In 2009 Datassential surveyed consumers on whether they were aware of the new breed of food trucks that were popping up in cities across the country. At the time trendsetting trucks like L.A.’s Kogi BBQ, which had launched just a few months prior, were serving up adventurous fare in trendy urban areas. But they were still brand new to most consumers — nearly 40% responded that they had never heard of food trucks.
A lot has changed in five years. This year we surveyed consumers again, and not only have consumers heard of food trucks, but 75% reported that food trucks have influenced their behavior at restaurants and grocery stores. Seven percent of consumers reported visiting a food truck at least once a week.
Today food trucks are not only ubiquitous in cities, and even small towns, across the country, but the trends associated with food trucks have impacted menus across the industry, from restaurants to retail to college foodservice. With three-quarters of consumers making food decisions based on what they are eating and noticing at food trucks, we recently introduced a brand new food trucks database to MenuTrends, our trend-tracking menu database. With over 10,000 menu items from 500 notable food trucks, it allows us to track the latest flavor and ingredient trends at food trucks and compare them to the industry overall.
Take ethnic mash-ups. Eleven percent of menu items served on all food trucks can be classified as “Mixed Ethnicity,” second only to desserts. In the five years since it opened Roy Choi’s Kogi has expanded to five trucks and two brick-and-mortars, and now you’ll find Korean BBQ/taco trucks in almost every major city. Consumers are being exposed to lots of innovative and adventurous ethnic mash-ups through food trucks.
And major restaurant brands have taken notice; now you’ll find Korean steak tacos at T.G.I Fridays, Korean BBQ burritos at California Tortilla, and a spicy Korean BBQ pizza at California Pizza Kitchen.
Of course, it’s not just mash-ups that are making the leap from food trucks to restaurant menus. Low start-up costs and an ever-changing menu meant many food truck operators could be more adventurous, offering up lesser-known and more authentic flavors, from lengua (tongue) tacos to banh mi. And now, as we reported in our recent issue of FoodBytes, both of those menu items can be found on major ballpark menus this season. The portable dishes and street foods served on food trucks have made an easy transition to QSRs, fast casuals, and appetizer or small plate menus — dishes like elote, waffle sandwiches, and empanadas. Upscale comfort foods (fancy grilled cheese, duck fat fries), Southern-influenced dishes (Texas toast, mac & cheese), health-driven dishes (vegan dishes are found almost three times more often on food trucks), unique desserts (wasabi ice cream, cayenne caramel corn), and reinvented beverages (small-batch sodas, ethnic iced coffee) are food truck staples that are influencing both restaurants and retail.
Food truck menus are also far smaller and more focused: the average food truck offers only 22 items on the menu. And again, the industry is following suit — an analysis of the MenuTrends database showed that new restaurants, opened between 2012-2013, had significantly smaller menus versus those already open — an average of 63 items compared to 93 items on existing operator menus.
Today food trucks have become the new normal in the food industry, influencing what consumers are seeing, trying and purchasing. Even many well-known chains like Taco Bell, Sizzler, and Auntie Anne’s have opened their own trucks in order to test products and reach new demographics. As food trucks continue to make a mark on pop culture, from reality shows like the Food Network’s Next Great Food Truck Race to the upcoming film Chef, in which the main character is reinvigorated after opening his own truck, any remaining consumers who haven’t already been influenced by food trucks will likely be in the near future. And as the food truck industry matures and food truck operators continue to expand and open brick-and-mortars, increased competition will continue to drive new flavor and ingredient trends across the industry.
Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about the MenuTrends Food Truck Database or any of the content found in this report, contact Webster at [email protected].