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America’s Food Truck Fixation

These days, a date who suggests cuisine that’s at least mildly exotic—Thai for a safe standby, Burmese to show some edge—might signal a bit of hipness unattainable by recommending, say, a run-of-the-mill diner. In fact, some 70 percent of singles “appreciate a date who is knowledgeable about food and wine pairings,” according to a survey published last month by Match.com and Today.com.

It seems that this country, especially its urban dwellers, has become a nation of foodies, connoisseurs of cuisine among a range of regions and distant lands. Part of the phenomenon reflects new immigrant populations, who have introduced a range of ethnic food far more expansive than Chinese take-out. Plus, the Food Network has brought every kind of cookery into the living rooms of every kind of American. So perhaps we should not be surprised by the trend that embodies this hunger for hip cuisine by and for the masses: the food truck. If you live in any number of American cities, you know all about this. You’ve seen the packs of people lined up at food trucks as if for concert tickets, their cool factor rising in relation to the length of time they’ll wait for that perfect pouch of dim sum or extravagantly layered taco.

[See Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

And yet, for fare that’s by definition, pedestrian, street food has been getting the attention of the most elite arbiters of culinary excellence. In 2010, Food & Wine named among its “Best NewChefs” Roy Choi, whose Los Angeles-based Korean barbecue truck, Kogi, arguably spawned the food truck movement and put Choi at its helm. It was the first time the magazine had ever bestowed the title, awarded to 10 up-and-comers each year, on someone known for truck food. He’s “transcendent,” says Kate Krader, Food & Winerestaurant editor.

“A lot of the food trucks are really quite good,” says Tim Zagat, who with his wife, Nina, cofounded Zagat Survey and serves as its CEO. Many are restaurant spin-offs or starter enterprises that become restaurants, he says. The trend enables a “large number of new, young chefs who can come to market less expensively,” says Zagat, presenting this calculus: A food truck in New York may run $30,000 to purchase and outfit, while a “bottom-of-the-line” brick-and-mortar restaurant would cost at least $250,000 “and probably a lot more than that.” Food trucks are “a way of I think bringing food to a new price point,” providing “entry into the industry and also into serving the public,” he says.

And the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Broadly speaking, the biggest growth in restaurants is what Zagat calls the “BATH” concept—which stands for “better alternatives to home.” Dining out, he says, is often more affordable and efficient than one’s time spent shopping, cooking, and cleaning, to which he adds “who needs that?” And food trucks can fit the bill for filling up quickly and cheaply.

Helping to drive this trend are, of course, food truck entrepreneurs—those enticed by the autonomy of a small business opportunity as well as culinary types, looking to brand themselves in the foodbusiness, says Kevin Higar, director of research and consulting at Technomic, a market research firm focused on the food industry. “Being a culinary individual is a very hot, popular, rock-star sort of thing,” Higar says. For their part, consumers like the ability to connect personally with the chef at the truck window, to feel like they’re “in the know,” he explains. And then there’s the social draw. “It’s kind of a social scene,” where people chat each other up in line and have a common reference point.

“People love food right now,” says Krader. With dining as entertainment, people want “bragging rights” for finding the best bites, says Krader, who this fall will be judging New York’s Vendy awards to select the best street food vendor in the city.

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