The Truck Stops Here

In the future, will all of our restaurants turn into roving trucks? You may not ask yourself that question every day, but answering it will reveal a few things about the evolution of social media.

This megatrend of trucks serving gourmet food is one of those cataclysmic events that can only be brought on by a slew of events that were never supposed to happen at the same time (think "The Day After Tomorrow"):

  • A recession that caused consumers to be thrifty when eating out while also giving the jobless and underemployed more time than they're used to.

  • GPS technology accurate enough to locate restaurants on wheels.

  • The advent of Twitter, which allowed truck-food proprietors to economically broadcast where they are, along with empowering consumers narcissistic enough to tell people they are on line waiting for a truck chef to serve them.

  • Finally, the emergence of Dr. Scholl's shoe inserts so comfortable that truck chefs can be gellin' without having their feet resemble snapshots from the podiatric-themed issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

    New York City has a multiplying fleet of truck chefs. Battles for the streets have become so intense that one truck food purveyor told The New York Times a few weeks ago, "I should not have to carry a baseball bat on my truck in order to sell cupcakes." I've visited two trucks for food this month alone: Van Leeuwen artisan ice cream by the High Line park (after trying the vanilla, "artisan" must be a synonym for "bland"), and the truck that I found via a colleague's tweet, which served the best red velvet I've had east of the Mississippi (either side of it, you can't top Sprinkes).

    The most famous, uber-hip food truck isn't driving near my office anytime soon. It's Kogi, the Los Angeles-based Korean barbecue truck fleet with over 35,000 followers on Twitter. Proprietor Mark Manguera seems to have an Oprah-like command of his followers, with hundreds of them lining up for Asian-Mexican food whenever his trucks tweet.

    How much further will this trend go? Here are a few ideas:

  • The locations of these trucks will be crowdsourced. It's the converse of the drive-thru: instead of the truck saying where it is and people tweeting about it, people will tweet and the truck drives to where the most buzz is.

  • Mobile applications will instantly show which food trucks are in your area. Trucks will be sorted by cuisine type, location, and the length of the line.

  • A market of line-savers will emerge. Someone spending $10 on dinner from a truck may well pay another $20 not to wait on line for an hour or two (I couldn't find anyone offering or requesting this on the Los Angeles Craigslist boards). A secure arrangement between the parties using SMS and PayPal could ensure timeliness and accuracy. A more sophisticated system could have the person on line periodically checking in via GPS to confirm their location.

  • Trucks will eliminate all of their selection and will tweet the day's option along with the location. One day, it might only be steak fajitas, while another it's shrimp tamales. And the same people who waited two hours to get what they wanted from the truck would wait four to have no options to choose from.

  • Trucks will tweet the wrong locations intentionally. This will weed out the fans from the superfans. Anyone can follow a truck on Twitter and find it and wait on line for food while telling all their friends about it. But imagine if people had no clue where the truck was, and even their friends tweeted the wrong locations to throw them off? The same people who waited four hours to eat food from a truck with only one menu item would spend another four hours trying to find out where the truck really is before waiting another four hours for food.

    Thanks to social media and the mobile technologies facilitating it, these trucks may in time lead to a super-race of Twitter users. Consumers already too thrifty to gorge themselves will spend four hours running around after a truck and four hours longer standing in line, all to consume undersized portions designed to easily fit in their hand for on-street consumption. While engaging in these tweets and spending ample time with their fellow line-waiters, they're bound to comingle and eventually reproduce. These offspring will in turn exhibit the genes for fitness and tech savvy that will give them disproportionate advantages in the centuries ahead.

    I'm not sure I'll be one of them. Sunday night, while walking home, I discovered a Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood and ate my first banh mi sandwich. I had read no reviews, whether by professionals or consumers. I saw nary a tweet about it, and didn't tweet it either. Monday night, I went back for another banh mi. It won't be my last. The whole time, the restaurant stayed in the same location, there was no line, and I sat down while waiting. I'm clearly not cut out for the future of truck-based food consumption, though if it's carrying red velvets, I may make an occasional exception.

  • 4 comments about "The Truck Stops Here".
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    1. Josh Mchugh from Attention Span Media, July 14, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.

      David - If you actually confirmed that Dr. Scholl's inserts are used by a significant number of Twitter-truck restaurateurs, hats off to you for truly incisive (insercive?) reportage.

    2. Jonas Halpren from Federated Media, July 14, 2009 at 3:51 p.m.

      Why would anyone wait 1 -2 hours for any of this food. Don't get me wrong it is good, just not that good. Funny how Food trucks, long the staple of construction and other blue collar workers are no the darling of the twitterati. Follow, follow follow.

    3. David Berkowitz from MRY, July 14, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.

      Okay, maybe the Dr. Scholl's thing needs a little verification. I couldn't resist writing "gellin'" though.

    4. Michael Senno from New York University, July 14, 2009 at 11:55 p.m.

      Any Dr. Scholl's reference deserves kudos.

      I see a network of these trucks forming, developing a smartphone app, then they can each use GPS and location aware apps to let users use the app to find what food is in the area. It would allow trucks to rotate around a bit and hit different micro segments of customers. In the end, the big upside is using a truck to drive traffic to a restaurant, store front, or mail order (hey, tourists could use the app).

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