Don’t look now, but you’re about to get run over by a run-away food cart – which seems to be the term to describe something with wheels that’s been outfitted to serve as a mobile restaurant. The mobile food movement is fast becoming a revolution, and without a doubt is the new baby of America’s already hot foodie trends.
Just recently, I noted how strong the food cart movement was in Portland – my “local” food mecca – but since, I’ve been surprised to note just how strong this food trend is nationwide. Why? and why now? I’m not quoting anyone here – this is just my opinion, so … – but I personally think the recession has a lot to do with it. The biggest negative to food carts has always been local ordinances against such operations, always under the guise of “health and safety” – Yes, of course. OK, so everyone already knew it had a lot more to do with brick and mortar restaurateurs fearing a competitive edge to the food carts – so, they lobbied, and they won.
But here comes the recession, and the restaurateurs began to lay off their staff, and the city leaders began to get more and more “feelers” about why the city was not doing more to assist out-of-work food workers to help themselves by opening a food cart. Kinda hard to ignore the logic here, especially when everyone always knew how transparent the “health and safety” issue was. One by one, big and little cities across America began to ease the regulations to allow the food carts to exist, and before you could say Jack Robinson, the carts began to appear on the streets.
An indication of just how significant is the movement is seen from the recently held convention of The National Restaurant Association -easily the largest U.S. organization of restaurateurs- where the 60,000+ conventioneers were treated to a first time ever floor display of the latest in mobile food marketing, i.e., a food truck in all its glory!
But why in hell would The NRA (the food one!) feature such a display? when in reality, food carts represent a competitive movement? Well, for the same reasons why AT&T moved from an emphasis on land-line phones to wireless! And I think that’s smart – Still, you’ll notice that nowhere in all their future trending, or forecasting does The NRA mention “food carts” – it’s like they’re agreeing to keep the wild beast within sight, but the less said about it, the better. Besides, business is business, and if there’s a chance to make a buck out of the revolution, then why not give it a shot?
But there’s something about the movement that bothers me, and I think it bothers many of the new food cart entrepreneurs too. The food cart movement is a true revolution, and revolutions have a way of being -almost by definition- idealistic. And the idealistic element of the food cart revolution is that it’s pretty much an individually based revolution – it’s an “indie” movement! Why the hell would the early leaders and creators of such a movement want to “corporatize” the movement once it had wheels? Yeah!
And there’s something about this revolution that is quite different from the past efforts to market and popularize bricks and mortar restaurants – it’s an internet based revolution. I’m not saying that restaurants have not discovered the web, or that they don’t utilize the internet to their benefit – but what I am saying is that this particular revolution is “based” in the internet, and not just the internet, but the mobile nature of the internet. Almost before a food cart comes into being, it is introduced, discussed, and evaluated to a level unprecedented previously. Food carts today are “twittered” into existence. And once it is a reality, it is likely tracked on a site where its everyday movements are cataloged and followed as they may change. All it takes is a mobile smartphone to know where your movable feast is today!
Do McDonalds and KFC have anything to fear from the food-cartees? Yeah, I think they do. The big draw of the carts is, to me, three fold: uniqueness, quality and cost. It’s actually a revolt AWAY from all that is wrong with the fast food movement! In the big cities, the food carts seem to serve the function of providing a lunch alternative to the “same old, same old” – some even provide local delivery – and at the end of the day, a “take-home” alternative, again to the cheap fast foods. So, it’s not surprising that the food carts are so popular – for the same cost as the old fast food, folks now can get something special and better tasting – so, why not!
Do established sit-down restaurants have much to fear? Not nearly so much, I think. The potential customers of sit-down restaurants will not easily see the food carts as an alternative as will those above – and I also think that if the brick and mortar restaurateurs wish to jump in the food cart pool, they will be far more successful than the fast foodies will be, should they even try.
Think my imagination is going wild on me? All I can say is keep watching the empty spaces in your local downtown – when those spaces begin filling up with food carts, I promise I won’t say, I told you so.