More Under the (Food Truck) Hood

By Alexandra Pratt | Triple Pundit

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Mobile food trucks are the latest micro business model sprouting up in urban centers across the country. Just like cupcakes and housewives, there is even a reality television show that pits gourmet food trucks against each other to win a cash prize. However, beyond cashing in on $10 grilled cheese sandwiches and truffled fries, the mobile food industry poses a unique opportunity to tackle bigger community challenges.

I’ve seen Oakland’s big box businesses dotting the downtown plaza shut down one by one. Our downtown is speckled with abandoned lots, unkempt storefronts and people in need. Last summer, hopeful colleagues cleared an enormous tumbleweed out of an adjacent parking lot and swept up panfuls of broken glass to play Wiffle® ball after lunch. More recently, two trucks, Fist of Flour and Guerilla Grub started laying out red and white checkered table cloths and selling hot locally sourced food to a hungry crowd. Mobile food trucks are one example of creative approaches that energize the urban landscape from the ground up.

With low overhead and potential access to many locations and appetites, the food truck model eases barriers of entry into the restaurant business. In San Francisco, for example, increased resources and collaborative marketing efforts provide a support system for food entrepreneurs across the economic spectrum. Access to starting a small business with lower initial investment and risk creates new employment opportunities and increases tax contributions. In addition, physical mobility allows for a broader market base, catering to customers who wouldn’t otherwise have access to meals.

Embracing the simple idea of mobile food, social programs have utilized this model as a purely philanthropic function. Food banks are successfully delivering fresh produce to areas that don’t traditionally have access. The Bay Area Food Bank is one example of mobile food pantries that are servicing food deserts. With a direct mode of distribution to the customer, these food pantries are servicing a need for more convenient, healthy food. Whether it’s free food or gourmet dining, there exists a growing necessity for a quick meal that’s not fast, packaged or processed food. In addition to the grub, the novelty, and often quirky branding, food trucks, by their mere presence, create a positive and safe communal atmosphere.

Public spaces, from streets to parks, need people to survive. By serving food in these under-utilized areas, food trucks are able to add value for visitors, commuters and the local populace. In Oakland, truck owners have scouted out empty street corners to meet the culinary desires of local businesses. The Oakland Mobile Food Group sets up shop: pizza ovens, grills and picnic tables once a week to cater specifically to this crowd. Bites off Broadway, another coalition group, states their mission is to “revitalize and activate Broadway as a major Oakland boulevard.” Food trucks’ ability to turn concrete lots and grassy knolls into the hottest eating spaces ignites a sense of community, safety and well being.

The mobile food industry is faced with roadblocks; the most prominent being citywide policies prohibiting them. Outdated views of unsanitary conditions and animosity with existing restaurants should be addressed – not ignored – and zoning and permit laws need to be amended. With appropriate regulation to support business growth and safe food, the mobile food industry is one that will encourage locally sourced food and freshly cooked meals; making a stroll down the block and casual conversation with your neighbor not only possible, but probable.