Why We Need Food Trucks in a Recession-Era Economy

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

A new proposed bill in California mandates that food trucks be barred from parking within 1,500 feet of public schools. Given the sheer number of schools in California, the law amounts to one of most dramatic food-truck crackdowns in a while, but it's hardly the first. In recent years, food trucks have been battling city and state governments across the country, from Boston to the Twin Cities to my hometown of New York City.

The argument against food trucks is that they're stealing the business of more established restaurants and, in the case of California, that they supposedly undermine efforts to feed kids nutritious lunches. But not only are many food trucks serving healthier food than ever before, they're also softening the blow of our economic reality, in which food prices have risen, our time for lunch has shrunk, and the opportunities of entrepreneurs have been dampened by skittish banks and unpredictable outcomes. Young people, especially, benefit from food trucks, both as consumers and small business owners. Which is why we should be fighting for them.

Given their price point, food trucks help the poor and the "privileged poor," groups increasingly composed of Millennials, get quality meals for cheap. One in five young adults lives below the poverty line. About half of us are unemployed. Even those of us who have a job are grappling with sinking real wages. The price tag at food trucks is a major relief for those who are struggling.

Of course, food trucks have always been a no-brainer for the broke. In New York City, all you need to do is cobble together a few quarters to buy a bagel or a hot dog. In Austin, a few dollars buys you a brisket sandwich. In Los Angeles, a delicious taco costs you less than a Coke at a typical restaurant. But as the middle class becomes more strapped for cash, the food truck scene has diversified. Now, alongside the taco stand, a food truck is serving the same hipster, gourmet food you see in gentrified neighborhoods—minus the yuppie prices. 

"Before the crackdown in [New York City's] midtown, people of all classes were flocking to food trucks," says Jeremy Epstein, owner of Pizza Truck NYC, who calls his fancy, reasonably priced pizza "recession-era cuisine." Even businesspeople with jobs "didn’t want to go out and spend a ton of money on client lunches… [t]hey wanted something different, something unique and foodie-ish, but they didn’t have a lot of money to spend."

Neither do the new entrepreneurs. Food trucks are the ultimate scrappy startup for a generation full of aspiring business owners who have an overflow of ambition and a dearth of cash. As soon as Epstein, who’s only 23, graduated from Cornell, he combined his savings with donations from friends and family and started his food truck business for $21,000 after buying an old truck off Craigslist. "You’re not going to get angel investors for a food truck," he says. "Most of them don’t really know about the business and don’t trust that it’ll succeed." A year later, his truck is regularly turning a profit.

David Schillace, 29, and Tom Kelly, 30, left their corporate jobs to start Mexicue in New York City. After finding someone on eBay who was selling an old UPS truck, they took the bus to Woodstock to retrieve it, drove it to Long Island City to build it out, and started their food truck in July 2010. They have since started a "real" restaurant.

"A lot of people who are in their mid-to-late 20s who come from corporate backgrounds want to start food trucks," says Schillace, who started Mexicue for $70,000. "They have some money but not millions of dollars, and they want to just take the plunge."

Not every entrepreneur needs their own capital—one search on Kickstarter yields scores of results: for a biodiesel food truck in Brooklyn that runs on its own recycled cooking oil, or a vegan food truck in Asheville, N.C. that’s providing "support for the growing local food revolution." The goal for most of them is under $10,000.

Meanwhile, food trucks are providing a healthier answer to fast food chains. Our economy has irrevocably sped up. We're knee-deep in the era of 15-minute lunch breaks and work days that extend far past our dinner times. The reality of ever-longer hours has cut across class lines. Even though food activists beg us to cook instead of eating out, sometimes a quick, cheap meal is the only option, and food trucks can provide us with a healthier alternative than McDonald's or Subway. There is, of course, a huge difference between the greasy-spoon truck and the one that serves only grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs. Most food trucks aren't yet stocked with bourgie, high-end food. But even if what you're buying isn't healthier than Panera, you're at least supporting a small business owner at a corporate fast-food price point.

These trucks are tailor made for an economic downturn, so we should all be mobilizing the mobile food movement. Support your local food truck association if your city is launching a crackdown. Throw a few bones to an interesting Kickstarter idea. And on your next lunch hour, go out of your way to swing by a tasty-sounding food truck.

Photo via (cc) by Flickr user Dan Dickinson.