Here come the top 10 lists.
The hot lists of 2009 will invariably reference a few major themes of our year past -- from Michael Jackson to unemployment, with Lady Gaga's masked masquerades riding high on the pop trend wave. One trend is of particular interest to summing up 2009 because it zeitgeists not only something that happened, but baselines a movement which we can expect to see prevalent in 2010 and beyond.
In case you have not followed the street food movement, the bacon wrapped hot dog cart outside your local dive bar does not solely represent curbside cuisine any longer. In most of the major cities, we have seen a surge of gourmet, specialty, brand-bearing food trucks and carts parked near the trendiest metropolitan hotspots serving up items from fine french food to veggie burgers. Foodies and regular lunch time Janes are especially fond of the trend as new options for a quick, affordable and tasty lunch have emerged in a once vast sea of sameness embodied by franchised quick service outlets like Baja Fresh or Quizno's.
So where did all these trucks come from? Well, a good starting point is the recession. With incredibly low overhead (compared to a brick and mortar restaurant) and the ability to launch with little or no experience, a savvy food entrepreneur who can make a dish or two can hit the streets and try his luck serving lunch to eager and adventurous office people who heard about street food from the cool guy in human resources.
Given the low cost of doing business with the high potential for success and expansion, I make the argument that street food is the new fast food.
1. It's Fast
Given the nature of the ordering system, street food can be ordered, paid for and eaten in a relatively similar amount of time as fast food. The food trucks and carts require most chefs to prepare parts of the menu before you order, leaving less time for you to wait. The variable here is the line, but if you time it right by knowing your offerings and location before hand (shameless plug for Roaming Hunger here) you can be in and out faster than In and Out.
2. It's Specialized
Fast food, although increasingly less so in the last decade, have specialized menus based on the chain. The big boys do one thing particularly well and are usually brand synonymous with that item, think McDonalds and Big Mac. Due to the nature of food trucks and carts with incredibly limited preparation space, most vendors are limited to serving one thing and serving it well. The Kogi Truck reached new heights of popularity by limiting itself to be known for one thing, Korean BBQ tacos. Essentially, the smorgasbord of street food has to be achieved through multiple vendors: which is why in Venice, CA, the First Fridays event looks like an Oakland Raiders tailgate party with sometimes over ten vendors parked up and down the street.
3. It's Cheap
Street food is inexpensive relative to the quality of food served. Compared to fast food it may not be as cost effective per calorie, but if you compare total quality of food and preparation time to market, street food edges fast food out as the inexpensive option. With many people shying away from fast food after learning more and more about the sourcing of food (see Omnivore's Dilemma, Chapter 7) many street food vendors are using sustainably, locally and responsibly sourced ingredients to service a conscious clientele.
4. It's Fun
Fast food was fun too. I'll never forget the delight of opening a Happy Meal at McDonald's and then blasting down the plastic slide into the multi-colored ball pit when I was a kid. Street food carries a unique thrill of it's own. First off, the preconceived notion of street food in the United States and who eats off 'taco trucks' is an exciting one to break. Eating off a truck or cart for the first time carries an air of adventure and risk. This excitement and fun is what propelled the Gaga-esque super spike into the 2009 trend list for street food. Unlike fast food however, I don't foresee the joy of street eating to be as fleeting as growing up only to realize the toy and the slide is causing massive childhood obesity.
All in all, street food has positioned itself to be a viable eating option and not just a trend. With a quality product served at affordable prices, don't be surprised if Taco Bell tried to get in on the action themselves. Oh wait, they already did.
Follow Ross Resnick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/roaminghunger