It’s 12:30 p.m. and you’re stepping out of the office for lunch. You could grab a burrito at Chipotle—or, just as easily, you could swing by one of the half-dozen food trucks that queue up each day down the block.
Since they came to national attention in the late aughts, food trucks have changed how we eat. Trucks offer the grab-and-go convenience of fast-food joints, but with higher-quality ingredients and more creative offerings. Though most offer pared-down menus specializing in one or two food items, what those items may be spans the entire globe of cuisines, from empanadas to souvlaki to poke.
The success of these mobile restaurants has caused consternation among politicians and restaurant owners who fear they threaten traditional sit-down establishments. But wherever they are met with pushback, they are supported by their defenders.
Few are as passionate about championing food trucks as Matt Geller. After co-founding the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors’ Association in 2010, Matt took his cause to a national scale by founding the National Food Truck Association in 2014.
Matt’s involvement began when a friend solicited him for help with his own food truck. After years of working in the restaurant industry, Matt had recently completed law school at UCLA, where he had “focused pretty heavily on land use and city politics.” Tapping into his professional network, he partnered with a law firm managed by two of his friends to file a series of lawsuits against cities across Southern California where antiquated restrictions continued to antagonize food trucks. Some of those restrictions were in fact null: for example, a law that food trucks cannot stand within 100 feet of restaurants had been ruled unconstitutional in 1979 but was still periodically being enforced. In each case, Matt fought to clear the way for updated, and more favorable, legislation.
Since his initial involvement with the association in Southern California, Matt has consulted with dozens of food truck owners, organizers, and governments, both domestically and abroad. Although worldwide efforts have met with varying degrees of success, they speak to a growing acceptance among consumers.
Matt sees in food trucks the same energy that fuels young, scrappy start-ups. “There’s something beautiful about the industry in that it’s at its purest form an accessible entrepreneurial endeavor,” he says. “If you don’t have a million dollars or a friend with a million dollars, you can still start a food truck.” When restaurants are funded by deep-pocketed individuals, what they put on the menu is largely subject to the whim of those investors. Being independent of outside money leaves food truck owners free to innovate. “The guy who’s behind the wheel can bring whatever he wants to life.”
One early pioneer was Kogi, in Los Angeles. Widely regarded as one of the first food trucks to enjoy the national spotlight for its Korean-Mexican cuisine, Kogi introduced Angelenos to fusion dishes like Korean short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Its success cemented Los Angeles as the birthplace of the food truck craze.
Matt, who grew up in L.A., still sees his hometown as the premier scene for food trucks. The city’s stellar track record with mobile restaurants is in part tied to its history. After the 2008 financial crisis, roughly 20% of food trucks that had served construction sites throughout Los Angeles County went out of business. The surplus of trucks allowed culinary entrepreneurs to swoop in. Some vendors, in the vein of Kogi, innovated by creating new categories of food. But others were innovative simply in spreading familiar foods throughout the city: according to Matt, food trucks were responsible for introducing lobster rolls to the city and for bringing Vietnamese food, a mainstay in L.A’s immigrant-heavy east side, to the west.
Some are wary of the growth of these niche, premium-priced food trucks. Long-established vendors are feeling pressure from younger upstarts. Matt, however, sees this as a natural consequence of the market. “I want them scared about the next generation,” he says. “That keeps a lot of veterans on their toes, making sure their prices are good, their services are good.”
Where are some cities to watch the rise of restaurants on wheels? According to Matt, the City of Brotherly Love is one. “Philadelphia has had a pretty mature food truck scene for a while, but the maturity is more in events.” Though food trucks have honed their craft, regulations prevent them from setting up in the city center. Matt is hopeful that will soon change. “If the city allows them into the densely packed area, I think people are going to be blown away.”
Likewise, Matt points to Austin as another hotbed. As new developments continue to fill up vacant lots once dominated by food carts, food trucks are able to go in and go out with a dexterity unique to vehicles.
Matt’s message for aficionados of food trucks is to back them up with their actions, both by continuing to choose food trucks as the source of their meals and by petitioning their local government to enact legislation more favorable to their businesses. “The food truck industry can be a really difficult industry for these guys. Stepping up in support of them is stepping up in support of local business owners.”
In the end, the celebration of food trucks is a celebration of local talent. As Matt says, “We should all be excited to welcome these micro-businesses.”