Food Trucks Spread 'New' Cuisine, Shake up Restaurant Model

Movement Is Helping to Expand America's Palate While Offering a Lesson in Social-Media Marketing

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Ethnic food -- from Korean to Thai to El Salvadoran -- has become more familiar to the average U.S. consumer, and increasingly people are finding out about these cuisines not from mom-and-pop restaurants or specialty stores, but via food trucks.

The movement is helping pave the way for the increasing popularity in ethnic street cuisine "because of how food trucks work. They've allowed those flavors to more easily surface and spread through cities and allow more people to try them," said Kazia Jankowski, associate culinary director at Sterling Rice Group, an agency that tracks restaurant and culinary trends. "They've allowed for those flavors to enter the mainstream via a different way and we're seeing those kinds of flavors make their way into more brick-and-mortar establishments."

Jack in the Box -- in a truck.
Jack in the Box -- in a truck.

Ms. Jankowski pointed to Chipotle's test concept, Shop House, and Spanish chain 100 Montaditos, which now has a small U.S. presence (with hopes of opening another 4,000 American units in the next five years), as larger players that are leading the way for this new style of "global street food." "Food trucks have changed the conversation about the way international casual food has been able to become part of our regular dining experience," she said.

Phil Lempert, a food-industry expert who runs Supermarket Guru, said that part of the appeal of food trucks for consumers is that often the operators are cooking their own culture's food, thereby making the fare more authentic. And food trucks and their cuisine are important to millennials, a demographic that likes to experiment with new tastes. In the Technomic 2011 Food Trucks Innovation report, 42% of consumers surveyed ages 18 to 30 said they visit food trucks at least once a week; 38% of consumers ages 31 to 40 answered the same way.

Of course, food trucks are not solely responsible for the interest in ethnic street -food, but they've helped create the supply to satisfy the demand that the popularity of food and travel programs has helped generate, said Kevin Higar, director-research and consulting at Technomic.

For now, so-called international food is largely untapped by most fast-food chains (Jack in the Box is one exception), but there are two areas of potential growth for food-truck operators looking to expand their own franchises: brick-and-mortar establishments and a move into supermarkets.

After leaving the fast-casual chain he founded, Spicy Pickle, Kevin Morrison in May 2010 started a food truck in Denver called Pinche Tacos. The truck sold what he called "Mexican street food," and was a precursor to the permanent Pinche Tacos that opened five months later. "It was a very inexpensive way of getting into the business to kind of test out the market to see what kind of feedback I got before I went brick-and-mortar."

Still, Mr. Lempert wonders why anyone would want to go brick-and-mortar after launching a food truck, in part because of the economy and in part because the profit margins tend to be smaller than they are for food trucks. "Why open up a place and scrape by vs. doing something bigger?" he asked.

To him, that "something bigger" lies in grocery stores, particularly if purveyors of ethnic food bring their meals to the prepared-foods section of a store, or if a grocery chain were to hire them as social-media experts. "If you take a look at what [food-truck operators] been able to do with Twitter and Facebook from a marketing standpoint -- having people follow them around and everything else -- it's brilliant."

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