Commentary: Food trucks lead the way in culinary innovation

What is so unique about food trucks that symbolize culinary business innovation?

Many people still refer to food trucks as "Chow Wagons" or "Roach Coaches," but that image is disappearing fast. In fact "food quality" and "marketing" are defining the new food trucks that are running the old blue collar trucks to the curbs across the major cities in the United States.

In addition, major business magazines like Bloomberg and Inc. are featuring the business of food trucks, and offering advice on starting a profitable food truck business. Oprah Winfrey recently featured an episode titled "Taste Testing the Food Truck Craze" with Tyler Florence, celebrity chef and host of the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race.

Culinary Innovation Without Boundaries

In my opinion, food trucks provide more opportunity for food innovation than most corporate QSR chains because they are not burdened with corporate bureaucracy. I have spent a lot of time blogging on the need for new processes for innovation within the corporate environment, and food trucks represent a microcosm of new innovation for menu and marketing.

There are no predetermined boundaries for new food products, new sensory tastes, new cooking processes and new business models. If I was a recent culinary school graduate, I would immediately start my own food truck business instead of starting as a sous chef at a high end restaurant. Why? The answer is that I can be as creative as I want to be, without any outside "opinion boundaries."

Immediate Consumer Feedback

A second reason I support food truck menu innovation is because the owners get immediate consumer feedback. Not only do consumers tell you whether they like the product or not, but they suggest ways to improve the product.

Food trucks are not just menu innovation incubators, they also represent an incubator for continuous quality improvement. And, the cost of consumer research is essentially zero, compared to the $30,000 to $100,000 for a "structured focus group." I have always felt, and observed, that face-to-face customer feedback in QSR stores provides far more valuable food quality feedback than structured focus groups.

Small Business Incubator

The new food truck craze also represents a small business incubator. If an entrepreneur wants to be a successful food truck owner, he or she will need to develop a thorough small business plan just like any other business. And they will need to develop a similar small business marketing plan, because you want to build a brand that becomes a signature for your company.

Developing the plans will also require you to review and investigate local municipality fees and business restrictions. And it will surface small business hurdles such as police, competitors, dealing with extreme cold and hot temperatures, tickets and parking.

Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and was the inventor of Popcorn Chicken, now a $1B international product.


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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Chris Kowalski
    I agree with the author on this subject. Food trucks are transforming the way we eat. Especially in a busy city like New York. Unfortunately there is one small problem. No one can obtain a mobile food vendors permit in this city anymore. I know because I've tried, the department of consumer affairs that issues those permits isn't issuing any. The issuance of permits has been frozen for the PAST SEVEN YEARS!!!!! Good luck for any culinary school graduates trying to start a food truck here. Also I'm a Vet and still can't get one! I just wish someone in Mayor Bloomberg's office or him for that matter wakes up and smells the coffee!!!
  • Denise Yohn
    great article, darrel! -- i wrote a related piece about marketing tips that can be learned from food trucks: -- there's a lot to learn from food trucks' success! -- denise lee yohn
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