On Passaic Avenue, at the corner of Passaic Park and the train station, in Passaic, N.J., stood Tom's Truck. Tom's was an early 1950s Chevy panel (the equivalent I suppose of today's SUV) and had certainly seen better days in its 20-plus years of service. Now with Tom, a gruff, overweight, white-haired Greek immigrant inside — it was our stopping off point on the way home from high school to get a hot dog with spicy red onions. At the time, we couldn't understand why the adult customers who stopped by on their way home off the train who picked up cigarettes or a tightly wrapped candy bar called it the roach coach.
Tom's wasn't the first “food truck” as we now call them — actually the heritage started decades before, in the 1940s with wagons parked at specified locations where people would meet and eat sitting on stools and eating off a bar — these were actually called “diners.”
So as much as we would like to think that today's food trucks are a new and brilliant idea, it is the evolution of what started around 70 years before.
But what is new is the quality, gourmet, and the cuisine, ethnic or themed, and the markedly different target audience: One that seeks out fresh, local, authentic, often healthy, affordable gourmet food, which now can even do their research through Zagat ratings for these trucks. And one who is well-connected via mobile handheld devices.
The new breed of food service operator has taken to the streets, literally. Building on the concept of the lunch trucks that once dotted construction site, these trucks went to where the people were and built a following on Twitter where a hungry gourmet could find out their favorite truck's location and hours of operation. These operators are creating what I would like to call “food buzz” combining the changing pop-up rolling location with the special gourmet tastes of the day through Tweets and IMs in a very, very hip and classy way.
The growing craze for these gourmet food trucks presents two unique marketing and profit occasions for supermarkets.
It's been done with farmer's markets, opening up supermarket parking lots on low-traffic evenings to food trucks, presenting a fantastic opportunity for retailers and bringing an exciting venue to consumers. You can expect these customers to visit the store before or after their food truck eating experiences.
Idea No. 2. A bigger idea, that also dates back to the same era of the birth of diners. It is time to take brightly painted food trucks and outfit them with refrigeration; load them with the staples as well as gourmet prepared foods with a route that brings them to targeted neighborhoods where shoppers who are starved for time, and wondering what to serve for dinner at 4 p.m., just walk to the street corner and shop. It is the Dugan man, milkman and today's food truck all rolled into one.
Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com.