By MATTHEW CAWOOD | SJ.FarmOnline.com.au
THE first waves of the food truck movement sweeping the United States are lapping at Australian cities, promising new ways of presenting food and new sales avenues for farmers.
Thousands of food trucks had hit US streets since 2008 – there were now more than 4000 licensed in Los Angeles County alone – but these were not the impolitely-named industrial area “roach coach” with its packaged food.
The new-generation trucks were selling high-quality fresh food, assembled on the spot.
Gourmet burgers and pizzas are only the start: the trucks sell a bewildering array of foodstuffs, from Korean-Mexican fusion food, cupcakes, and matzo-ball soup to the inventively combined produce of a single farm.
The movement is being driven in part by hard times in the US, suggested an analyst with food services industry consultancy, Technomic, Kevin Higar.
The US jobs market had withered since the 2008 downturn, and showed no signs of coming back. For the entrepreneurially-minded, the best way to create work was to generate it yourself.
“A food truck has a lower capital expenditure amount than a traditional restaurant, so it gives these entrepreneurs – some with strong formal culinary backgrounds and some not – a chance to become their own boss,” Mr Higar said.
He estimated start-up costs averaged in the $US30,000-$100,000 range.
Based on his own survey of 150 food trucks in 15 cities, Mr Higar observed that food truck owner-operators tended to be younger, “perhaps 22 to 35 years old – although there is definitely a minority of individuals 40-50 also become involved because of the current US employment situation”.
Watching queues form in front of some of the hippest food trucks had forced established food brands to sit up and taken notice.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Sizzlers, Subway and other US brands are putting food trucks on the road, with predictions 10 per cent of the top 200 US restaurant chains will have trucks by the end of 2012.
Food trucks bypass many of the traditional challenges of the restaurant business. Rental overheads, restaurant fitouts, and jostling for location are bypassed by food truckies, who are also forgoing traditional advertising routes in favour of free social media.
Via Twitter and Facebook, food trucks can communicate with a smartphone-equipped clientele to advertise menus and location, which may change daily. Because social media runs two ways, Mr Higar said menu changes are often made overnight in response to customer feedback.
Mobility has other unique advantages. Trucks can take their owners to food fairs or private catering events, ready to serve, or converge to create an outdoor food mall.
The downsides: food truck operators need to be their own mechanics, are sometimes constrained by city laws, and kitchen size limits throughput and customer numbers.
In the US, weather is also a big issue. Technomic surveys show that trade can be down 40 per cent on bad weather days. A food truck business model can’t be built around trading 365 days a year, the consultancy observed.
But just as the espresso machine produced a generation of coffee enthusiasts willing to wait in line for their favourite brew, the food quality and “hipness” of the best food trucks was redefining what people will do to get a meal.
Queues of 45 minutes were not uncommon. In Adelaide, the owners of the new Burger Theory truck have been startled by the willingness of clients to wait up to an hour for their $8-$10 gourmet burgers.
It could all be a fad – except the signs suggest otherwise.
Technomic surveyed more than 500 people on this question, and found 91pc thought food trucks are a long-term phenomenon in the US.
If that’s the case for the US, then the prospects for the food truck in Australia, with our kinder weather and higher expectations of food quality, were very good indeed.