I’m in the parking lot of a Summerlin day-care center on a Friday night, standing in line at Ben’s BBQ and Smokehouse food truck, waiting to order a pulled-pork sandwich and smothered green beans through a truck window. The smoky barbecue smell makes my mouth water. I will save room, if possible, for Sticky Nanas for dessert from the Tasty Bunz truck 20 feet away.
It’s a nice stop on a night out. It’s fun to have tracked down this group of roaming food trucks—there’s an element of scavenger hunt to it. It’s beyond downscale to be standing in a parking lot with a paper plate, and yet the food is a creative upscale twist on old familiars—delicious and worth the chase.
The food truck boom was recently compared to the decades-old coffeehouse trend by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, whose blog, CultureBy.com, examines anthropology and economics. McCracken found that the average Web traffic for coffeehouses was flat from 2005 to 2011, while the traffic for food trucks increased markedly from 2009 to 2011. What statistics demonstrate online is visible on the streets of Las Vegas, where the independent coffeehouses of the past decade-plus—from Café Copioh near UNLV to The Cup Stops Here in Henderson—have been done in either by Starbucks, high rents or both, while food trucks have become the culinary small-business choice of the moment.
When the coffeehouse boom started in the 1990s, it signaled a remaking of coffee shops into something cool. Coffeehouses co-opted a blue-collar staple and repackaged it into middle-class hip. Along the way they raised the price of a cup of coffee from 50 cents to $5. We glommed onto the new twist on an old standard. Where once you could get a cup of black coffee and a Danish at the coffee shop with no hype, you could now get a skinny soy mocha with extra caramel and a lowfat blueberry scone, hype baked right in.
There are still some independent, artsy coffeehouses, like The Beat downtown and Sunrise Coffee on Sunset Road—but it was prolific chains like Starbucks that came to define the coffeehouse trend and completed the co-opting of blue-collar standard into middle- and upper-class urban/suburban experience. A recent trip to Starbucks found me vying for a seat with hard-bodied moms pushing mega-strollers with manicured nails and self-consciously tousled thirty-somethings lost in laptops and earbuds. Not a steel-toed boot to be found.
In many ways, the food-truck trend resembles the early coffeehouse trend: adding a wink and nod to an old favorite, upping the prices, tweaking the ingredients and moving the venue away from blue-collar locations such as construction sites or manufacturing plants. The whole experience is repackaged for a new demographic. Instead of a plain ol’ greasy cheeseburger, Vegas’ Slidin’ Thru truck will serve up a Caprese Slider with grilled eggplant, Roma tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella with a balsalmic reduction; or a Barby Slider with melted cheddar, caramelized jalapeño, crispy fried-onion strips, bacon and barbecue sauce.
What the food-truck purveyor has that the coffeehouse owner does not, of course, is mobility, which brings flexibility, lower overhead and a certain control of the consumer. In a recession, would-be customers who find themselves broke don’t climb into the back of a food truck with their laptop, plug into the power supply and take up overhead all day. While people may gather at events where food trucks park, they don’t tap the Internet and use up the food truck’s napkins and leave a mess on a table. This makes the food truck’s rise during crappy economic times advantageous, so much so that more than one brick-and-mortar Las Vegas restaurant has complained that the presence of food trucks in their area steals business. And, by the way, the food truck doesn’t provide toilets or an air-conditioned place to eat that food—things their customers may wander into adjacent businesses to find without spending any cash.
There’s also something about the mobility of food trucks that makes the whole enterprise more dynamic—as if being physically unmoored allows for freer thinking. Food trucks put all kinds of unexpected twists on the working man’s menu: fat sandwiches and overflowing burritos; stick-to-the-ribs variations of calorie-unconcerned family recipes. Meanwhile, coffeehouses—particularly corporate chains—have so standardized the offerings and become entrenched in post-hipster communities that it’s all about predictability and habitual caffeine maintenance. And then there’s the ever-annoying conflation of Italian words and upper-middle-class values: venti nonfat soy double-shot latte. The phrase is very pre-recession, thick with the idea of having one’s cake and eating it, too: Venti (more), nonfat (less), soy (less) double-shot (more) latte (more).
The food-truck trend is more about old-fashioned tastiness. It says live for the moment. It’s about fun—in both creative menus and roving, revamped roach-coach physical presence. There’s something of a festival feel to a gathering of food trucks. It brings to mind block parties or spontaneous flash mobs, mom-and-pop meals and—perhaps most nostalgically in these times of slim employment—a job site.