Congratulations! You’ve made it out of infancy and into your pre-teen years. You’ve survived the growing pains of childhood: changing licensure requirements, finding locations, developing an audience. But it’s time to grow up. Mommy isn’t going to be tying your shoes for you any more. Before you can play with the big boys in the world of street food, there are a few more things you’re going to need to make it through to adulthood.
Like the star athlete on the T-ball team, you shined at a young age: trucks like Skillet and Marination Mobile fast-tracked to bricks-and-mortar and found fame on the magazine covers and the Food Network (their version of the Wheaties box). But the ball wasn’t moving, success was tightly defined, and it meant that the rest of the team trained for that single goal. Here’s the thing: to have a healthy food truck scene, some of the trucks need to work to be the best truck possible, not just the most feasible restaurant to potential investors or the one popular enough to fund their Kickstarter. The ball is whizzing by at 100 mph: are you trying to bunt or hit a homer?
Street food universally implies a few things: speed, convenience, and affordability. Quality is somewhere in there too, but as the Seattle food truck scene grew up, it focused on exactly one of those priorities. Listen up guys: you’re everywhere now. Starbucks headquarters does not need any more trucks. We have festivals that gather 50 trucks together at a time. What we need are faster, cheaper trucks. How do you do that and still make money? Well, let’s have a look at how your championship-winning brethren in places like Mexico City and Bangkok do it: specialization.
If I am at a restaurant, and it takes ten minutes to make my sandwich, that’s one thing: I’m sitting down at a table, out of the elements, perhaps reading my book, chatting with a friend, or (let’s be honest) scrolling through Twitter on my phone. If I’m at a food truck and it takes ten minutes to make my sandwich, I’m either cold, wet, or squinting to see my iPhone screen through the glare of the sun. Don’t get me wrong: all food tastes better when I eat it outside. But waits for food (or in lines) rot faster than a pile of last month’s bananas at the Grocery Outlet. By paring down the menu to just one or two items, you can pretty much ensure quick service—and exponentially so when things get busy, as you can just make your one or two products continuously.
I get it: by doing this, you’re no longer showing off your mad skills at running a tiny restaurant. To me that’s a good thing. But let me sell you on it, too: you’ve also eliminated a ton of potential food waste, labor costs prepping extra food, possibly a need for additional appliances on your truck, and lots of wasted time. As you reach adulthood, allow me to repeat the sage words a rabbi once gave a young food truck scene on the occasion of its bar mitzvah: pass these savings on to your customers.
As you graduate from the food truck scene’s version of middle school (they really have ceremonies for everything these days), you’ve done a great job so far. You’ve made it easy for newcomers, you’ve filled the need for food at places where there’s no room for restaurants. You’ve made a smoother path to restaurant-hood for people who weren’t born with gold doubloons in their diapers. For that Seattle thanks you. But don’t stop here. Don’t be that guy who’s 34 and still telling the story about the touchdown pass he caught his sophomore year. Being homecoming queen doesn’t last forever, and if you want to grow to the kind of fame as your sister in Singapore or uncle in Hanoi, you’re going to need food trucks that specialize. Trucks that make one dish, and that make it over and over until it’s the best version that anyone has ever had of it. Trucks that can feed that one phenomenal dish to 50 people in an hour.
Enjoy the glory years, Seattle food truck scene. You’ve worked hard to get this far. But don’t forget that you’ve still got plenty of room to grow up.