Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A History of Food Trucks

Let's first start with the advent of food trucks. Food trucks have been around much longer than anyone cares to admit. The concept of food trucks did not originate with the dawn of hipsters, nor did they first appear 50 years ago in the form of ice cream trucks. Food trucks have even been around much longer than the first food wagons seen in New York City. In fact, food trucks originated in the United States shortly after the Civil War! The food truck can be traced back to the original chuckwagons created in 1866 that provided much-needed support to ranchers and loggers on their long journeys.

Food trucks have become popular in recent years, but where did they originate from?

As you can see right away, the first food trucks were born out of necessity, not hipness - the necessity to feed people who were traveling long distances far from any near by towns. Had some budding entrepreneur decided to open a chain of restaurants along the frontier, that person would have quickly noticed that business is not so great for most of the year when no cowboys are passing through. From this perspective, a traveling restaurant is the logical route. In this earliest of incarnations the food truck just makes sense.

The next place food trucks appeared was in big cities as "night wagons." Night wagons, like chuckwagons filled a need that could not be easily filled by ordinary restaurants. In this case, the food trucks primary customer was night workers looking for a hot meal when all other businesses were closed. A night wagon could move around serving the much smaller night crowds while not having to pay for seating space or a full complement of kitchen staff like a normal restaurant. Most of these night wagons returned to the same places every night so customers could rely on getting a meal any day of the week - they did have the option to post surprise schedules on twitter or facebook like today.
The first food trucks were called chuckwagons. These wagons followed cowboys driving cattle across low-populated lands. 

By the 1950s food trucks had become firmly rooted in American culture whether or not today's hipsters knew it. Food trucks thrived by following army installations and construction sites as large numbers of hungry workers move in as quickly as they move out. Again, food trucks did what local restaurants could not - they could support large variation in local eating habits.
My personal favorite food truck: the ice cream truck!

It was also around this time that the food truck evolution split into several branches. There were many single-item food carts that became permanent installations in big cities. These carts would serve one or two main things such as hotdogs, pretzels, or falafel. Ice cream trucks also became widely popular. These carts were able to get food to people where they wanted it and when they wanted it. On the busy streets of New York, you could grab a hot dog in a hurry when you just don't have time to go inside to order from a menu. On a nice summer's day in the park you can grab a snack without having to leave the park.

From 1866 until today, food trucks have always served an important role in feeding people. With the exception of the most recent food truck craze, food trucks have filled in the gaps normal brick-and-mortar restaurants couldn't. So the next time you are eating at a food truck think about how that food truck helped in a way that a normal restaurant couldn't.

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