By STAFF | Scripps Networks
Food trucks are smokin’ hot these days — with rapid growth in Los Angeles, New York and other urban centers. But even in my corner of the world, Birmingham, Ala., I’ve counted around 10 food trucks plying the city.
Yesterday I had lunch at one, the Spoonfed Grill, parked downtown among a cluster of big banks and corporate towers. I had the Slow-Roasted Pork Roll-Up, which included mixed greens, avocado aioli, lemon feta cheese, pico de gallo and kalamata olives, all wrapped-up in a whole-wheat tortilla. It was so delicious I forgot about good manners and ended up with leftovers on my nice white shirt. If I’d had any room left I could have walked across the street to The Cupcake Truck and purchased, among other options, the Paparazzi Cupcake, a poppyseed buttercake with buttercream icing. Walking back to the office, I spotted a copy of Birmingham Weekly whose cover story happened to be “The Rise of the Food Trucks.”
Just how hot are food trucks? A website called Find LA Food Trucks tracks the twitter feeds of 84 different food trucks in that city. And Yelp.com lists nearly 200 food trucks in Portland, Ore., with user reviews. Many cities now have websites that track food truck locations. Even some established restaurant chains are getting in on the game, with Applebee’s, Taco Bell and others testing food trucks.
What’s fueling this trend? Susie Fogelson, SVP of Marketing, Creative Services and Brand Strategy for Food Network and Cooking Channel, has several theories:
- Food trucks began coming onto the scene in a much bigger way as the economy tanked in 2008. “It’s a huge undertaking, financially and otherwise, to open a restaurant,” said Susie. “With a food truck, young entrepreneurs can get an idea into the marketplace quickly and cheaply.”
- High-end cuisine at street-level prices. These are not the greasy food carts of old. Today’s food trucks often serve locally sourced, creative, gourmet food. “Food truck entrepreneurs tend to have a passion for the food,” said Susie. “If they are selling grilled cheese sandwiches it’s because they love grilled cheese sandwiches.”
- The growth of food trucks intersects with the boom of social media. Most food trucks actively use Twitter, Facebook and blogs to tell people what they’re serving and their location (some trucks change locations several times a day). You’ll note that all of these services can be used without spending a dime. “They’ve used social media to build an audience and really build a community around their brand,” said Susie. “It’s the democratization of good food.”
- The new fast food. “Food trucks specialize in hand held food,” said Susie. “It’s grab and go, delicious and affordable.”
Food Network and Cooking Channel have been all over this trend for several years — both in terms of television programming and in marketing the brands. Cooking Channel aired the Food Truck Revolution special, and the network has its own Frozen Treat Truck, now on a 22-city tour across the country, visiting agencies, advertisers and affiliates such as Comcast. And by the way, in each city a local chef staffs the truck, creating unique artisanal treats.
At Food Network the big news this week is The Great Food Truck Race begins season 2 on Sunday, August 14, at 10:00 p.m. ET. In the series, hosted by Tyler Florence, eight gourmet food trucks embark on a coast-to-coast culinary road trip, competing in weekly challenges to see who sells the most food. The last truck standing wins $100,000.
I mentioned above how most food trucks use social media to reel in customers. No surprise then that Food Network is using social media to grow interest in The Great Food Truck Race. One piece of the social/grass roots marketing program is called “Lunch Is on Us.” Here’s how it works: On Sunday night, immediately following each episode of The Great Food Truck Race, visit Food Network’s Facebook page to see which city and truck will host a Friday lunch. The exact location in the city has not been chosen, and visitors can vote to pick the location. Throughout the week, Food Network will send out location clues via Twitter. Then on Friday at 11 a.m. local time, Food Network will Tweet out the final location. The first 100 people in line receive a free lunch. Recipients are encouraged to Tweet about the experience with the hashtag #foodtrucks, send Twitpics and tag photos on Food Network’s Facebook wall.
Food trucks, social media and cutting-edge topics in general fall right in line with Food Network’s broader mission to entertain and educate. “It’s our responsibility to discover the hottest trends,” said Susie. “And then we introduce those trends to much of the country.”