Food trucks are continuing to spread in America. They started in Los Angeles and have spread to San Francisco, Portland, Austin, New York, New Orleans, and shortly Chicago, to name a few. As hard times continue, they may be the perfect answer for low cost eating out, literally. And for hungry entrepreneurs.

What is changing?

Food truck businesses began to take off about 3 years ago. There are now an estimated 6000 or so food trucks in Los Angeles alone; and most of the slots in Portland are gone, but smaller cities are open for business. Although some meet resistance from established restaurants and mall owners.

The food trucks offer a huge array of foods – from Korea, Mexico, France, Italy – anywhere in the world; sweet, savoury, hot, cold; priced from $3 to $10; conventional dishes to unusual fusions and variations. The names are fun – Cuisine Machine, Roli Roti, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, SamichBox, Streetza; the food good quality, and tightly regulated.

They are using Tweets, blogs and offers, singly and collectively, to build a following and help customers know where they are and what is on offer. Often they will congregate in a hotel car-park to create critical mass, a fun, social environment for customers to meet, eat, talk, try and buy.

Why is this important?

Mobile catering has been around for years, but often with a poor image and reputation. The food trucks have repositioned street food and fast food as good quality, fun and sought after.

They provide budding entrepreneurs and restaurateurs with a relatively low cost entry to the market. The average start-up costs are in the region of $50,000 instead of possibly several hundred thousand dollars for a conventional restaurant, but can be far cheaper if the requirements are lower; e.g. if the actual preparation is done elsewhere. While they still have inherent business risks, and not everywhere has the advantage of the LA climate, they also provide a less risky route to experimenting with food types, flavours and combinations. And the advantage of being able to go to where the customers are.

In these hard times, they meet customer needs for low cost, fun, sociable, convenient choice with a modern feel. For them too, experimenting can be a lower risk affair. It is perhaps a trend waiting to happen elsewhere as consumers face tightening budgets, but don’t want to lose all life’s treats. And, if jobs are in short supply, being your own boss is often the answer. The question is whether it will remain an entrepreneurial, sole trader / small chain sector, or whether the big chains will realise that taking to the streets can bring big benefits.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.