Street food is generally understood to be food that is attainable from a food vendor, outside of a formal dining establishment, usually from a stall or cart. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (2007), 2.5 billion people worldwide eat street food every day. For many people, especially in the United States, street food is associated with junk food, snacks, and late-night cravings, accepted for its accessibility but not usually for its healthfulness and palatability. Until recently, upon hearing the words “street food” most Americans were likely to think of hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, ice cream, tacos, and kebobs. Street food was heartburn central. This article aims to get a better understanding of the development of food trucks by looking at street food history, food truck design and marketing strategies, product offerings, bases for food truck popularity as well as the challenges that surround operating a food truck.
A Brief History of Street Food
Street foods have been a part of American consumption habits since the 17th century, found especially in the larger cities on the east coast. In New York City, a love-hate relationship developed early on with street vendors, and in 1707 a city ordinance officially banned street food vendors, also known as ‘hucksters’ (Simopoulos 2000: 26). City officials and business owners cited street vendors as the main source of traffic congestion while retail store owners complained about the presence of street vendors, claiming they stole business not only by providing competition but also occupying space outside of their shops (ibid 26). By the middle of the 19th century, department stores and specialty shops opened which led middle- and upper-class consumers inside to do their shopping. As a result, the street vendor market became a business that the lower classes maintained, both as vendors and consumers.
Street vending in New York City would again rise to prominence in the late 19th century. However, it was almost completely abolished during the 1930’s when the LaGuardia administration abolished the designated street vendor areas and built enclosed markets in order to clean up the streets in time for the World’s Fair in 1939 (ibid 27). Although street food survived these episodes, vendors would continue to face difficult legislation from the city and waning interest from consumers.
Despite various challenges, street food persists and evolves. Once sold from horse-drawn wagons and wheelbarrows, today’s vendors use pushcarts and food trucks to transport and sell their foods to the public. Not only has the mode of transportation evolved but so too have the nature and quality of the food. Early street vendors sold fruit and vegetables from their farms. With the advent of refrigeration, foods like butter, cottage cheese, meats, milk and ice cream became available (ibid 27). In sum, street food has developed from the sale of individual goods to ready-made meals, and within the last decade, street food has come to be much more than the sizzling, greasy, fried, unidentifiable acceptable-only-when-drunk food we’ve come to expect. A major part of this street food overhaul has been the emergence of food trucks selling unique and high-quality comestibles.