Food trucks selling gourmet goods like tacos, barbecue and cupcakes have grown in popularity in recent years. But people have been buying what’s known as street food for generations.
Food carts were already a fixture in many cities back in the 1800s. And hot dog, sausage and pretzel vendors have been selling quick lunches to office workers and tourists on city streets and in beach towns since the early 1900s.
The website for Good Humor ice cream says the company’s first trucks hit the road in 1920. And trucks selling breakfast and lunch items have been feeding workers at factories and other commercial sites for decades.
What’s different in this new wave of food trucks, and sometimes carts, is that they sell trendy food, not staples like hot dogs or muffins. They started showing up about 10 years ago, led by pioneers including Kogi, a Korean barbecue truck in Los Angeles, says Kevin Higar, an analyst at Technomic Inc., a research company that studies the food industry. The trend also includes carts and trailers that are hitched to the back of a truck or car and towed from spot to another.
Food trucks are just starting to become popular in cities like Dallas, Higar says. Chicago is behind the rest of the country because it has ordinances that restrict trucks from parking within 200 feet of a restaurant. The city did last week end a ban on truck operators from cooking onboard their vehicles.
In some cities like Los Angeles, food truck growth is leveling off because governments limit the number of permits issued for mobile food vendors, Higar says. Congestion is one reason for limits — everyone wants to be in the high-traffic areas. In some cities, lots are set aside for a specific number of trucks or carts. But permits may also be limited because of pressure from traditional restaurants that don’t want the lower-priced competition.
Weakness in the economy and high unemployment have encourage more people to start trucks and carts, Higar says. Some people who start food trucks include people who lost jobs, don’t have prospects for a new one and want more control over their own lives, he says.
Another group includes people in their 20s and 30s who are interested in a career in the food industry, but rather than work for someone else, “they want to be able to express themselves and do it in their own way,” Higar says.