A History of the Food Truck

The Rise of the Food Truck Culture

People standing in line at a food truck

Benreis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 

Food trucks have grown in popularity since the 2008 recession and are as much of a restaurant concept as family-style dining or fast food. Given the low cost, many would-be restaurateurs opt to open food truck businesses, which now are regarded as respectable venues for starting a career in the food business. Today, food trucks offer menu options from cupcakes to grilled cheese to hybrid taco-waffles, and pretty much anything imaginable. Going beyond street food cuisine, food trucks now cater to all tastes, offering gourmet, locally sourced, artisan menu items.

The Emergence of Food Trucks

Selling food street-side dates back to the late 17th century when living conditions were cramped and many people did not have the resources to cook their own meals. Vendors sold food from small carts or street kitchens, and the practice has continued throughout the world, especially in urban areas. 

Roy Choi became one of the leaders in the food truck industry when he opened Kogi in Los Angeles in 2008. Serving Korean barbecue, it is considered to be one of the first gourmet food trucks in the United States.

As of 2021, research firm IBISWorld estimated there are more than 24,000 food trucks in the U.S. doing about $1 billion worth of business annually. Growth from 2015-2020, meanwhile, was estimated to be 7.5%. Because state and local regulations vary among states, food trucks may be more popular in some areas than others.

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Food trucks historically have been associated with quick and easy-to-prepare foods such as hot dogs or ethnic street food that can be found in busy urban centers. As menus have expanded and the popularity of such trucks has grown, it has become more common to find food trucks in more locations than just busy street corners in densely populated cities.

Food trucks operate in smaller cities and suburban areas and also are popular at fairs, festivals, concerts, sporting events, and anyplace else where people gather. Simple concession stands at large events have been supplanted by food trucks that offer broader—and frequently healthier—options for attendees at large events.

While some food trucks began as less expensive alternatives to brick-and-mortar restaurants, others are operated as extensions of established restaurants. Popular eateries sometimes add a food truck to their operation so they can take their dishes to the people at large events or for other special occasions. It's also a marketing tool that can draw attention to a brand. For example, some customers might learn about a restaurant by ordering from its food truck at an outdoor event.

Food Truck Regulations

As with any small business, operating a food truck involves regulations and licensing. You will also need to create a well thought out business plan. In cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the number of food truck permits available is limited. Cities and towns also regulate where and when food trucks are allowed to park for business. If you are thinking of opening a food truck, check with your local zoning office for more information.

Many municipalities limit where and when food trucks can operate based on the number of brick-and-mortar restaurants in operation. For example, a smaller city with a number of established restaurants in its downtown area might restrict food trucks from operating within so many blocks of the business district at certain times to avoid oversaturating the area with food options.