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The Food Truck Industry: Protecting our Own

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As a sports fan growing up in the Northern suburbs of Detroit, MI, I had the opportunity in the 70’s to latch onto a sport that had a relatively small niche following. The National Hockey League was available every Saturday evening via the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) before the advent of cable television.

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I would watch my home team Red Wings every chance I had and grew to love the sport even though, I didn’t play it. In the 80’s the league expanded and began to take teams out of small markets in Canada and the US rustbelt, and moved them to warmer parts of the country in an attempt to wrestle away viewers of the NBA and NFL. The league had some success in doing this, and went prime time when the NHL signed huge television contracts with ESPN and FOX Sports. What happened next was alien to me, but in an attempt to make the sport more palatable for the whole country, the NHL agreed with FOX, to allow a blue dot to follow the puck during play on their national television broadcasts. This trend quickly died, as long time fans, turned the channel in disgust, as they watched as their small niche sport make the move to the big time.

The ratings started to plummet enough that both ESPN and FOX dropped their weekly programming of hockey, why? Because the original fans stopped watching, and the trendy new blue puck wasn’t enough to keep the new fans. A new trend in the food truck industry has reminded me of hockey history, and if something isn’t done to protect it, we may see the equivalent of a blue dot following the food trucks in our industry.

Although food trucks have been in the United States (primarily NYC and Los Angeles) since the 70’s, the industry has reached new levels of prominence in the country over the last 3-5 years. The big turning point for the industry was this year’s inaugural season of Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” which brought mobile cuisine to the national stage.

Food trucks are popping up in every region of the country, and more and more cities are legislating new ways to allow the industry within their limits. Yes, this is great for the mobile entrepreneurs who prefer to open up mobile dining vehicles as opposed to traditional brick and mortar establishments, but at the same time, large corporations are starting to look at the industry as a means to market for their already established restaurants. It has been reported over the last few months that companies such as Sizzler, Tasty D-Lite and Cousins Submarines are planning entry into the food truck industry. It appears, their marketing strategy isn’t to help the food truck industry, but to attract customers to their in-line restaurants.

I found out from the Wall Street Journal, that Aaron Webster, owner of three Tasti D-Lite stores in Houston, says he bought a used van last year for $90,000 from the frozen-dessert brand’s parent company. It’s complete with a small refrigerator, freezer, sinks, countertop, soft-serve machine, toppings bar and power generator. A bubble-gum pink exterior features the brand’s logo and website address.

Mr. Webster, a former investment banker, uses the van to sell ice cream mostly at community events and for catering jobs. He says mobile sales account for less than 2% of total revenues for his businesses but that the van is helping to raise brand awareness. “It’s really a roving billboard,” he says.

A roving billboard? Is that really where we want to see the industry head? Of course the National Restaurant Association opened up a measly 1,500 square feet of its annual show to food trucks in 2010, how else would they be able to show all of the national restaurant chains how they can expand their current stores?

Please don’t take this article the wrong way, expansion of the industry is a good thing, and healthy competition on the streets will help to maintain creative menus and innovative fare being served from food trucks. However, our concern is what the next step in this evolution may entail.

As it stands today, many cities already have limits on the number of licenses they issue to mobile food vendors, if these mega corporations delve into food trucks with the backing of their huge coffers of capital, where will that leave the small business owner who loves to cook, and has a new twist on burgers or tacos they wish to share? Will they have to wait 10 years before getting the proper license because Taco Bell or McDonalds already has fleets of 10 plus trucks rolling around each major market in the country? Will cities draw back from their current support of the industry because there are too many corporate applications being submitted for review and approval? Or even worse, will there be a backlash by the current followers of trucks such as Kogi BBQ, The Big Gay Ice Cream, or The Nom Nom Truck? Will these loyal fans turn their backs on the established trucks because of the onslaught of profit driven establishments that litter every corner of the public right of way?

I certainly hope not, however, if nothing is done to help protect against this, I am afraid in the next few years we may have our own version of the blue dot following our industry.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. As a hockey player, I definitely get the analogy. What brought hockey back to center was getting back to it’s roots with producing the outdoor games. So my hope is the legit food trucks band to together because of this new competition, to get back to their roots.

    I also attended the food expo in Dallas, TX a couple of months ago, and attended a “food truck” conference, and the speakers were two big restaurant owners, who were giddy to talk about their “roaming billboards” and R&D value.

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