Food Trucks in the Driver’s Seat

Chicago's "Meatyballs Mobile" and the creator, Chef Foss

By Kevin Pang |

Phillip Foss & his cool "Meatyballs Mobile" of Chicago

Trend gaining traction as cultural acceptance grows

A decade ago, food trucks were lowly purveyors of donuts and coffee, metallic wallpaper in the urban streetside fabric.

Two years ago, an enterprising chef combined Korean barbecue with Mexican tacos, drove around Los Angeles with Twitter on his smartphone and became a social media sensation.

Today, the food truck trend continues to grow. The National Restaurant Association says the category is projected to top $630 million in nationwide revenue in 2011, up 3.6 percent from 2010, which would outstrip the 2.5 percent growth estimate for the entire restaurant business.

More important, its cultural acceptance as an outlet for creative cooking is gaining traction.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the restaurant association, cites the entrepreneurial spirit of chefs and the still-sluggish economy, plus the relative low overhead costs compared with traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, as reasons for mobile food trucks’ rise.

While it is true that Chicago, host of the annual restaurant show, continues to grapple with mobile foods legislation (cooking in a truck in Chicago is prohibited; serving prepared food isn’t), food trucks mania remained a hot topic at McCormick Place, where the show has been taking place since Saturday.

At a session Saturday called “The Road Ahead for Food Trucks,” Suzy Badaracco, of industry forecaster Culinary Tides, predicted brick-and-mortar restaurants, many of which have an adversarial and competitive relationship with food trucks, would begin launching vehicles of their own. Earlier this year, The Southern, a Bucktown restaurant serving food from its namesake region, unveiled a mac and cheese truck.

Phillip Foss, of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck, said it is possible to get into the business for under $100,000 in Chicago, because there’s no cooking in the truck. For a brick-and-mortar restaurant, it’s at least double, if not triple, the cost.

The heightened profile at the restaurant show was clearly visible. Last year, there were two food trucks on display; this year the Food Truck Spot featured six such vehicles, all attracting lots of interest.

In other notable trends from the show, some chefs are noting that diners are becoming adventurous, willing to try bolder flavors and foods. Badaracco said the trend of comfort foods that began several years ago (timed with the economic free fall) has began to wane, as chiles, citrus and nutmeg are appearing on more menus.

Witness the What’s Hot in 2011 survey from the association (surveying 1,300 chefs), which lists Southeast Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian) and Peruvian among this year’s in-demand cuisines.

There’s also the growing popularity of hyperlocal: Instead of just sourcing from nearby farms, chefs are sourcing ingredients from gardens right next to their restaurants. Last summer, chef Sarah Stegner, of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook and Chicago’s Prairie Fire, had a webcam keeping tabs on her backyard garden of radishes, edible flowers and wild arugula. Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco) has an extensive kitchen garden in his Bucktown home that produces an array of ingredients for his restaurants.

And in the spirit of do-it-yourself, many chefs nationwide are purchasing whole sides of beef and pork and butchering the meat themselves.

Other trends cited by the restaurant association that diners might see this year: specialty iced teas, half-portion plates at lower prices, ethnic breakfasts (congee, huevos rancheros), ethnic cheeses (paneer, queso fresco), nontraditional fish (Arctic char, barramundi), artisanal/house-made ice creams, black rice and quinoa.,0,1188761.story