Truck Revival: Food Trucks in Boston and Beyond
What the consumer sees in a truck, and why image matters
The New York Times published an article in May titled “The Food Truck Business Stinks” and needless to say, the general flavor of the article irritated some folks. But the article was written amidst a bit of a revolution. Over the past few years, as you’ve probably seen, the sidewalks and empty corners have become populated with trucks that offer pick-your-flavor deliciousness. There’s a lot of choices for cuisine, but with these choices are historical concerns about food safety and health on mobile food trucks.
As an example, In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Brookline High School was home to the friendly “Eddie’s”, an all-white truck with no signage, designation, or marking. “Eddie” was a friendly owner, and most BHS graduates can recall standing in his line during lunch and making small talk. And while some were brave enough to stomach one of his bland pizza slices or chicken parmesan sandwiches, the overall view that “Eddies” was a gross and unsanitary truck was more than a whisper among teachers and skeptical students. In comparison to the cafeteria, Eddie’s was a step outside of the usual lunchroom fare and provided a secondary source of victuals. Still, as high school students are hardly good barometers of sanitation and health, the comments about Eddie’s “bare hands” and his questionable ingredients remained among the majority. The truck was all white, but had patches of grease, weathering, and a host of unknown stains around the window. Eddie’s was popular, but was a prime example of a questionable “roach coach”.
The “Eddies” of today are quite different. Trucks are decorated with clean signage and colorful menus. They appear to be clean, organized, and for the most part, well managed. Menus are defined by specialty cuisine, and the “general fare” trucks seem to have disappeared overall. But what’s driving the demand, and what stands in the way of success?
The initial pushback to the roach coach concept has been, as the name implies, potential health violations and unsanitary practices (hand washing and ingredient storage for example) that likely flew underneath the radar of the health department. The public perception had been that trucks were unregulated and likely harbored a variety of food safety violations and bacterial infestation. Eddie’s was always viewed as a “questionable” choice for lunch, and the stained truck image fed right into that generalization.
The large driver for the popularity is based on a psychological concept that Eddie hadn't addressed. Health codes and compliance regulations are important; but it's the impression of cleanliness that must be stamped on the consumer from the onset. There needs to be a sense of “professional quality” in the design of the truck, and ultimately the design represents the “front of the house”. As with any brick-and-mortar, this area is where consumers make a snap decision of trust. A successful truck will project a certain image, one of cleanliness, trust, and reassurance. Owners are sacrificing more capital to reach “visual trust”, and this is the driving reason behind the colorful palette of trucks that can be seen. Inner beauty is a cute concept for a food truck, and sure enough, the cleanliness and practices within the truck are extremely important for a variety of reasons. But at the end of the day, the external beauty is what draws the crowds of lunchgoers to the designated trucks, and the trust follows from there. The external beauty is not definitive proof of compliance with food safety, or good food for that matter, but represents an important link by which consumers can identify a friendly and well-managed brand. Of course, looks can be decieving, but a bad 'look' for a food truck can steer consumers away easily.
As an example, PrestigeFoodTrucks.com is a seller of commercial food trucks for a variety of cuisines, and they provide fully customized trucks with built-in features and branding. Their turnkey solutions illuminate the importance of the overall image of a truck, and how the food isn't always the initial selling point.
As we continue to see more colorful trucks on the menu, we’re far removed from the “roach coach” characterizations from the past. We shouldn't be quick to judge a poorly designed truck with bland signage, but we should recognize that in the minds of consumers, the 'image' can be a large factor when determining a food choice. Owners recognize that the mere visual presence of “clean” is part of this evolution, and when coupled with health code compliance, the once-stigmatized “Roach Coaches” now represent sanitary harbors of speciality cuisines in a growing number of cities.