Podcast Episode 73: Everything You Want to Know About Food Trucks
Want the inside scoop on food trucks? We talked to Eric Weiner, the Founder of Food Trucks In, and got a behind-the-scenes look at the food truck movement in the U.S.
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In this episode of the Find Dining Podcast, Eric Weiner from Food Trucks In talks about the resurgence of the food truck movement across the nation. We discuss the burgeoning food truck scene, the benefits and logistical challenges of food truck operation, and strategies for sampling from multiple trucks at festivals.
- Follow your favorite food trucks or find new favorites in over 700 cities at the Food Trucks In website.
- Get started with your own food truck
- Find food truck gatherings like Food Truck Row, Off the Grid, and Civic Center Eats
- Check out the food trucks that Eric sampled from at the Winter Blast in Secaucus, NJ
- Discover which cities have laws that are friendliest to food trucks and why Rosie's Weenie Wagon in Englewood, NJ can only park for 15 minutes at a time.
Food for Thought:
- Q: What is the oldest food truck in Rhode Island and when did it first hit the road?
- A: The Haven Bros. Diner has been operating since 1888
Out of the Frying Pan:
- Most Interesting Food Truck Cuisine: Deep-fried corn from Beach Fries in Fredericksburg, VA
- Best Looking Food Truck: Any truck with "Wiener" in the name. Check out The Evil Wiener in Austin, TX
- Most Interesting stat discovered while developing website: There are 7 food trucks in Alaska
- Best Advice for New Food Truck Owners: Take the time and research what it's going to take to be successful
- What is a "tip war"?: A way for customers to vote with their tips. See Rocket Fine Street Foods for an example
Seth: This is Episode Number 73 of the Find Dining Podcast. We’re talking all about food trucks. Hello and welcome to the Find Dining Podcast. This is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food. I’m your host. My name is Seth Resler.
And here’s how it works, if you’ve never listened to podcast before, each week, we talk to somebody from a different city, a culinary expert, somebody who really knows what’s going on in the local food scene. And we get their take. And sometimes it’s a chef, sometimes it’s an author. This week, we’ve actually got an entrepreneur. We have Eric Weiner who is the founder of Food Trucks In which is a website that helps you find all the food trucks in a city. So if you’re a taste trekker, you’re a food traveler, you’re a food tourist, you’re going to a new city, you want to know how to find some cool food trucks, this is the website and the app that will help you do it.
So we’re going to talk to him. Eric, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really excited to have you here?
Eric: I’m really excited to be here.
Seth: We’re going to talk to you about Food Trucks In. We’re going to get the whole story behind it. We are also going to talk to you about the state of food trucks generally and this food truck renaissance that we seem to be experiencing and then we’re going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan. But before we get to all that, we always start the podcast with a trivia question. What do you got for me?
Eric: All right. So in Providence, Rhode Island, we have about 35 food trucks and the oldest food truck has been around for quite awhile, probably longer than most of any of the food truck that we would talk about. So my question to you is do you know either who the oldest food truck is in Rhode Island or when it hit the road and started?
Seth: Okay. So you’re based in Providence, Rhode Island which is, by the way, where we held the Taste Trekkers Food and Travel Expo last September. And you were a big part of that project. You helped us quite a bit with the food truck brunch that we did on the Sunday there. By the way, thank you for that. Have I thanked you for that? Thank you very much for that. I appreciate it.
Eric: It was a great Sunday. The weather didn’t completely cooperate with us and everyone still had a wonderful time, so that always means it’s a successful food truck event in my book.
Seth: Yeah, it was good enough because we started it like 11:00 I think when we started it, but like it was raining in the morning and then it cleared up just in time for us to start. So it turned out fine. And, of course, I lived in Providence, Rhode Island for a long time. I ran a radio station there. I went to college there, so I should know this and not only that, but we had the curator of the Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum on the show as a guest and we talked about nothing but the diners and food trucks and I’m pretty sure that he told me the answer in that interview and I can’t remember what it was. Would this be the same thing, you know, the start of the diner, the start of the food truck, are they same thing?
Eric: It’s not exactly the same thing but in this case, this – I think that many people would consider this food truck a mobile diner, so I think there is a little crossover even though in general, I would not say it’s the same thing.
Seth: All right. This is going to frustrate me now though because I feel like I do know the answer to this question and I can’t think of it. So, you know, we always wait to give the answer anyway and fortunately, the stall will actually hopefully give me some time to think of the answer this week because I feel like I know this.
All right. But while I’m thinking about it, let’s talk about you, let’s talk about Food Trucks In. What is Food Trucks In? What do you do in here?
Eric: Food Trucks In has been a project that I’ve been working on now probably for just about 15 or 16 months and the root of it is acknowledging at some point that there was a need to pick up where Twitter and Facebook have left off when it comes to food trucks; that social media has really build this renaissance of this gourmet food truck growth across the country, the movement from catering trucks and yuck trucks or roach coaches that they may have previously been called is now well in the history and they’ve been replaced or added to by these incredible gourmet trucks that are all over the country.
And the reason that that’s been able to grow and the reason that this market is now so prevalent in so many cities is that this food truck operators have realized that through Facebook and Twitter, they could let people that want to know where they are know where they are. So it’s a really good way for them to deliver to their customers or the people that are familiar with them where they are.
The problem with using Facebook and Twitter for letting people know where you are is that you’re only sending that message out to the people that know you already. So when I first started eating at the Providence food trucks about a year and a half ago, you know, I asked each of them the question, if I want to know where you are, what do I do? And they said, well, just follow us on Twitter. And I said, that’s great, but what if there’s a new food truck that comes on the scene and I don’t know about them, I can’t follow someone that I don’t know about. And what if I travel to Chicago or Denver and I’ve had a great slider at a burger truck in Providence that I want to try a slider at a burger truck in Chicago, how do I find that truck.
So I kind of went through that exercise. I went through that exercise with my partner and we found that we spent a lot of time on Google chasing leads around and chasing links around and finding different trucks via Twitter or Facebook and then ultimately, you really need to be in love with eating at a food truck in order to kind of follow that trail around. You know, it was kind of this digital paper trail. And we started to look at, is there a way to find food trucks anywhere you travel and then is there a way to find where they are and the answer was no and that’s what Food Trucks In is.
FoodTrucksIn.com is a mechanism to find any food truck in any city and then just learn more about the truck, what events they’re attending and where the truck is in real time.
Seth: And this is great for foodies who travel because they are constantly looking to discover new things. And you’re right, you really enabled people to do that as opposed to just following something that they already know. So that’s fantastic. Talk to me about the role of social media in this food truck renaissance. And we are in a food truck renaissance, right? I mean, do you think social media is what’s driving that? Are there other factors in there as well?
Eric: Yeah, I think there are other factors. I think social media has definitely been the engine to it and I think that we’re now part of that engine, you know, that social media and what we’re doing is the marketing arm of these small business entrepreneurs to let people know where they are and whether you’re following their Twitter feed because you’re interested in seeing what they’re tweeting the night before about what the local produces that they’re going to use in their specials the next day or you’re looking at FoodTrucksIn.com to see if there are going to be three or four trucks in an event together. It’s definitely the marketing engine.
I’ve actually had a number of conversations with food trucks where I’ve said, don’t forget to use good old fashioned things like flyers and do some of the things that small business people used to do to do your marketing. But social media is the primary marketing arm of food trucks. It’s not the only thing that’s driving this. I think there are few things driving it. One, is that in my experience, the consumer over all, really wants to be able to shop and eat local when they can and that we’ve come to this place where food trucks are a great way to do that, that you know who’s cooking your food. It’s often the same person that’s the owner and that person could look out the window and talk to you and tell you where they got their food and why what they had yesterday isn’t available on the menu today.
And I think that there’s a huge appetite for that from people in the way that they eat and dine. And then in addition to that, I think the overall kitchen technology and the technology that’s now available to chefs and in restaurants can now be built in ways that it works on a truck. And that maybe 15 years ago, a lot of that technology meant that all you could do on a truck was have a fryer and a warmer or maybe a steam table but now, you can look at these really small areas and they’re designed so wonderfully, with such wonderful technology that you can really take a full dining experience and give the chef or cook everything they need in a small space to deliver incredibly high level products.
Seth: You mentioned the new technology, does that mean that the people actually in the trucks are different? I mean, you know, if you mention food trucks to my parents, they would think of, like you mentioned, the roach coaches of the past, and that’s clearly not what’s out there now. So who’s actually in these trucks?
Eric: Yeah. So there are so many, so one of the wonderful things about what I’ve gotten to do in the last year is that I’ve traveled to a number of cities to meet the food truck owners in different cities and to meet customers because it is a very local business. So the trucks in different cities, you know, if you meet a food truck in Providence, it’s not the same as meeting a food truck in South Carolina or in Florida that the markets are different, the people are different, the food is different and the city laws are different.
So I don’t think the answer is the same everywhere but I can tell you this, it’s a very unique group of people. And when I say unique, it’s because everyone has got their own story. You have a whole class of people that are opening and owning food trucks that are trained chefs that quite frankly have just gotten sick and tired of working in someone else’s kitchen and not being able to see the customer. So a lot of the food truck owners are chefs that have said, I’ve always been in the back of the house in the kitchen and this was a way for me to stay in front of the burners and make the product that I love but also hand it directly to the customer and get to talk to them about it. And that is a really significant part of what’s driving the food truck culture.
The other part is that this to me is right now the current version of the American dream. You know, there are a lot of people that owned food trucks whose husbands and or wives for 20 years said to them, you know, you’re not really happy in your job, you love to cook, you should think about opening a restaurant or a diner someday and they either haven’t had enough confidence in their own cooking or they haven’t had the ability to get the funding or they haven’t been willing to take the risk to leave a full time job. And food trucks are now become a mechanism for them to find that in-between space where it’s not so much of a risk if they’re not willing to take it. They’re willing to actually see if the food that someone loved in their home kitchen is actually loved by the general public, too. And it’s a way for them to build a business from the ground up without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. And as it grows, there are really endless opportunities for them.
Seth: Do you find that most of the people who are in these trucks, their long-term vision is to open a restaurant?
Eric: I don’t. I think that that’s one of the things that’s interesting. I think that there’s an assumption that if you’re in a food truck, that means that it’s a stepping stone into a restaurant for you and I don’t have anything other than anecdotal experience, but I think that that’s probably only 15% to 20% of the food truck owners. I think 15% or 20% of the food truck owners are people that absolutely have goals of maybe someday opening a brick and mortar. I think another 15% or 20% of the food truck owners are actual brick and mortar locations that have added a food truck to help with their marketing, to help with their brand recognition.
And the rest of it, the other 60% or so are really motivated by different things or motivated by the lifestyle. They’re motivated with sharing food. They’re motivated with wanting to own their own small business. And I think for that other 60%, there’s less of a long-term vision as there is being happy day to day and making other people happy day to day and that could lead to a brick and mortar, that could lead to a second food truck, it could lead to something else in the food industry or it could lead to whatever is next in their path. But I’d say that 15% to 20% of the people open a food truck with the express goal of maybe having a brick and mortar restaurant down the road.
Seth: You mentioned the lifestyle, what exactly is the lifestyle of a food truck owner or operator? I mean, what is their day look like?
Eric: You know, I’m careful with generalizations. I think it’s different for different types of trucks again and the way people set up their businesses, it can really have an impact on that. But for the most part, if you’re talking about the generality of what does it take to operate a food truck, you know, for a lunch service of two to three hours and a dinner service of two to three hours, you’re talking about a day that probably lasts somewhere between 12 to 15 hours.
And if you factor in all of the challenges and difficulties that you don’t have in a regular brick and mortar, that come with the food truck and some of those things are that you’ve got very limited storage capacity on your truck. So that means that you’re either shopping everyday to restock what you need on your truck or you’re working out of a commissary everyday and moving things in and out of your commissary to your truck.
And then you have the additional requirements of not only keeping your kitchen clean and cleaning your kitchen at the end of the day as any professional chef would, but now you have this whole outside of the truck that needs to be maintained. And you’ve got all the mechanical things that have to do with running a vehicle whether it’s changing the oil or keeping the side of the truck clean. And you’ve got the regular prep and the regular cooking that’s required and you need to drive the truck to the spot. You know, a fair amount of the time, especially for newer trucks or trucks that are looking for new location, are developing where the truck is going to go because each day when you open your doors, you don’t know that you’re going to a particular address, you’re going to a different place or you’re trying to set up regular spots.
So I would say that the average day for a person running a food truck is really a 12 to 15 hour a day if they’re doing a two or three hour lunch service and a two or three hour dinner service.
Seth: That’s not short. I mean, that’s a long day.
Eric: No, it’s not and it’s a good thing that most food truck operators that I’ve met are doing it primarily because they love it and they have a passion for it because if you sat down and started looking at what you’re making from an hourly rate, it’s definitely not one of the most profitable opportunities out there. It’s something that you need to be doing because you’re really enjoying what you’re doing.
Seth: But now, what are the economics of food trucks? I mean, obviously, there are certain expenses that brick and mortars have that they don’t like rent and probably much less on staff and plate ware and decoration and you worry less about that. But are there other expenses that they have?
Eric: I think that when you talk about restaurants and you talk about food trucks, they’re in the same category of food service and hospitality and a lot of what they need to do in terms of managing their food cost and managing their labor is the same. And I think that a lot of what is different are maybe the things that you don’t think of is that for a food truck operator, he needs to think about where he’s going to do his lunch or dinner service and making sure that he has enough time in between to be able to go some place to recharge and to use restrooms and to have all those things that they need on the truck to keep it clean and to keep themselves refreshed and parking in an area where there’s not a snow bank or parking in an area where there’s not no parking signs.
And you’ve got this whole logistical component that’s missing from the restaurant. And I think that one of the things that a lot of food trucks having lot of expenses and you’ve got a lot of knowledge about that people think about is that especially depending on the area and the country that we’re talking about, if we’re talking about a lot of the East Coast where there’s a lot of small towns that border each other, that in many cities, food truck operators need to get a vending license and follow the proper laws in each individual city.
So if you’ll open a restaurant in a single location, you’re in a town and you know what the rules are and you play by those rules, but if you’re operating a food truck, you need to pay the licensing and the fees and know what the rules are at every single town that you want to operate in and that’s a pretty hefty commitment in time to learn those things and also often in cost.
Seth: You also have the weather as a factor, right, and especially up there in New England, for example, where you are and it’s been a brutal winter. You’ve had storm after storm after storm. Does that impact the food trucks as well?
Eric: Yeah. So, you know, in my previous life, I owned a limousine company and I often think about the similarities between limousines and food trucks and, you know, it’s not just weather, it’s this whole logistics nightmare at times. So you’re not just talking about weather, you’re talking about traffic to get some place that you could be going someplace at every single time takes you 20 minutes to get to from your commissary. Now, there’s a traffic or accident, then it takes you 45 minutes, so you’re losing 25 minutes of prep time or you’re losing 25 minutes of service time. So that kind of logistical stuff and isn’t always just related to weather. It could be weather, it could be traffic, it could be accidents.
And then you’re often talking about mechanical issues that a lot of food trucks – and this is true for anyone that’s ever bought a new car or a used car, it doesn’t really matter, things come up that are unexpected. And for a lot of these food trucks, if the car doesn’t start, if the truck doesn’t start, that means that their restaurant is closed for the day. And that’s a whole another area that’s a real challenge for food trucks is to know what there are lots of different logistical things that can get in the way of their service. It’s just part of what they’ve signed up for and they do it with a smile and they plan the best they can, but whether it’s weather or a mechanical breakdown or traffic, they’ve got those logistical things to think about every single day.
There are also other things that people don’t think about everyday and that small things. And if you talk to a food truck operator, every single one of them will tell you and it’s what – you know, parking on an incline is a challenge.
Seth: You know, I was just going to mention that because I found that at the hard way when we did this food truck brunch at the Taste Trekkers Conference, the place where we did it was on an incline and I didn’t think about it at all. One of them emailed me the day before and said, “Hey, can you make sure we’re not on an incline?” And I just went, “Uhh.”
Eric: Yeah. So, you know, and you say, “Well, what’s the big deal?” Well, you know, think about it, if you’re standing and you’re trying to cook and number one, you’re not on the even surface, just think about the idea of trying to fry an egg that’s running down a grill. You know, we’re trying to stand but not on uneven surface for a number of hours. It’s got issues with fry-o-lator, it’s got issues with the way you cook. And then other things like low-hanging wires, you know, most of these trucks are 10 to 14 feet tall and to pull into a driveway or into an office park or into a private park property, they need to have good clearance, they need to have truck height clearance and they also can’t be close to those wires once you’re serving.
So those are the kinds of things that they have to think about everyday that most people would think, “Well, you’ll just pull up to a street corner and you start selling.” Well, you’ve got city and towns rules and regulations, you’ve got fees, you’ve got inclines, you’ve got weather, you’ve got power lines, you’ve got whether or not people can get to your window easily, you’ve got lots of things that they need to think about every single day before they start making that first banh mi sandwich or that first taco for you.
Seth: So let’s talk about the app because the app helps people find food trucks. It’s great for people traveling to a new city and maybe they love exploring and discovering new food trucks. This will help them do it. Walk me through it. I go to FoodTrucksIn.com. First of all, it’s both the site and an app?
Eric: Yeah. So FoodTrucksIn.com is the website that works like an app. So the beauty of that is that you don’t need to actually download an app for it to use it or for it work. Whether you go to it from a desktop computer or from your phone or from your tablet, you can shortcut it to your home screen and when you open it up, it takes you to a mobile-friendly site that looks just like app. We absolutely will actually add an app that people can download for people that like to have that tangible app on their phone. But if you shortcut it to your home screen, it looks just like an app and we’ll certainly add some features and add an app down the road. But right now, the beauty is what we’re doing is that all you have to do is find us on Google or go to FoodTrucksIn.com and open it in any Web browser, in any type of browser and it works beautifully.
So, the essence of the way it works is that when you go to our home screen, you have a simple search box and in that box, we can either make it super easy for you by just clicking a button that says get my location and if you click get my location, we’ll read where you are and we’ll pre-fill that box with the address that you’re at and then you can click search food trucks and we’ll return three things for you. First, we’ll return any of the trucks that are checked in and what checked in is that the food truck is somewhere where they’re serving lunch or dinner or late night and they checked in at that location. So when you click search food trucks, the first thing we show you is a result of those trucks that are checked in. We’ll show you the address that they’re at and how far away they are from you. And then if you click on more details, you’ll actually see them on a Google Map and you can get directions from wherever you are.
Any time that a truck checks in, we’ll show it to you by distance from where it is in your search results and then we’ll show you a list of every other food truck that serves that area. So if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re looking in Tulsa, Oklahoma and you’re not really interested in going out and eating in the food truck but you want to know what trucks are in Tulsa, you just type in Tulsa, Oklahoma in our search, we’ll return all the food trucks that serve Tulsa, Oklahoma. You could look at them. You can click on them and see more details about them. You can click through to their Facebook, Twitter or website. But we give you all that information including their most recent tweets all through one search result.
And then the third thing we will show you is anytime you put in an address and click search, we’ll show you any of the food truck events that we know of within 250 miles to that search. So if you’re sitting in Boston and you do a search in New York City and just like this past weekend, I was at a food truck festival, the Winter Blast around the Super Bowl that had 30 food trucks, you would see the results showing in the food truck events including all the food trucks that are participating in that event and the details about the time and location of the event.
So any time you do a search are showing you of food trucks that are checked in, every other food truck in the area and then any of the food truck events that are in the area as well.
Seth: And if I’m a food truck operator, how do I get listed in the app?
Eric: Yeah. So if you’re a food truck operator, the chances are we’ve already found you. So the first 8 months of our project, part of what we were doing was we were going through every city and county in the state in the country and we were adding every food truck we could find that was currently in business. So every single day, we get Google alerts, we get emails, people fill out forms in our website and they tell us about new trucks and they tell us about trucks that we’ve missed and we’ll add them.
So right now, when I look at our database, we have 3,909 food trucks listed. We’ve removed trucks that have got out of business or gone out of brick and mortar or have shut down for a period of time. But we have 3,909 food trucks on our website right now in 785 cities across the country.
So basically, if you’re a food truck operator and you’re starting a new food truck or we’ve missed you, you simply go to our website and you click a button that says recommend a food truck or register my food truck and you add yourself and then our goal is for every single food truck or trailer or cart to always have a free listing on our site for as long as we’re doing this and we expect to be doing for a very long time. So we really want to be the clearing house for every single food truck in the country to have a free listing.
Seth: Oh, cool. Well, we’re going to take a break here and when we come back, we’re going to give an answer to the trivia question which I still I’m like I’m going to pound my forehead with my fist I know as soon as you tell it to me. But we’re going to give an answer to your trivia question and we’re going to talk to you a little bit more about the differences between food trucks in different cities and then we’re going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan.
Hey, folks, before we get back to Eric and to him about food trucks, couple of things I want to let you know about, first of all, head over to the Taste Trekkers website. We’re doing a lot of exciting stuff there. I’m really proud of the blog that we’re putting together. We’ve got food bloggers from all over the country who are telling us about the top 5 places to go or dishes to try when you come to their city. So if you’re a taste trekker, you like exploring new places and you need some great recommendations, we’ve got them up there.
We are also launching a Q&A with different people who are in the food tourism industry, various aspects whether they’re a food tour operator or somebody who’s in involved with tourism like the CBB or somebody who is a food producer or a chef, all kinds of stuff, that’s going to be coming up in the coming weeks.
Also, we have an advice column for a taste trekker. If you’re a taste trekker and you want to know about the best place to go when you go to Disney World, for example, we have Kelley Kassa who runs Foodie Journey. She is starting to write an advice column for us over at TasteTrekkers.com/blog and so you can hear from an expert, somebody who does this for a living because what Kelley does is she puts together – she’s like a travel agent for foodies. She puts together great trips and provides great input for people who want to travel and discover great culinary experiences.
So that’s all happening over at the Taste Trekkers blog. It is TasteTrekkers.com/blog. You can find it all there. Please take a moment. Check it out.
We are talking to Eric Weiner. He is the founder of Food Trucks In. It’s a website that helps people discover new food trucks in their area. Now, Eric, before we start talking about the differences between food trucks in different cities, you had a trivia question for me. Ask me one more time.
Eric: Sure. So I am based in Providence, Rhode Island and we have about 35 food trucks in Providence who serve here regularly. And the oldest food truck in Providence has been around way longer than the recent excitement around food trucks around the country. So my question to you is do you know who the oldest food truck in Providence is and I’m going to give you bonus points if you know how long it’s been on the road.
Seth: It’s been on the road for a long time I think because the story that I remember in the podcast that we did with Richard Gutman who was the curator of the Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum. He talked about how basically restaurants couldn’t be opened late at night and so after a show – I think this was in the 1800s. People would want to go get a bite to eat and so that’s when the first food truck started showing up. So I think it’s been a long time. Are we talking one that’s been around since the 1800s that’s been continuously open?
Eric: So I’ll give you the bonus answer first. So the truck that we’re talking about has been around since 1888 and you were really in the ballpark at the beginning of our conversation because you asked if there’s a relationship between diners and this truck and this truck actually does have diner in its name, so hopefully that will give you the clue that you need to take you home for the answer.
Seth: Here’s what I think it is, I think it’s the Haven Brothers Diner.
Eric: Yes, you are correct.
Seth: That’s the first time ever, maybe the second. I never get that question right. Because this is one of the big diners in Providence, this is only because I lived there.
Eric: And for the listeners to understand, it’s really, it’s not a diner. It is a trailer. This is a truck that rolls in to Providence every single night of the week into the same location next to city hall, but it’s started in 1888 as a horse drawn lunch wagon and now, it literally is a trailer that’s hitched to the back of a truck that rolls up. And people can either order at an outside window or there’s little staircase that goes into this silver looking diner where they can order at the counter. So the outside of it looks like a diner. It’s just that you see that it’s on wheels and it’s pulled in by a truck every single night. So Haven Brothers is known as one of the original food trucks in the country. I don’t think it’s the original. There’s always an argument about that but it’s been operating from a horse drawn carriage, from a lunch wagon into a trailer and now, into this latest vehicle since the 1880s.
Seth: It’s been there long enough that when you see some classic photos of city hall, you will actually see the food truck in those photos quite often.
Seth: So let’s talk about food trucks from city to city.
Seth: I mean, it’s not the same everywhere the food truck scene. Like what differences do you see as you go from place to place?
Eric: So I see a lot of differences. One of the things that’s most interesting to me about what you see in food trucks that’s kind of universal across the country is that over and over again in city to city, what I see is I’ll see a food truck that is serving a type of food that the person that runs the truck is really passionate about and really wants to share with the public but doesn’t necessarily think at a certain area is ready for a restaurant to support that entire type of food.
So think about an arepa, right, which is a wonderful Venezuelan sandwich and I’m not sure that you can open an arepa restaurant in many cities and it’d be busy enough to survive. But if you love an arepa and you want to share with people, a food truck is a perfect way to deliver that kind of sandwich.
Seth: I would almost think that a food truck because it’s mobile and because it goes from location to location would do a better job in a lot of ways of spreading it.
Eric: Yeah, and because you might be willing, if you see something that you’ve never eaten before and I think that especially for someone like me that’s been on the East Coast and grown up on the East Coast, I take a lot of things for granted. But I think that there are lots of types of food that you maybe have seen on some of the food networks on TV or that you’ve heard about that if something opened on the corner, you may not be ready to go into an Ethiopian restaurant and be familiar enough with the menu to sit out and order lunch and try it. But if a truck pulls up that’s selling an Ethiopian product, you might be willing to try that product to see if you like it enough to want more of it. And I think that that’s what food trucks can deliver in a way that really nothing else can and I see that over and over again in cities.
I see cities that where someone is trying something that no one else is selling and it takes off on a food truck and now maybe you start to see other food trucks and restaurants pick it up. I see someone that wants to sell the food that they grew up on or their grandmother’s recipes or their home country’s food and that they’re not able to find a restaurant that would deliver that product and they could do it for a food truck, and that you see pretty consistently from city to city and state to state.
What really is different and a lot of this has to do with the geography of a place and the laws in the city or state is the type of service. I think about a place like Florida. I don’t know any place that has as many large food truck events on a regular basis as Florida and one of the events that really is exciting me is maybe, you know, Seth, you’ll meet me there, is last weekend in March in Tampa, there’s going to be the largest food truck event in the country. It’s going to be 200 food trucks over two days in Tampa, Florida.
Eric: And you say wow, but the reason they’re doing 200 food trucks over two days in Tampa in the spring is because in the fall, they did a one day 100 day food truck festival and they decided that they needed to do more.
Eric: And places like Hollywood, Florida, every Monday night, you just go to the circle in downtown Hollywood and there are 25 trucks. There are food truck event companies in Orlando that every day in the week, they show up somewhere with 15 or 18 trucks. You don’t see that in a lot of other places. So that’s kind of unique to Florida. There’s much less straight service but much more festival service.
Seth: I’ve seen the role that they play in sort of this whole food truck scene.
Eric: Yeah, so it’s again really city by city and state by state. Some of the examples that you mentioned are organizations that don’t own any food trucks themselves and they’re just charging each food truck a small fee for each event and they’re organizing it, promoting it and they’re working with your sponsors or they’re charging small admission to consumers to come in. You know, there are a lot of cities where the food trucks have gotten together and said, “Look, there’s really nothing here. There’s no one really point together events. It really hasn’t hit here yet.”
You know, when three or four food trucks will get together and be able to run events, I think in a city like Denver where the food trucks in Denver, there have been a couple of leaders in that city that have really kind of gone to the community and said, “Look, let’s find a way for us all to work together and have these events” and that’s turned into some pretty large events and, you know Food Truck Row is a great organization that helps even find two or three food trucks at a time to park on street corners and then does larger events and helps people that book events.
So I think that’s something that really varies from city to city and place and place. But I think you’ll see that in more and more cities, there’s somebody whether it’s an event organizer or someone like Off the Grid or the trucks themselves that are starting to organize in a way to have events where there are multiple food trucks together.
And then you have a lot of unique places like Portland and Austin where – you know, Portland is really the food cart city, like you’ve got all this private pieces of property where the food trucks, to me, aren’t really food trucks because they’re not mobile, where people are renting little pods or little carts and they’re always on the same place but with the same places is just as piece of private property with all these picnic benches in the middle and all these food pods around the outside so that you’re kind of going to like these authentic food courts. And you can choose from 15 or 16 different food vendors to eat at and these are all individually small little owned food carts.
Seth: Talk to me about some of your favorite food truck festivals that you’ve been to, what are they and where are they?
Eric: Oh, gosh. I mean, just last weekend, I was in Secaucus, New Jersey. There was a Winter Blast Festival in Secaucus that was put on by Exposure New Jersey and they did, it’s the first festival that I’ve been to really in the middle of winter in a winter climate. And to see so many food trucks and people out in 15 degree weather in a good mood and supporting each other was just a lot of fun. And it was also great because it was one of those events where the food truck owners were so happy to see me and so willing to chat and I got to see some people I’ve met in the past, and I made some new friends. And I also got to eat a couple of products that I haven’t seen before. That’s one of the great things about going to these events is that you always come across somebody that’s doing something new or different and that was really a lot of fun.
Seth: What did you have?
Eric: So I actually just put up a blog post a couple of days ago but I actually ate at 17 trucks, so I don’t know that I could go through – I could tell you about all of it, but I have this – when I go to those kind of events, what I tried to do is I tried to taste as much as I can. And the way that I do that is I’ll get food from a truck, I’ll try a portion of it and then I’ll take it with to the next truck and I’ll give it to the next truck so that I get to eat something from each truck. But when I get to the truck, I give them whatever I got from the previous truck.
And sometimes, that even turn into giving it to strangers that are…like I ordered a – I got a pizza from Pizza Vita and it was a whole like 10-inch pizza, so I had to slice, I gave the slice to a couple of trucks and then there were some women walking around that didn’t know where to eat, so I gave them each a slice of pizza. And that, to me, it’s like it doesn’t get any better than that, like those moments are when I absolutely love my job.
But at that particular food festival, at that particular Winter Blast Festival, there’s a truck called Hunger Construction and the guys that are running the truck put together – basically, they’re a one-product food truck and that when he was – I think I have the story right, that when he was in college in the Pennsylvania area, he used to go to a bar that served really good baked stuff potatoes, baked potatoes that were stuffed and really good hotdogs. And he always just to take the stuff out off the baked potato and put it on top of his hotdog. So now what he does is he does like these really long beefy 2-pound baked potatoes and he turns them on, he turns them so he holds them upright like it’s a burrito and he uses a drill and like a very unusual device that I’ve never seen before to hollow out the potato from the long way. And then he stuffs it with meat and cheese, so he does like ground beef and cheese and onions and he does a buffalo one and he does a chicken parm on. So when you leave his truck, you’re literally holding this baked potato in one hand and eating it like a burrito filled and stuffed with this stuff.
Seth: That’s awesome.
Eric: And it’s awesome and it’s a great street food because you can eat it on one hand. I think anything that you can eat on one hand – really, this truck is great and I’ve never seen that product before. So that was one of the many highlights of that festival.
One of the other events that I went to last year that was absolutely wonderful event, there’s a event company in the Raleigh, Durham area called Front Porch Productions I believe that’s the name of the company. And I was happy to coming back from driving toward the East Coast visiting trucks and it was a Sunday morning or Sunday kind of brunch time food truck festival in downtown Raleigh and I pulled into Raleigh late the night before on Saturday night and it was kind of a ghost town. There was nothing going on except for seeing some of the barricade setup for the food truck festival the next day. I got up. I did a little work in the morning and I went outside at 10 o’clock and it was just this sea of food trucks up and down the main street in downtown Raleigh. And by 12 o’clock, there was 15,000 people there eating at food trucks.
So it was like a March on Washington, like I took pictures like looking down the main street in downtown Raleigh and it’s just a sea of people and food trucks and that was one of the spectacular events that I went to as well.
And then in Denver, you know, Denver is one of the first cities that I traveled to the visit. Every Tuesday and Thursday during lunch time in downtown Denver in Civic Center, they have what they called Civic Center Eats. And just at lunch time, they pulled up about 22 or 23 food trucks into this nice city park, and they line both sides of the park and everyone that works in all the downtown offices comes out and gets to enjoy the fresh air and eat at all these food trucks every Tuesday and Thursday. And those are just other great events. So it’s just a lot of fun.
Seth: You know, with all these food trucks gathered for these events, do you find that food truck communities are very tight? Do the food truck owners get along with each other? What’s the relationship there?
Eric: You know, I think I mentioned before, this is really lifestyle business. People do it because, you know, most people that are on a food truck are there because they want to be and they’ve chosen to be and there really is a community feeling about it. I think that like in any other industry, there are outliers and I would never say that every single food truck loves every single food truck. But I have yet to be in a city or in an environment where it’s every man for himself. It’s absolutely a case where the trucks have figured out very early on that they do better when they’re together than when they’re an island. You know, that three trucks parked together almost always does better than one truck parked alone.
And pretty much, what I found is that in a lot of cities, they haven’t really organized yet and there’s not really strong presence on how to deal with cities and towns and there aren’t really associations in every city. But pretty much everywhere I’ve gone, the food trucks have a really good working relationship with each other and really hand off events to each other if they’re booked and they can’t do it, they share locations. They pretty much all want themselves – they all want to do well and they all want their neighbors and friends to do well as well.
Seth: What about the relationship with the restaurants? I’ve heard that sometimes that can be a little touchy between food trucks and restaurants.
Eric: You know, to me, it’s a city by city thing, it’s community by community. I think that in many cases, many restaurant owners understand and see that this is just where the market is going, the same way that fastfood restaurants eventually started and came out somewhere and quick service restaurants came, food trucks is the next segment of this business. And I think that a lot of restaurateurs are also food truck owners and they recognized that there’s a real value and that the more people that go out and eat and have good dining experience is the better it is for the entire industry.
And I think there’s also a recognition and in many cases, that for the most part, if someone is looking to go somewhere and sit down and have a waiter service, they’re not going to go to a food truck. And if someone is looking to eat at a food truck, they’re not going to go to a restaurant. And as I said, there are examples over and over again of someone, you know, like a food truck is a great way to open up a new type of food to someone and if you have a really good experience trying your first Mexican style street taco at a food truck, then you’re much more likely to eat at one of the Mexican restaurants in towns.
And even the festivals have a good impact. I think about that festival in Raleigh, the food trucks are all parked on the street and most of those restaurants are closed on Sundays. But when they have those festivals, those restaurants all open up because the overflow of people that want to then go inside and sit down at a bar and eat something else or drink or chat, it really does benefit the entire community. And there are lot of communities and areas in Denver I think of – you know, some places in Denver where they’re kind of a little bit more industrial or commercial and food trucks kind of go there regularly to support the people that are working there or maybe some people that have moved into a new mill. And that helps speed up the progression of good things happening in the city because food trucks in those environments now maybe they make it look a little bit more appealing for someone who open a restaurant in an area that previously someone didn’t think about.
Seth: You mentioned a few times now the different laws. Give me some examples of how the laws are different from place to place regarding food trucks and the impact that that has.
Eric: Yes. So I think the best example I can think of at the moment is if you look at a town like Englewood, New Jersey, there is really one food truck that’s trying to work there regularly and it’s Rosie’s Weenie Wagon. And the problem that Rosie’s is having is that city hall has told her that they don’t have any desire to change the existing laws and put any new laws in place and they’ve kind of given her a vendor or a peddler’s license and the peddler’s license was probably written in the 1950’s for ice cream trucks. So in the peddler’s licenses, you know, that you’re allowed to stop and serve someone for 15 minutes but then you need to move on, so kind of like the old idea of the street corner ice cream truck that you’re driving down the street with your bells on or your music playing, if someone wants you to stop, you sell them an ice cream and then you keep going to the next customer.
So they’ve kind of put her into that category and that doesn’t work for a food truck. A food truck needs to be able to get somewhere and set up for two hours and stay there. So you have a lot of cities in towns that are using old or outdated laws and haven’t quite figured out yet what the new law should look like, and so we’ve seen that quite a bit.
There are examples of some places where cities and towns have felt like having food trucks doesn’t add to the community and they’re not really in a rush to have them come in, so they’re not really going out of their way to make it easy for trucks to park on public property or park in streets. And then you have many, many cities and places that have embraced the food truck culture and have set up rules that say, you can park in any public parking spot as long as you follow the regular rules and you put money in the meter or in Boston, they have actually reserved parking spots for food trucks that they are licensed to and that a lottery, they win for the season.
Denver has a zone where you can park anywhere you want and they have another zone where you can’t park because there’s too much traffic and congestion. Places like Chicago have become much easier in the last number of months. You’ve seen New Orleans make some good changes for trucks. Nashville is a great city for trucks. There are lots of cities and places – Kansas City has laws that are really helpful for the trucks.
Seth: What about Chicago, I’ve heard Chicago is not food truck friendly?
Eric: Chicago really wasn’t food truck friendly for a very long time, but they’ve made some significant changes in the last year, so I think that we’ve actually seen the number of food trucks in Chicago more than quadruple in the last 12 months.
Seth: Oh, wow. And then I hear Portland, Oregon is just insane. I mean, I heard there’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of food trucks up there.
Eric: Yeah, and again, Portland is a little bit different because a lot of these pods and carts are kind of roped into that category of food trucks. But a lot of that food which is all wonderful food, it’s just a very different environment where a lot of them are 8 to 10 vendors that are always open for lunch on the same private property, in the same kind of permanent pod. Right, I think we have well over 450 vendors listed in Portland and in Oregon.
Eric: And Seattle is a great city for food trucks as well. And obviously, you know, we really can’t have this conversation without talking about the grandfather of food truck. I mean, this is all pretty much the style of food truck originated in Los Angeles and Los Angeles is just rich with street service and events and lots and hundreds and hundreds of wonderful trucks. And it’s really where the scene really started. And some of the food truck operators that I know have like, even in Providence, opened their food trucks in Providence because they used to live in LA and wanted that style of authentic Mexican street food in Providence.
Seth: Very cool. All right then, are you ready to play a little game?
Eric: I am ready to play a little game.
Seth: All right. Here we go. This game is called Out of the Frying Pan. I’m going to ask you for a series of rapid fire recommendations. You just tell me the first thing that comes to mind. And we’re going to talk about food trucks nationally because I know that you’ve experienced quite a few on the road in developing this website. First of all, what is the most interesting cuisine you’ve seen in a food truck?
Eric: I’m going to go something really simple because it’s stuck with me. So the most interesting cuisine I’ve seen is from a truck in Virginia called Beach Fries which, by the way, doesn’t really service the beach. The name of the truck is because they love the beach and I had eaten all bunch of food trucks in a day and I stopped in at the end of lunch and I said, what should I try and he said you’ve got to try my deep-fried corn and it was overwhelming. It was just an ear of corn that was deep-fried without any batter or anything special, just a little bit of salt and it came out and it was just perfectly sweet and the corn was a little caramelized and it was just this exquisitely unexpected experience that I had at this moment where I really wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed. So that moment really sticks with me when I think about something really unique that I’ve eaten at a food truck.
Seth: All right. When we talk about food trucks, there are obviously isn’t the interior design that you have with restaurants but there is exterior design. What is the best looking food truck you’ve seen?
Eric: The best looking food truck I’ve seen on the exterior is any truck with the name Weiner or Weenie on it. There are some really great ones. I think of one in Texas called the Evil Weiner and I just love it because I’ve got this last name that translates perfectly to food trucks. So whenever I see the Evil Weiner food truck in Texas, I just think about what a great design I think it is.
Seth: You think they’re talking to you.
Eric: Right. I don’t know if everyone else would agree but I’ve seen some interesting Weiner trucks that are on the country.,
Seth: Now, you published weekly stats about food trucks on your blog. What’s the most interesting stat that you have discovered in the process of doing then?
Eric: The most interesting stat that I’ve discovered, I think it was when we published How Many Food Trucks were in Alaska. Like, I was stunned. We have been going through this process of adding food trucks all across the country and putting them in and at the beginning of the process, we kind of – I was watching it personally state to state and then I was kind of doing this food truck Friday gain report, I just went “huh, I wonder what we have in Alaska” and I pulled it up and the number was just so much higher than I expected. It was really, to me, the most interesting food truck data that came out of our Friday report so far.
Seth: Well, how many was it?
Eric: Right now, we actually have 7 food trucks in Alaska. And I know it doesn’t sound like a lot but I look at a couple states that still just have one or two. So when I saw that we had 7 in Alaska, I was just kind of blown away.
Seth: So who’s trailing? Who’s behind? North Dakota?
Eric: Oh, yeah. You know, I feel bad when you look at some of these places because I know that there’s a market there for them. So we’ve got one food truck listed in West Virginia, 2 food trucks in Wyoming, North Dakota is actually up to 7. And Mississippi has grown to 5 and Montana has grown to 5. So I’m most certainly not saying that that’s the end all, that it’s very possible that two trucks opened last week that we don’t know about yet or that some guy that’s been running a food truck for a couple of years who doesn’t have any digital presence.
If someone doesn’t have a Facebook page or Twitter account or a website, we may not have found them and they may not want to be found. But those are the numbers that we have in those places and I would love for someone to hear this podcast say, “Wait a minute, I know of 6 trucks that you’re missing in North Dakota,” and I’d love to see that number go from 7 to 13 in a couple of weeks. But we work really diligently to try to keep those numbers as accurate as possible.
Seth: What is one piece of advice that you have to new food truck owners?
Eric: So my piece of advice for new food trucks owners is it’s not as easy as it looks and I mean that from the very first step. And, again, this is one of those areas where owning a limousine company and a food truck is very similar, is that you can get into the food truck business pretty inexpensively if you try to. If you buy an old Fel-Ex truck and you outfit it with used kitchen equipment, you can find yourself on the road for just $25,000 or $30,000. And there are lot of people that can make that commitment without doing enough research to figure out what they’re getting into.
And to me, the one piece of advice that I would have is take the time to do the research to really understand the amount of time and effort it’s going to take to be a success.
Seth: I saw this on your blog and I was curious about it, what are tip wars?
Eric: So that’s one of my favorite experiences. So I first saw it at a Mexican truck outside of Boulder, Colorado called Verde and I pulled up to their truck and they literally – you know, most of the trucks have someone working at the window and they often will have a tip jar out and people will leave tips, so that this particular truck, they had two places to left tips, one on the left side of window and one of the right and one was if you want to leave a tip with ‘80s music and one was if you want to leave a tip with ‘90s music.
So it’s a way for people at the window to kind of vote for what they like better, ‘80s music or ‘90s music with their tips. And I’ve told lots of food trucks about this and I’ve got to say that, you know, Rocket Fine Street Food, one of the food trucks here in Providence has done a miraculous job with it. Not only do they do a tip war everyday but they published the results everyday on their website, they put a picture up and they do a real nice graphic to go with it. And I’ve seen a number of trucks picked up this idea of tip wars and I think it’s just a great fun thing for customers to do while they’re at the window waiting for their food. If they’re going to leave a dollar or fifty cent tip or they’re going to leave a tip at all, they can vote for who they think is the better of the two choices for the day and it’s always fun to see when trucks are doing that.
Seth: All right. That’s awesome. It sounds fantastic. All right. Well, Eric Weiner, thank you so much. You’re from Food Trucks In. I really appreciate you taking the time and talk with us. This is fascinating. People can find the website at FoodTrucksIn.com. Use it to go find food trucks every time they travel to a new city. And what about social media, are you on there as well?
Eric: Yeah. So it’s FoodTrucksIn.com. We are absolutely on Facebook and Twitter both at just Food Trucks In and we’re growing rapidly and we’re happy to be part of this community and we’re always looking for new food trucks to add to our site and we’re always looking for people that are hungry to use our site to find food trucks to eat at.
Seth: All right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time.
Eric: Thank you. It was great chatting with you. I look forward to seeing you at a food truck sometime soon.
Seth: All right. My name is Seth Resler. This is the Find Dining Podcast from Taste Trekkers. Couple of shownotes before we go, one, you can head over to the Taste Trekkers website and you can find links to many of the things we mentioned in the show. You can also subscribe to this podcast in iTunes. While you’re there, leave a review, that helps other people discover the show.
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