The Food Truck Movement is Dead, Rise of The Food Halls
The Gourmet Food Truck Movement is dead.
Food Trucks used to be cool. So cool, that Royal Caribbean even tried putting a food truck concept on their ship. The entrepreneurial, creative, novel, and manic energy that made food trucks cool is gone.
The Gourmet food truck movement is dead.
This is an editorial piece on the death of the gourmet food truck industry. What I write here is my response to the trend that I literally watched blossom and then die from my office window.
Gourmet food trucks used to be incubators for talented chefs who did not have the funding for a brick and mortar restaurant. Food Trucks used to be the place that burnt-out Chefs would turn to for inspiration for their return. Most importantly, food trucks used to be one of the best places to try amazing and innovative cuisines at any given street corner in Southern California.
Like all hot trends, the gourmet food truck scene has flashed out, leaving behind a wasteland of its former glory. Don’t be sad folks, even the best trends burn out of their former glory. Food will never go out of fashion and new trends are emerging that I will cover at the end of this post.
Let’s take a journey together to understand the rise and fall of the gourmet food truck movement, and to explain why I am declaring the food truck movement DEAD. This piece is centered on the Southern California market, specifically Orange County. The same rise and decline that I chronicle here is being mirrored in markets from Brooklyn to Portland.
Birth from Fire
It was back in late 2008, Lehman Brothers had just collapsed and the economy was in freefall. I sat in my cubicle scared. I was looking for job openings on LinkedIn while I was simultaneously checking my twitter feed on my new smartphone.
I was starving for lunch and noticed the hashtag #foodtruck and #GFT (gourmet food truck) spreading virally. The address for an abandoned parking lot in Irvine showed up on the tweet; I decided to checkout this Korean Hot Dog Fusion truck. It felt exciting and dirty, running off to an abandoned parking lot to get a little lunchtime food nookie.
The dark curtain of the Great Recession serves as the backdrop to this Food Truck drama. During the early days of 2008, taco roach coaches still scurried about the quickly dwindling construction projects. Fine Dining Chefs were being laid off and creative young chefs found themselves with passion, but no creative outlet. Bored office workers, like myself, dared not spend their paycheck at the fancy ramen shops, as our jobs could be the next to be cut. I was afraid of losing my job, but I still wanted to eat more than the $1 menu at McDonalds.
During this time period, something special was happening in Downtown Los Angeles. The fledgling Gourmet Food Truck Movement was emerging. Roy Choi was doing a brisk business with his Korean fusion Kogi truck. Kogi Truck’s loyal fans would form long lines once his location was announced on Twitter.
Roy Choi wasn’t selling crack; rather, he was peddling his Korean and East L.A. fusion cuisine. The success of Roy Choi quickly inspired other Southern California entrepreneurs to start up their own specialty gourmet food trucks. Within months, the twitterverse was ablaze with pictures of food truck dishes and their schedules.
My first experience with a “gourmet” food truck was in early 2009, when the now defunct TacoDawg, pulled into an empty parking lot across the street from my office. He tweeted his presence with the #foodtruck hashtag, and a small crowd quickly formed at the abandoned Teller street lot in Irvine. In retrospect, Taco Dawg was of poor quality and was a bad imitation of Kogi. He ultimately failed. As a positive, this experienced opened my eyes to the food truck movement.
Within months of my first food truck experience, the economy completely collapsed and the food truck scene exploded in Southern California.
Food Truck or Bust!
Between January 2009 and early 2010, the food truck scene swelled from a dozen gourmet food trucks roaming Los Angeles and Orange County to hundreds. I watched this unfold from my office window. The same “abandoned parking lot on teller road,” that originally hosted Taco Dawg, overnight became host to four food trucks that I had never seen before. In the early days, trucks would take the risk of parking in these lots and hope the cops wouldn’t come.
By early 2010, the Teller food truck lot had gotten organized. The food truck owners picked a lot manager to negotiate rent with the property manager and organized a rotating schedule of six trucks during a given lunch session.
The Golden Age of Gourmet Food Trucks
The golden years of food trucks in Southern California were from summer 2010 to the fall of 2011. During this period, better and better food trucks hit the roads. The new gourmet food trucks were upping their game, developing better items and collaborating together. Competition and passion were spurring innovation and the customers enjoyed their creative work.
In the fall of 2010, the food truck scene continued to rapidly expand and we started to see the second wave of food truck hit the streets. During that fall, we started to see former fine dining chefs and folks who previously worked at corporate jobs all jump on the food truck wagon.
This is the year that food trucks blew up and garnered national attention with the first season of “The Great Food Truck Race.” Two Southern California trucks participated in the show including Crepes Bonaparte and Grill ‘Em All.
In 2011, the food truck movement became mainstream and “The Great Food Great Food Truck Race: Season 2” became must-see prime time television. That season featured two food trucks from Orange County, The Lime Truck and Seabirds. This show became the launching point for two of Orange County’s best restaurants and the launch of a million dollar business.
During this golden era, everyone was rushing to get a food truck on the road, from extremely established credible chefs like Lude Lefevre to unemployed office workers. The movie “Chef” that was out this year is loosely based on this phenomenon.
The food truck scene became saturated by the Spring of 2011; although there were some true differentiators in the crowd. During this period, there were some solid trucks quickly gaining respect like Slapfish, Joe Youkhan’s tasting spoons, and Taco Maria. Along with the good, came the bottom feeders who flooded the market with poor quality food. The bottom feeders’ mission was quick money, not passion for the food they produced.
According to an article published by the San Francisco Business Times, “most trucks are making annual revenue of around $250,000 to $500,000 while the top 25 percent bring in upwards of $1 million.” What these numbers don’t show is that the operating costs are high, employee turnover, 16 hour days, truck breakdowns, tight competition for parking places, theft, and constant permit requirements by cities.
The public flocked to the food truck lots and started forming lines up to 30 minutes before the truck opened their doors. I clearly remember it was an exciting time to be a foodie. In fact, Tom’s Foodie Blog was launched during this period. Inspiration to write about food came from eating amazing lunches from the trucks. Food writing offered me escape from the dull pain of an 8-5 office job.
Legends of the Food Truck Fall
It was early in the Spring of 2012, and I witnessed what was the fleeting moment of the food truck Golden Age. Just like the last summer of play before kids turn into angry teenagers.
That summer, food trucks became ground zero in pop culture with national television finding food trucks sexy. The Gourmet food truck scene was the center of pop culture and heavily featured on the news and even sitcom plotlines. The television show Eat St. was dedicated to coverage of food trucks across the country. Yours Truly, Tom from Tom’s Foodie Blog, made his way onto Eat St. and Man Versus Food to provide colorful commentary. Underneath the Hollywood glitz, the food truck movement was falling apart.
For me, there are five main factors that contributed to the death of the food truck movement between Spring 2012- 2014.
Loss of Sex Appeal
What was once a novel experience, “I just met you at the bar, let’s get dirty with bacon,” turned into “It’s a week night; I’m not in the mood.” The size of crowds visiting food truck lots fizzled; as a result, the number of food trucks participating also fizzled. In addition, the customers who were visiting the food truck lots at least once a week started to visit normal restaurants as the economy recovered.
Failure to Innovate
Just like any relationship, if one person in the relationship does not evolve and stay interesting, the other will lose interest. By the Fall of 2012, the economy had improved significantly, but the food truck lot culture had taken on bad habits.
Gone was the era of innovation, competition, and evolution. The Food Truck movement had become operational and stale. In the early days, the successful trucks were developing innovative menus and rotating items. As time progressed, rotating menus disappeared, prices went up, and food trucks became boring.
To compound the problem, many of the food trucks started to sell the same items. I couldn’t throw a brick at a food truck lot without hitting a customer eating a grilled cheese stuffed with pulled pork and bacon.
Over Saturation of Poor Quality Trucks
By the end of 2012, latecomers to the food truck scene purchased glitzy and sexed-up food trucks with super fancy wraps, sound systems, and even televisions mounted on the side of the truck.
Unfortunately, the food didn’t match the hype. I can still remember the fanciest truck I came across called, “Tailgate Truck.” The truck had a cool factor, but the food sucked. The best trucks were becoming harder to find and the mediocre trucks saturated the scene.
Corporate Food Trucks and One Offs
The next factor that helped nail the coffin shut was the corporate food trucks. The entrance of corporate food trucks made the entire concept “uncool.” The dark ugliness of corporate food trucks on scene was epitomized by the entrance of Sizzler’s food truck, sneakily branded as the “ZZ truck.”
Sizzler launched this truck to attract a younger audience. I remember ZZ truck’s food being very good; although, they were still selling the same pulled pork sliders that I could find at any other truck. The Mom and Pop trucks could not compete with these well-funded trucks. In addition, corporate trucks had the connections to secure prime spots.
Success Builds Success, but sometimes it also invites failure of the movement.
Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the Gourmet Food Truck movement was that it acted as a small business incubator and crucible for many now successful restaurants. The best food trucks left the road in 2012 and 2013 to go brick and mortar.
Some of the successful alumni include Stefanie Morgan who opened up a brick and mortar of Seabirds, Jason Quinn from the Lime Truck who opened up The Playground, Carlos and Silvia Delgado who opened up a brick and mortar of Taco Maria, Daniel Shemtob whose Lime Truck enterprise has turned into a regional chain; Andrew Gruel whose Sustainable Slapfish truck has grown into a multinational enterprise; Chef Joe Youkhan whose success led to a successful catering business and was named winner of the Chopped television show.
The exit of these trucks from the road has created a vacuum of quality and innovation. What replaced them was an influx of low quality and fly by night food trucks. Sure, there are some great trucks on the road like Dos Chinos, Tamarindo, and Dogzilla, but even these trucks have reduced their schedules with rumors of brick and mortar projects.
The Food Truck Movement is DEAD.
2014 will go down as the year that the food truck movement finally died a slow painful death in the Southern California Market. Does that mean that food trucks will no longer be on the road? No.
Food trucks will continue to roam the streets, just as they did before the gourmet food truck movement exploded. Expect the gourmet food trucks to serve a smaller customer base and operate in zombie mode. The best food trucks in the major markets, like Kogi, will continue to do well.
The “construction site roach coaches” will resume control of this ecosystem, no longer needing to hide behind fancy wraps. Gourmet street food will survive, you will just have to work harder to find the good stuff. You may continue to see other parts of the country in food truck expansion mode; although it is likely they will meet the same post-hype downfall within a year.
Rise of the Food Hall
What will replace food trucks as a small business incubator? The Gourmet food hall.
The food hall is a large central location where small spaces are carved out. Food Halls could be built out of large abandoned buildings, densely packed streets, or even places like former mega book stores. These food halls are packed with mini restaurants are sometimes as small as a stall or big as a coffee shop. They provide the public the opportunity to do a “culinary walk about” and taste food from different vendors in a single day. The entrepreneurs rent the largest space they can afford and incubate their business. Just like food trucks there is a low barrier to entry and an opportunity to perfect their food and business model before expanding.
Pikes Place Market in Seattle and The Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco prove the food hall concept could work in the United States. Mario Batalli’s EATaly in Manhattan proved that a restaurant centric food hall could be commercially viable as a stand-alone concept.
In Orange County, The Packing District is the first large scale food hall and it has become an overnight success. Two more food hall concepts are opening this fall in Tustin and Mission Viejo, called Union Market. The hipster and gentrified Downtown Santa Ana will be opening their own food walkabout called, “4th Street Market.”
Throughout the country, this style of gourmet food hall is quickly emerging as a hot trend. In Orange County, I predict that the market will hit a saturation point even before all the concepts are fully built.
My Final Thoughts
Although the food truck will continue to expand into the suburbs and into backwards parts of the country, the food truck movement is on a self-destruct trajectory. Street vendors will never go away, especially in major metropolitans; but, as it has always been, only the strongest will survive.
RIP Gourmet Food Trucks 2008-2014, it was a fun run.