Here’s what he found on a mild-weather day in midtown Manhattan: 

food truck

“My first stop was the Old Traditional Polish Cuisine truck, which I learned from Twitter would be parked on 52nd Street off 6th Avenue. Fashioned to look like a rural Polish tavern, it prides itself on the authenticity of its food. The short menu features pierogi (meat and cheese) and kielbasa washed down with Polish juices, all of which are prepared and served by two friendly, older men with thick Polish accents. 

“Parked next to the Old Traditional was the Kimchi Taco truck, which serves Korean meat tacos (BBQ short rib, seared pork, grilled chicken) topped with kimchi, which is a Korean superfood made from fermented vegetables, such as napa cabbage, radish and cucumber, and seasoned with red chili pepper flakes. Its founder, Phillip Lee, wants to share his love of Korean food by combining its flavors with those of other cuisines to create innovative dishes that are both accessible and memorable. He opened the truck to test different dishes and build name recognition for a restaurant he later opened in Brooklyn. 

“Both trucks had a continuous flow of five to 10 lunchtime customers, almost all of whom carried their lunches back to work despite the nice weather and the trucks being parked in front of a small plaza with wooden benches. 

food truck

“My next stop was Phil’s Steaks, which I learned from Twitter would be parked on 41st Street off 6th Avenue. Phil’s has a simple menu—six types of cheesesteak served on Amoroso rolls—and is as concerned, in its own way, with the authenticity of its food as the Old Traditional Polish guys. Phil’s was started in early 2012 by a native Philadelphian, and its truck is painted with the Philadelphia skyline. The wait was longer than at the other trucks, because of the high volume and longer cooking time. The two cooks were rock musician types, which wasn’t a surprise, as Phil’s founder stressed that music plays a big part in their ‘food truck experience’ and that they ‘want people to see we’re cool people and we have a good time out here.’ 

food truck

“My final stop was Morris Grilled Cheese, one of three well-known grilled-cheese trucks in the city (along with the Milk Truck and Gorilla Cheese NYC). I went right from Phil’s and couldn’t stomach another cheese sandwich, so I was strictly an observer. Morris features six varieties of grilled cheese that change weekly, in addition to the classic bread and cheese. 

“Like Kimchi Taco, Morris takes a basic and traditional dish and puts a unique spin on it. When I visited, the Gouda, bacon and apple butter option looked especially tasty, as did the fontina, andouille, pickled serrano and spicy remoulade sandwich. Still, the innovations are relatively simple, and Morris is picky about ingredients, with bread and cheese from top places. Even its classic sandwich uses bread from the well-regarded Balthazar Bakery or Orwashers, with New York State Cheddar and New Hampshire Landaff cheeses. Despite its limited menu, Morris still had four or five people placing orders as late as 2:30 p.m.” 

Our Takeaway 

It’s no accident that the menus at the trucks Charlie visited read like a what’s what of the culinary scene—and what consumers might see next in restaurants and even on grocery shelves. Rather than being a fad, food trucks are the well-placed benefactors of a huge cultural shift toward fresh, interesting, convenient food. 

They have proliferated despite being heavily regulated, because they offer precisely what consumers want (again: fresh, interesting, convenient food), with a bohemian backdrop (a truck) that often comes with a story, online and in person. 

The lesson for food companies is not to open a chain of food trucks but to visit them frequently and pay attention to what new flavors and dishes appear. In addition to getting a great food experience, you will have taken a trip into the heart of American food culture.


Culture Technology/Social Media Trends Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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