Not Your Mother’s Food Truck

14 Aug

To promote its Living Language course series, Random House recently sent a food truck around NYC that advertised free food with an international flair. There was a catch: to get the international snacks, customers had to order them in the proper foreign language and pronounce the words correctly. The point of the promotion was to highlight Random House’s language learning series in time for the launch of its Platinum edition. First of all, let’s just note that I would have rocked this promotion- I love it when my majors in foreign languages come in handy! Second of all, what a cool idea. Random House’s promotion managed to capitalize on the food truck trend, increase brand awareness, and give customers a yummy memory associated with the product, all at once. But wait a second- food truck trend? Since when was it cool to buy your food from a moving vehicle?

By now you have probably been exposed to the new generation of food trucks, whether it’s through first hand experience or through friends’ gushing statuses on Facebook. For me at least, the phrase “food truck” used to bring to mind those glorified cafeterias on wheels that would park outside of corporate complexes during lunchtime. My childhood dance studio was right by a bunch of office buildings and during summer camp our lunch break matched up to when the trucks would arrive to cater to the tenants next door. In this case, food trucks were literally just trucks that served food. The food was mediocre at best, the staff was smiling at best, and the overall operation was focused more on convenience than experience. I’m sure that there were trucks somewhere with awesome food and a fun atmosphere, but most of the truck businesses I saw were simply using wheels to reach multiple customer segments in the course of one day. From the customer’s perspective, it was easier to get food from the truck than it was to make lunch at home or drive to a nearby restaurant.

The new generation of food trucks is markedly different. Today’s food trucks are run by trendy chefs and cater to customers who want to try the latest and greatest in culinary delights. Goodbye, so-so sandwich on dried out bread. Hello, gourmet meatballs and potatoes on a stick (seriously).  But I think the most interesting part of the food truck evolution (revolution?) comes from how the new businesses operate. Whereas the old trucks were about convenience, these new trucks are anything but. Sure, it’s pretty dandy to get your lunch from the hip new truck if it happens to be parked outside your office, but part of the novelty of this new generation of trucks is that it is sort of a game to find them. While some trucks have rotating schedules, many operators simply drive around and update their Twitter feeds to announce their locations. This is completely opposite to the idea of eating from a food truck because you can count on it showing up. The emphasis is on exclusivity and being “in the know.” You still may happen across one of these trucks and get to enjoy its fare, but to truly play the game you need to be connected via social media. Customers who want to find a specific truck have to pay attention and actively seek it out.

The new trucks are also much more focused on experience than their predecessors. In this regard, they remind me somewhat of ice cream trucks. Ice cream trucks don’t have to tweet their locations, thanks to the hard-to-ignore music they play as they cruise around town. Yet, they still rely on the concept of excitement through food. Children hear the music and put on their best begging faces and drag their parents to buy them a popsicle. The new food trucks largely cater to adults, but these adults get just as excited to see the trucks as children do when they see their favorite ice cream man. Today’s food truck owners aren’t just selling food: they are selling you the right to say you are in the know. And they certainly aren’t making it easy. I recently went to a food truck festival in Venice Beach, CA. On the first Friday of the month, Venice closes off its main drag to traffic, keeps its galleries open late and invites local food trucks to park around the main avenue. My friends and I joined swarms of other hungry people and took a walk through the site to cherry-pick which trucks we wanted to try. Because it wasn’t simply a matter of choosing a cool menu and ordering- there were lines. In fact, we waited over thirty minutes to get our food. And what did we get in return? For starters, delicious food.  But we also got the right to “brag” that we had tried the uber popular Kobi Korean BBQ and Mexican food made by someone who had been on Top Chef. In a perfect food truck world, we would have gone and tweeted that, hashtagged the businesses we ate at, and brought the circle of food truck connectivity even closer. Because this world isn’t just about what you eat- it’s about how you eat it and how you share that experience with others who are “in the know.”

Check out more info about the Random House promotion here:


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