A food truck is a large vehicle equipped to cook and sell food. Some, including ice cream trucks, sell frozen or prepackaged food; others have on-board kitchens and prepare food from scratch. Sandwiches, hamburgers, french fries, and other regional fast food fare is common. In recent years, associated with the pop-up restaurant phenomenon, food trucks offering gourmet cuisine and a variety of specialties and ethnic menus, have become particularly popular. Food trucks, along with portable food booths and food carts, are on the front line of the street food industry that serves an estimated 2.5 billion people every day.
In the United States, the Texas chuckwagon is a precursor to the American food truck. In the later 1800s, herding cattle from the Southwest to markets in the North and East kept cowhands on the trail for months at a time. In 1866, the "father of the Texas Panhandle," Charles Goodnight, a Texas cattle rancher, fitted a sturdy old United States Army wagon with interior shelving and drawers, and stocked it with kitchenware, food and medical supplies. Food consisted of dried beans, coffee, cornmeal, greasy cloth-wrapped bacon, salt pork, beef, usually dried or salted or smoked, and other easy to preserve food stuffs. The wagon was also stocked with a water barrel and a sling to kindle wood to heat and cook food.
Another early relative of the modern food truck is the lunch wagon, as conceived by food vendor Walter Scott in 1872. Scott cut windows in a small covered wagon, parked it in front of a newspaper office in Providence Rhode Island, and sold sandwiches, pies and coffee to pressmen and journalists. By the 1880s, former lunch-counter boy, Thomas H. Buckley, was manufacturing lunch wagons in Worcester, Massachusetts. He introduced various models, like the Owl and the White House Cafe, with features that included sinks, refrigerators and cooking stoves, also colored windows and other ornamentation.
Mobile food trucks, nicknamed "roach coaches" or "gut trucks," have been around for years, serving construction sites, factories, and other blue-collar locations. In big cities of the U.S. the food truck traditionally provided a means for the on-the-go person to grab a quick bite at a low cost. Food trucks are not only sought out for their affordability but as well for their nostalgia; and their popularity continues to rise.
In recent years, the food truck resurgence was fueled by a combination of post-recessionary factors. Due to an apparent combination of economic and technological factors combined with street food being "hip" or "chic", there has been an increase in the number of food trucks in the United States. The construction business was drying up, leading to a surplus of food trucks, and chefs from high-end restaurants were being laid off. For experienced cooks suddenly without work, the food truck seemed a clear choice.
Once more commonplace in American coastal big cities like New York and LA, gourmet food trucks are now to be found as well in the suburbs, and in small towns across the country. Food trucks are also being hired for special events, like weddings, movie shoots, and corporate gatherings, and also to carry advertising promoting companies and brands.
A taco truck in St. Louis, Missouri
A modern-day food truck is not simply an ordinary taco truck one might find at a construction site. In 2009, New York magazine noted that the food truck had "largely transcended its roach-coach classification and is now a respectable venue for aspiring chefs to launch careers." These gourmet trucks' menus run the gamut of ethnic and fusion cuisine. Often focusing on limited but creative dishes at reasonable prices, they offer customers a chance to experience food they otherwise may not. Finding a niche seems to be a path to success for most trucks. While one truck may specialize in outlandish burgers, another may serve only lobster rolls. Food trucks are now even Zagat rated.
Tracking food trucks has been made easy with social media like Facebook and Twitter, where a favorite gourmet truck can be located at any moment, with updates on specials, new menu items and location changes. In fact, it could be argued that social media was the biggest contributing factor to the breakthrough success of the gourmet food truck.
Food truck rallies and food truck parks are also growing in popularity in the US. At rallies, people can find their favorite trucks all in one place and as well provide a means for a variety of diverse cultures to come together and find a common ground over a love for food. On August 31, 2013, Tampa hosted the world's largest food truck rally, with 99 trucks attending. And food truck parks, offering permanent locations, are found in urban and suburban areas across the US.
Food trucks are subject to the same range of concerns as other foodservice businesses. They generally require a fixed address to accept delivery of supplies. A commercial kitchen may be needed for food prep. There are a variety of permits to obtain, and a health code to observe. Labor and fuel costs are a significant part of the overhead.
Legal definitions and requirements for food trucks vary widely by country and locality. For example, in Toronto, Canada, some of the requirements include business and liability insurance, a Commercial Vehicle Operator’s Registration for the truck, permits for each municipality being operated in (downtown, various suburbs), a food handler certificate, appropriate driver's licenses for drivers, assistant's licenses for assistants, and a health inspection.
As the rising number and popularity of food trucks push them into the food mainstream, region by region, problems with local legislators and police reacting to new situations, and brick-and-mortar restaurants fearing competition, have to be worked through, in some cases creating significant business uncertainty. Chicago long held the distinction of being the only city in the United States that did not allow food trucks to cook on board, which required trucks to prepare food in a commercial condition, then wrap and label the food and load it into a food warmer. In 2012, under pressure from food truck owners and supporters, including the University of Chicago Law School, regulations were changed to allow on-board cooking, however, controversially, food trucks are required to park 200 feet away from any restaurant, which virtually eliminates busy downtown locations.
In the US, specialized food truck outfitters offer comprehensive start-up services that can include concept development, training, and business support, in addition to outfitted trucks. In the US, food trucks are a $1.2 billion industry.
Expansion from a single truck to fleets and retail outlets has proven possible. Los Angeles-based gourmet ice cream maker Coolhaus grew from a single truck in 2009 to 11 trucks and carts, two storefronts, and over 2,500 retail partner stores by September 2014.
Food trucks have unique health risks compared to regular land-based restaurants when it comes to food safety and the prevention of foodborne illness. Most food trucks do not have access to adequate clean and hot water necessary to wash hands or to rinse off vegetables, as required by most health codes or regulations.
In June 2017, The Boston Globe reviewed the 2016 city health records and found food truck had been cited for violations 200 times, with half of the violations being minor in nature and the other half being serious violations. When compared to fixed location restaurants, the city closed nine of the 96 licensed food trucks in 2016 and closed only two out of 100 restaurants. A majority of the serious violations were related to the lack of water and hand washing. An earlier study showed that Boston food trucks, on average, received 2.68 violations per inspection between 2011 and July 2013, while restaurants received 4.56 citations for violations per inspection. For "critical foodborne violations"—defined by the city as activities that contribute to foodborne illness, such as improper labeling of ingredients—food trucks and restaurants were roughly equivalent, with 0.87 violations per inspection for food trucks, and 0.84 for restaurants.
In Asia, the cuisine offered by food trucks requires simple skills, basic facilities and a relatively small amount of capital. They are plentiful, with large potential for income and often a very large sector for employment. Individuals facing difficulty finding work in formal sectors, will often venture into this industry, as it allows entire families to involve themselves in the preparing and cooking of foods sold to the public. The appeal involved in sustaining a food truck lie not only in the low capital requirement, but also in the flexibility of hours, with minimal constraints to locale. Street foods predominantly reflect local culture and flavor. Food trucks appeal to consumers in that they are often an inexpensive means of attaining quick meals. Location and word of mouth promotion has been credited for their widening success.
Chip trucks have long been a staple of the Belgian countryside. The Belgian Food Truck Association is lobbying to legalize food trucks on the street. Brussels was the first European city to propose locations for food trucks at football matches. Belgium also holds the Brussels Food Truck Festival, the largest of its kind in Europe, every year in May.
In Canada, food trucks, also commonly known as cantines (French for cafeteria) in Quebec, are present across the country, serving a wide variety of cuisines, including anything from grilled cheese sandwiches to Mexican.
Although food trucks are common at outdoor markets (For example, pizza trucks are common in Marseille and southern France since the 1960s), American-style trucks selling restaurant-quality food first appeared in Paris in 2012. Their owners needed to obtain permission from four separate government agencies, including the Prefecture of Police, but the trucks' offerings—including tacos and hamburgers—have reportedly been very popular.
Although street food in Mexico is unregulated, food trucks are becoming increasingly popular as of 2013 and owners have created an association to pursue the professionalization and expansion of this commercial sector. In addition to the food trucks catering on the streets, there are regular bazaars organized to introduce their products to the consumers.
In response to this popularity the Local Authorities have issued a series of special regulations to incorporate them to legal schemes that would help to order this commerce form. as new food truck business model emerged, some local bodybuilders begin to make food trucks from new vehicles from major car-makers.
With the advent of motorised transport during World War II, food trucks came into common use. Mobile canteens were used in almost all theatres of war to boost morale and provide food as a result of the successful tea lady experiment.
Food trucks today are known as snack vans and can be found on nearly all major trunk roads at the side of the road or in areas that have a large pedestrian population, such as at village fetes or town centers. These vans can specialise in myriad different food types, such as donuts, hamburgers, chili and chips, as well as ethnic food. Some people prefer to stop at snack vans when travelling, due to the low price, rather than stop at a motorway service station where prices can be extremely high.