No, this isn’t one of those articles that lists food-trucks operating across India, rather it’s a look at this trend and how pretty much just one Hollywood movie, Chef, and a TV show, Eat Street, have brought about the latest revolution in the Indian food industry – before this we had Heston Blumenthal and Masterchef Australia make molecular gastronomy a household concept, and even though they are not the ones responsible for its conception, they sure did make it a worldwide phenomenon.
Just like FRIENDS, that oh-so-popular TV sitcoms from the late 90s, made many-a-young entrepreneurs dream about opening a coffee shop like Central Perk (FRIENDS made me dream about other things too, mostly involving Jennifer Aniston, but that’s for another time) a decade ago, Chef and Eat Street encouraged a new breed of young bloods to start food-trucks. While we never got to see a Central Perk, probably because coffee-shop chains came and took over the market suddenly and in volume, the food-truck idea was picked up and executed by a few amateurs who, in this “startup “geared economy, weren’t afraid to take a bold step in the right direction.
Food Trucks aren’t new to India though. We’ve had them in a somewhat more stable avatar for decades outside cinemas and popular markets mostly serving Chow Mein and Momos. I am being Western in my thought because if you look at mobile food options, we’ve always had food-carts (rediwallas) running on our streets be it to sell vegetables and fruits or Chaat. But these are very small operations that cover a completely different demographic. Returning to the Momo serving food vehicles, they had the essentials right by serving fast food at cheap prices, but in most cases these so called food-trucks were few and far between, permanently parked vans, with a very limited variety in terms of different cuisines.
What we have now are food-trucks in their purest form. While they may have preferred parking locations, these mobile kitchens do travel around, be it to college festivals, food festivals (another new and growing trend), or corporate and catered events, and some even have two or three locations they frequent daily. The menus are diverse – Burgers, Sandwiches, Wraps, Pasta, Ice Cream, Noodles – and keep changing with new inventive dishes being offered alongside classics.
Started by amateur (in most cases) enthusiastic individuals, food-trucks are growing at a very fast rate so much so that there seems to be one opening every month or two. I remember when Eggjactly, one of the food-truck pioneers in the region, opened and there was a rush to see what they had on offer. Now, some six to seven food-trucks operate on a daily basis near about my residence. In fact, as I write this piece, I’ve heard whispers about another one in the works that plans to serve Kebabs, and these statistics are only for Gurgaon, where the trend has caught on at such a breakneck speed that it has left the rest of the country trying desperately to catch up.
Food-trucks are simpler to set up and because there aren’t that many rules and requirements as yet, it’s relatively the easier way of getting into the “restaurant business”. That is not to say starting a food-truck is easy going; getting all the necessary permits, a place to officially park, getting the food truck fitted, coming up with a menu, and finding the right people to work with, it’s a daunting task that anyone contemplating to enter this business must face. That is also the reason why the truck owners have to be always present once the truck is operational. It’s not as simple as leaving the truck in the hands of a “manager” and sitting at home minting money. The food truck business is a lot more hands on and requires constant supervision because of the workforce being small and the customer being present a lot more closer to the entire operation.
Running a food truck is all about passion for food and not necessarily only about just making money. A customer visiting a food truck expects a few signature dishes, some classics, and most importantly innovation and excitement that aren’t always there in a sit down restaurant (Okay, so that’s changing now primarily because of a molecular gastronomy and emphasis on presentation, but that’s for another article). Approach running a food truck as only a business and it’s bound to fail. The one thing that connects food-truck owners with their customers is the love for food and the familiarity around it.
One of the biggest opportunities a food-truck has because of a rather causal setting is that the management doesn’t always have to treat its customers professionally – even though in my experience most food-truck owners do that – and can easily, if they feel, be friendlier with them, get to know them, ask for their names, remember their names, and in doing so make them feel welcomed. This will in the long run build that much needed bond between the food-truck and the customer who in turn pays back by word-of-mouth promotion and by being a regular customer. This stands true for any restaurant, but is more executable when it comes to food-trucks. This ease of talking to the owner and/or chef who are right there in front is something unique and is much appreciated by customers. You see this happen in restaurants now with chefs walking out of the kitchens to meet and greet their guests. Food-trucks have the privilege of doing the same with ease and with every guest. A chef in a restaurant, if he or she stays out for long, will leave everyone wondering who is it that’s cooking, but a food-truck owner can make small talk with patrons while preparing or supervising the food.
The novelty value of food-trucks is at its peak right now, and truck owners are feeding on it. It’s hip, in vogue, young, and people love the idea of driving to food trucks. Some truckers have picked up on this and have already started creating an ambience around the parking spots that in turn is attracting more clientele from all walks of life. One of my favourites, What the Truck?, has a couple of tables and chairs for people to sit on and they have music/radio on in the background. They also are one of three trucks that park together at one location. This makes the place welcoming and it’s also easier to overlook some of the shortfalls that eating in the open in India has. Just like any restaurant, a food -truck with the right ambience, which mind you being in the open is a daunting task, can help with the overall sales and popularity.
Unique, experimental, changing menus, those are words that excite food lovers like me. Just like Chef and Eat Street inspired these individuals to start a business, we eaters got to dream about having exotic food off trucks after watching the very same film and program. Nothing makes me happier than a food-truck that is not afraid to experiment with food. There are so many ingredients that aren’t being used locally and should be; we don’t use different leaves (sticking to mostly lettuce and iceberg lettuce), cheese is limited to the boring old plain cheese slices, meats are being only ever deep fired to make them “crispy”, mustard, different strong flavourful herbs, and other exclusive ingredients are hardly ever used. That excitement of playing around in the kitchen, mixing flavours and making something that can be a signature dish is slowly but surely seeping into the menus. Recently I got to try Fries from Something Saucy that had a subtle Cola BBQ sauce on top and loved that finally there’s something other than tomato ketchup or mayonnaise being offered. Food-trucks have the opportunity, the possibility, and the choice of trying food for a limited period. They can test it for a day, a week, or a month and make changes based on the feedback they get, which is instant in their case. This is not possible at a restaurant where menus are thought of, worked on, and printed in advance.
Food-truck owners also have the option of leaving their own stamp on the truck. They can make the truck reflect their personality. This is something I’m yet to see here, but it shouldn’t be long before we experience a truck where the food, the vehicle, and its hopefully eccentric owner are inseparable and complement each other. This type of unity between man(or woman)-food-and-machine should be the ultimate goal. Exclusivity should be the business mantra. Being brave enough to step out of the comfort zone should be the ideology behind it all.
Moving to a more emotional reason, food-trucks also infuse a certain feeling of romance and an old world charm to the art of eating. Many of us grew up in Delhi going out for midnight drives to India Gate for Ice Cream or for late night dinners to Connaught Place. It was a different story back then, traffic wasn’t a problem and safety wasn’t an issue. Now, living in a society that is becoming scarier by the day, most of us are looking at ways to link back to those good old times and that’s where the food-trucks come in. They not only ooze nostalgia, but the excitement of actually eating in the car, being able to go back into your own personal little cocoon, dim the lights, put the air-conditioning and your favourite radio station on, the slight hum of the engine in the background, is what romance is all about (Isn’t it? I’ll check with my wife and get back to you on this). Going out to eat at food-trucks can be as social or as private an affair as you want. I’ve seen groups stand out on the pavement talking to strangers about politics, films, and of course the food they are eating and then I’ve also seen couples or families with little ones enjoy a quiet hassle free snack in the comfort of their car.
Roadside eating is extremely popular in India. There are Dhabbas that are more popular than branded restaurants in five star hotels. The cult following these roadside eateries have, have given them legendary status in the city’s culinary circles. But, the one aspect of eating from roadside establishments that sends shivers through many of us is the condition in which the food is prepared and the ingredients that are often used. This is where food-trucks manage to trump their more “local” competition by having shiny, clean, open kitchens and by keeping ingredients fresh (Eggjactly will sometimes have 1+1 Free offers towards closing time to finish their stock) they are not only providing delicious food, but are also keeping the health of their consumers in mind. This makes food-trucks more family friendly and leaves the customers a little at ease when ordering from them.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, just like any other business the three points that can make or break a food-truck are; location, location, location. Getting the location right is very important and then building around that location is equally essential. Take What the Truck? which picked a parking lot in one of Gurgaon’s foodie haunts, Sector 29, and within a few months invited a couple more food trucks – Drifters Cafe (love their spring rolls) and Frugurpop (their all natural ice-popsicles are to die for) – to park with it. On the other hand we have Eggjactly, The Lalit Food Truck, and Something Saucy, that park by the roadside a few meters away from this group and each other. While both models work to an extent, the group mentality tends to be more profitable because it brings more foot traffic as customers simply love having more options. Eggjactly, who parks near the Leisure Valley Park entrance, has a more car-traffic friendly location because it is on a busy road, but as it faces the road, standing and ordering the food with them is always a little scary due to cars whizzing past just inches away. There are always going to be some pros and cons to the location a food truck is in. Easy accessibility for the customer is important and should always be the priority.
There are two aspects of this trend that in my opinion have made food-trucks instantly popular. The low price is one where these food trucks are surpassing the sit-down restaurants. We all want good cheap food prepared quickly and the trucks give us just that. The other aspect is the informality and food-trucks being excellent options for last minute, late night, hunger pangs. While these trucks are not all nighters, they do stay open till about 11:00 PM, or till they run out of food, it’s always comforting to know that there’s a place we can go to in our night clothes, where no one will judge us. What I personally adore is that there’s a breakdown of social status at food-trucks where I’ve found dressed up people eating in the most expensive of cars next to students in slippers and shorts for whom food-trucks are a great cheap food option.
I love food-trucks and one reason for that is that they are the underdogs, the independents of the food industry, and like any other industry, they will eventually face serious competition from the “biggies”. Right now food-trucks aren’t a threat to the big restaurant chains, but eventually they will start taking away some of their customer base. I love the fact that whenever I speak to one of the food-truck owners and talk about new trucks coming up, they seem chirpy and always reply back saying “the more the merrier”. That’s the right competitive spirit, but if the number of food-trucks increases at its present rate, they will have to face each other and the restaurants, and this is where business acumen will come into play and only time will tell how this game of one-upmanship will be executed.
One solution to the eventual rise in competition is collaboration – finding a place where food-trucks can park together. It’s starting to happen, as stated above, and I’m so happy to see that three food trucks park in the same parking lot. Being at a common place has many advantages; it shows the trucks are confident about their food and not worried about some healthy competition. It also shows a sense of camaraderie between everyone there and most importantly it’s good for business because it means variety for the customers.
Food-trucks will for the near future remain a fad. As much as that excites me, it’s also a matter of concern, because sometimes we Indians tend to get carried away with a winning idea. I think we don’t need to look beyond out film industry to realize that, but when it comes to food, as long as there’s a passion for good food (and this is where we come back to what we talked about in the beginning) and a spark to keep on experimenting, this little revolution will only grow by leaps and bounds. However, I will end on a cautious note; individuality is the key to the business and if food-trucks start to copy each other, serving the same type of food, then eventually the novelty value will die and so will their exclusivity and that will be the first step toward the sad end of this fabulous food revolution.