Taking It to the Streets: Variety and Innovation are the Spice of the 21st-Century Chuck Wagon
It’s a Wednesday night in mid-January and I’m in the parking lot of the Menlo Park Caltrain station. Public transit doesn’t exactly have a reputation for appealing aromas, but the air here smells amazing. Live music is streaming, glowing lights are strung up to illuminate a crowd of commuters carrying backpacks, parents pushing strollers and friends catching up over the intermittent cacophony of a train blaring past.
Everyone is munching on all sorts of food out of little paper trays from nine trucks selling everything from barbecue to banh mi. As the night progresses, the event, called Off The Grid, stays cozily crowded even as the trucks begin to sell out of their most popular items.
A Brief History of Street Food
Street food is nothing new in the United States. All but the least adventurous of us have eaten it at some point. One of my earliest street-food memories is my dad buying me sweet roasted peanuts in a paper cone from a cart in Manhattan. The offerings vary regionally and by neighborhood, but every single mobile kitchen can trace its lineage back to just two common ancestors: the chuck wagon and the pushcart.
Introduced in 1866 by Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, the first horse-drawn chuck wagon was a modified army wagon with bolted-on boxes to house everything a cook needed to supply three hearty meals a day to cowboys and settlers as they made their way across the plains. Highly specialized despite its primitive appearance, with sections for cooking, washing dishes and storing ingredients, firewood and pots and pans, the chuck wagon functioned nearly identically to the modern carts we know today.
Back east, its barebones urban cousin the pushcart provided hungry factory workers and laborers with simple and affordable premade lunches. It was little more than a box on wheels but its small size and simplicity made it ideal for maneuvering crowded city streets.
The Food Truck
As Americans fell in love with the automobile in the 1950s, a second generation of street food appeared on the scene. Beckoning children with their tinny siren songs, ice cream trucks supplied cool treats on hot summer days to both urban and suburban neighborhoods. A nearly perfect design from the start, many of the trucks that cruise the streets today haven’t changed much and often appear untouched by time.
From the 1960s on, larger catering trucks started popping up from coast to coast. They clustered around college campuses, construction sites and neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, to many of which street food was a familiar sight as well as way to stay connected with culture from back home. The taco truck, or lonchera, was itself an innovation in the delivery of street food with bigger kitchens, bigger menus and the mobility needed to serve lower-density urban areas like South and East Los Angeles.
Farther north in San Francisco, Stanley’s Steamers was making history as the Bay Area’s first mobile food “disrupter.” Despite its reputation as a center of counterculture and experimentation, Fog City had regulations that made it nearly impossible to vend food on city sidewalks. That is, until 1975, when Stanley Roth, a law student at UC Berkeley, figured out a way to sell pretzels from a cart by having them classified as “baked sculptures of flour and water.”
The food trucks gathered in the Menlo Park Caltrain parking lot are part of the latest generation of street food innovators, catalyzed by the recession that started in 2008. National money woes created unique challenges for chefs and would-be restaurateurs: Consumers had less discretionary income, investment portfolios were halved or worse and banks were stingier with credit—all making it extremely difficult for new restaurants to open up.
“If I have a concept, and I’m either going to launch a food truck or a restaurant, the food truck is a much cheaper way to test a business concept for those with less access to capital,” says Ross Resnick, street food enthusiast and founder of Roaming Hunger, a business that helps trucks co-market and book events. “If you look back over the last five years, you see that food trucks were born during the recession.”
As food trucks were being taken seriously by foodies, Zagat even added a food truck category in 2011. Resnick explains, “It is hard to rate an entity that is hard to identify. Once branding began, it was easier to talk about and hard to ignore as culinarily irrelevant. Serious chefs and companies were starting trucks.”
Innovation and the Modern Food Truck
Instrumental to the success of the modern food truck are innovations born here in Silicon Valley. Many trucks now have fully developed brands and social media strategies, broadcasting their locations on twitter, previewing menus on Facebook and sharing mouthwatering photos of their latest dishes and specials to their Instagram followers.
As the industry has matured, websites, tech startups and marketing companies have jumped on board. In 2009, as the food truck renaissance was gaining serious momentum, Resnick noticed that innovative mobile chefs were broadcasting their location via Twitter and gaining cult followings. He realized that short of compulsively monitoring the tweets of every single truck, it was nearly impossible to locate all of them, and thus Roaming Hunger was born.
Roaming Hunger (@RoamingHunger) harnesses the omniscience of Google Maps to shepherd anyone with an internet connection and some pocket cash toward their next meal, assists companies and individuals with booking food trucks for events and also has a “marketplace” where entrepreneurs can buy, sell or lease the mobile kitchen of their dreams.
Resnick explains how he launched the first “very basic” version of the site in 2009: “I built up the business by listening to what people wanted; then I developed the map and the app. Around 2011, I started getting requests from people wanting trucks at their events. We’ve built our business to make it easy—making it more palatable to find a good match.”
Over the past few years Roaming Hunger has evolved into a sort of booster organization providing valuable co-marketing and business development to over 6,000 vendors throughout the United States and Canada. Each member truck has a profile on the website and Roaming Hunger rebroadcasts their tweets to nearly 18,000 followers. It’s a symbiotic relationship as all of the services that Roaming Hunger offers are funded solely through a commission when trucks book catering events. Resnick explains that, “Costs of catering per head [compared to traditional catering] is way less, and the food trucks get guaranteed revenue. It’s a win-win.”
Roaming Hunger isn’t the only entity that has found inspiration and profit in the food truck renaissance. Taking cues from the wild popularity of several annual and one-off street food festivals, several companies have sprouted up to organize regularly occurring happenings all over the country. One of the earliest and most successful is local company Off The Grid, which now curates 37 markets throughout the Bay Area as far south as Cupertino. Most if not all of these events—like the gathering at the Menlo Park Caltrain Station—are held in otherwise underutilized spaces, transforming parking lots into pop-up community spaces.
Off The Grid founder Matt Cohen describes the process of finding a location: “We look for a space that feels unique, accessible, with good parking and visibility, where it will feel like we are transforming a space from its typical daily usage. We try to be understanding and reflective of the community ethos and what the demographic is interested in. In Menlo Park, the event is very family oriented, higher end, more sustainable and local, and very chef driven.”
When I mention to Cohen that I had noticed a lot of strollers and young children at Menlo Park, he says, “If you have young kids and want to go out to eat, you don’t have to make a difficult decision. We’ve done surveys at Menlo Park and seven out of 10 parents said that if they weren’t at our event that they would have cooked at home. It functions as a kind of third space.”
Every Off The Grid event is uniquely tailored to its locale. Cohen elaborates “on Friday night at Fort Mason, it’s totally different: 8,000 people, 32 trucks. The portions tend to be smaller so people can try more things. It’s much more of a social experience. The Sunday Picnic at the Presidio is all about larger portions that are meant to be shared. On Friday nights in San Carlos, we’re at Devil’s Canyon Brewery and the food is beer friendly, and heavy on the protein.”
Asked about the influence of tech, Cohen explains, “If you think back to why mobile food and social media worked so well together in the beginning, you realize that it allowed what was once a nomadic experience to be certain and predictable.”
On his current social media strategy, Cohen explains, “When Off The Grid first got started, we quickly moved from Twitter to Facebook as a primary communication tool, which allowed us to really engage in conversation with the community. Since Facebook monetized, it’s been shifting. We have 75k followers on Facebook and we invested a lot into building that following, but it’s almost entirely ineffective at this point. Right now we have an iOS app and we’re beta testing one for Android, we do an email blast and we use Instagram a lot. We have a website that communicates accurate information, and we still use Twitter. But we are currently investing the least in Facebook.”
Food Truck Favorites
Serving up tacos, burgers and their popular UFC (Ultimate Fried Chicken) sandwich ($9 and very highly recommended), Eat On Monday (@EatOnMonday) is practically a veteran in Silicon Valley’s mobile dining scene. Owners Robert Pei and Carol Wang have seen plenty of trucks come and go since they launched in 2010. Originally operating out of a restaurant that was closed on Mondays (hence the unusual name), they quickly outgrew the space and realized that a truck would allow them to operate more than one day a week while allowing the flexibility that they wanted.
I found them stationed in the parking lot of the Twitter annex in Sunnyvale during a Thursday lunch service, as busy workers took a break from their screens to enjoy a bit of sunlight and fresh air as they waited patiently for their food to be made (everything Eat On Monday offers is made to order, and sometimes takes a few minutes). Pei explains, “Some campuses aren’t big enough to have their own cafeterias but still want to offer lunch as a perk to employees.” It’s also a clever way for companies to increase productivity: by bringing outside food trucks on site, workers are less likely to take longer lunch breaks to travel off campus.
Knowing how much food to prep each morning in their Milpitas kitchen (which they also rent out to other caterers) is helpful. It can be challenging to gauge with an event like Off The Grid, but according to Wang, “It’s a tradeoff, catering is predictable but moving around gives us a lot of exposure.” She continues, “Roaming Hunger is great for exposure and helps us to book a lot of catering jobs. Right now we are shifting more toward independent lunches rather than events. But without social media, people don’t know where you are. It’s almost a full-time job. When I forget to tweet or post on Facebook, it definitely affects business.”
At the Off The Grid event in Menlo Park, I sample a spicy and delicious barbecue pork banh mi ($8) from Little Green Cyclo (@lilgreencyclo). My husband choses a pulled-pork sandwich ($8) from Hill Country BBQ (@eatmorebbq) and I steal a bite. The sauce is tart and the slaw adds a delightful fresh crunch. But my favorite truck at the event is a newcomer on the scene that has figured out a winning yet charmingly simple formula. With a diminutive menu that revolves around one main ingredient—succulent, delicious duck—Pluck (@plucknews) deftly manages to avoid the gimmick zone while drawing inspiration from all over the world.
Looking for a change of pace, owner Mark Pfeiler walked away from his job at Cisco to follow his passion: cooking. After apprenticing in a restaurant kitchen and working in another food truck, he, along with his wife, Kimberley Talbot-Pfeiler, and stepdaughter, Jessica Talbot, took the plunge and bought a truck.
Aiming to do both upscale private catering and public events, it was important to them that the truck looked good in any environment so they had it painted in the same chic gray and green motif that graces their business cards. Currently, Pluck appears at five to six events per week all around the Bay Area including Off The Grid and Moveable Feast, serves lunch a couple of times per month at other locations, including Stanford University, and is also available for private catering.
All of the duck that Pluck serves is locally sourced from 38 North in Petaluma. It is important to Pfeiler that any meat they serve be treated humanely, which was a major factor when deciding to focus on duck dishes. “We’ve been to the farm and seen the ducks. We know that they’re treated well. There aren’t any cages and they’re not stressed out. Plus, they taste better.”
Included on Pluck’s menu that night were duck ramen, duck pastrami and duck tacos. After a moment or two of fraught deliberation, I settled on the ramen ($6). It was a little chilly out and I figured that some ducky soupy goodness would help to warm my bones. I wasn’t disappointed. The broth was perfectly seasoned and rich without being heavy, the noodles were nice and toothy and the slices of duck resting on top of them were absolutely fantastic.
Not a big fan of duck? Thanks to our nearly perfect year-round weather and the passion of innovative chefs and fans, there is an almost overwhelming number of options for intrepid gastronomers interested in exploring Silicon Valley’s mobile dining scene. Luckily we have plenty of resources to help us find our next favorite meal. See you in the queue!