A Brief History of Food Trucks

Until a lawsuit forced the city to repeal its anticompetitive rules, Louisville, Kentucky, was a no-vending zone for food trucks like Robert Martin’s Daug Pound.

Though food trucks’ current popularity began with the Great Recession in 2008, food trucks have been around for decades, and their lineage goes back even further. Food trucks in the United States find their genesis in public markets, where some vendors who could not afford stalls would set up outside to sell food and other wares. As public markets declined and private stores grew in popularity during the late 19th century, outdoor vending continued in the streets of poorer areas. 1

During the first few decades of the 20th century, street vending was viewed as a legitimate business that provided work to a growing immigrant population. 2 But as private stores became more popular, small-business owners and the business elite in many cities across the country saw ridding the streets of immigrant vendors as a way to modernize their cities. Many brick-and-mortar businesses also resented the competition vendors provided. 3 Dubbing vendors the “pushcart evil,” these established interests lobbied—often successfully—for increasingly restrictive regulations on street vending. 4

Progressively marginalized, some vendors sought new niches. This is how food trucks gained their association with construction sites. During the 1960s, the United States saw a building boom, and vendors saw an opportunity. Welcome in few other places, food trucks often parked at construction sites and other areas that had lots of blue-collar workers and few lunch alternatives. 5 With this change in scenery came a change in reputation—and not one for the better, unfortunately. With little competition, some vendors let standards slip. For example, the poor sanitation practices of some construction-site food trucks caused them to gain the unflattering moniker of “roach coaches.” 6

For years, food trucks languished under this reputation. But the Great Recession of 2008 changed that. 7 Many people out of work because of the bad economy saw operating a food truck as a way to get back on their feet while providing customers with affordable, high-quality food. 8 At the same time, the explosion of social media usage, particularly Twitter, allowed food trucks to build buzz and, importantly, share their location with customers. 9

One of the earliest and best-known examples of this phenomenon at work is the Los Angeles food truck Kogi founded by chefs Roy Choi and Mark Manguera. In 2008, Choi was unemployed and unable to find a job due to the recession. 10 He was intrigued when Manguera told him about his idea for a Korean-Mexican fusion food truck. The two friends teamed up to make and sell Korean barbecue-stuffed tacos from a rented truck. 11 The truck used Twitter to let people know where it was going and quickly became incredibly popular, drawing 300 to 800 people at each stop. 12 Before long, Choi and Manguera had a small fleet of food trucks. 13 And in 2016, they opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Kogi Taqueria, as a complement to the trucks. 14

Food trucks initially became popular in large cities like Los Angeles and New York City but eventually spread to other metropolitan areas of varying sizes. 15 As food trucks became more popular across the country, food truck rallies—where multiple food trucks gather in one location—were born. In 2010, Los Angeles’ first-ever food truck rally drew thousands of attendees, some of whom drove up to an hour to get there. 16 Today, food truck rallies attract tens of thousands of people each year. For example, the Seattle Street Food Festival, founded in 2013, sees dozens of food trucks and other street food vendors gather at South Lake Union to sell their food to over 100,000 people. 17

During the first few years of their renaissance, food trucks grew substantially. By 2011, food trucks were the fastest growing sector of the restaurant industry. 18 Some observers thought food trucks were a flash in the pan, but the public saw things differently: A study revealed that 91% of consumers familiar with food trucks thought trucks were here to stay. 19

And stay they have. As food trucks have become a more established industry, they have diversified to keep growing, with many experimenting with new culinary creations or opting to specialize in more healthful offerings. Others have started catering private events as a sideline or even their specialty. And many successful food trucks have, like Kogi, spun off their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Examples include Curry Up Now, which started as an Indian food truck in San Francisco in 2009 and now has 18 brick-and-mortar locations across the country; Ms. Cheezious, which originated as a food truck in Miami in 2010 and today also has a restaurant; and Nong’s Khao Man Gai, which began as a cart in Portland, Oregon, in 2009 but now has two restaurant locations serving up chicken and rice dishes. 20

Even after opening brick-and-mortar locations, many such restaurants continue to keep their trucks rolling. 21 For example, after Kirk and Juliann Francis started their Captain Cookie and the Milkman food truck in 2012 in Washington, D.C., 22 the truck proved so popular that the Francises opened a brick-and-mortar bakery to meet the demand. 23 Today, they have three brick-and-mortar locations as well as three food trucks in the District. 24 The Francises also opened a brick-and-mortar food hall and commercial kitchen in the nation’s capital to give them and other food truck owners more space to prepare food and to serve as an incubator for new food businesses. 25