Trend gaining traction as cultural acceptance grows

CHICAGO, IL – A decade ago, food trucks were lowly purveyors of donuts and coffee, metallic wallpaper in the urban streetside fabric.

Two years ago, an enterprising chef combined Korean barbecue with Mexican tacos, drove around Los Angeles with Twitter on his smartphone and became a social media sensation.

Today, the food truck trend continues to grow. The National Restaurant Association says the category is projected to top $630 million in nationwide revenue in 2011, up 3.6 percent from 2010, which would outstrip the 2.5 percent growth estimate for the entire restaurant business.

More important, its cultural acceptance as an outlet for creative cooking is gaining traction.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the restaurant association, cites the entrepreneurial spirit of chefs and the still-sluggish economy, plus the relative low overhead costs compared with traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, as reasons for mobile food trucks’ rise.

While it is true that Chicago, host of the annual restaurant show, continues to grapple with mobile foods legislation (cooking in a truck in Chicago is prohibited; serving prepared food isn’t), food trucks mania remained a hot topic at McCormick Place, where the show has been taking place since Saturday.

At a session Saturday called “The Road Ahead for Food Trucks,” Suzy Badaracco, of industry forecaster Culinary Tides, predicted brick-and-mortar restaurants, many of which have an adversarial and competitive relationship with food trucks, would begin launching vehicles of their own. Earlier this year, The Southern, a Bucktown restaurant serving food from its namesake region, unveiled a mac and cheese truck.

Phillip Foss, of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck, said it is possible to get into the business for under $100,000 in Chicago, because there’s no cooking in the truck. For a brick-and-mortar restaurant, it’s at least double, if not triple, the cost.

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