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Is there anything in the foodservice business that is more appealing than a Taco Truck? As a former restaurant guy, I have to say that the idea that all I need is a kitchen with wheels and no dining room, and that I can move that kitchen to where the people are, is an appealing idea.  No servers.  No reservations.

The beauty of food trucks is that they offer the independent restaurateur the opportunity to get a concept up and running at a much smaller investment and risk than signing a lease and staffing up a full service place. It’s no surprise that these have been emerging just at the time when the number of independent restaurants has been steadily dropping.  Here’s a cute little video that articulates just that, so I like it a lot.

The NPD Group office is in a suburban office complex.  As a result, we don’t see a lot of food trucks in our neighborhood.  So, we were a little out of the loop when people began to ask us about the “trend” in food trucks.  But, we saw the light and began to figure out how to capture this.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.  For one thing, long before there were the food trucks that everyone talks about there were the famous “roach coaches” that ply construction sites, machine shops or other places where people have little time to go to lunch and no on-site services.  We’re pretty sure that no one is any more interested in them than they have been for the past 35 years.

So, it’s a very fine slice of the market to find.  As part of our regular CREST foodservice market research questionnaire update, we gave people the option to tell us that they had purchased the food from a food truck in addition to all the other possible answers.  About 0.1% did so in the test. The pie chart depicting this is below.

Now, before you all get all r-squared on me and ask about sample biases and all those things that people do when their preconceptions aren’t supported by data, let’s think about it.  There are nearly 600,000 restaurants in the U.S.

Richard Myrick of Mobile Cuisine Magazine guesses that there are between three and four thousand high-end food trucks and near 3 million traditional food trucks (I don’t have the data and I don’t want to get all r-squared on the guy but that would mean more than 13,000 per DMA, which seems like a lot).

So, let’s go back to the 4 thousand.  Add those to the just-shy-of-600,000 restaurants and you get, more or less, roughly 600,000 outlets….high-end food trucks account for about 0.7% of available outlets.  Given that the trucks have a smaller capacity than most restaurants, this relationship (.7% to .1%) makes sense.

Now, let’s think about how much business they might do…there are 300 million people in the U.S. About 46% of them buy a prepared meal or snack in a day. Those that do, do so between 1.1 and 1.3 times in that day.  So…carry the three…that’s about 170 million visits of all sorts in a given day. And, the .1% of those visits would be…borrow a one…170,000 food truck visits, which would mean that every one of those 4,000 gourmet food truck owners would be serving about 50 people EACH AND EVERY DAY.  RAIN OR SHINE.  WINTER OR SUMMER.  PORTLAND OR CHICAGO. Given that that would be the average. And, given that this doesn’t take into account the traditional trucks, and given the lack of regulatory support for them and the seasonal variation in many cities, this adds up to a niche market segment that has great appeal within its niche.

So, the truth is somewhere in between.

The march seems inexorable.  Here’s a New York Times article about food trucks in Paris.  And here’s an actual food truck that I came across in Mexico City called Frijolero.  Note the greenery to the right of the door.  Nice truck!