History of Food Trucks and How They’ve Shaped America

photo of an old fashioned car with a giant hot dog sign on top parked on a pier with an elderly Asian man standing next to it

Did you know there are over 23,000 food trucks in the United States? Food truck culture has become very popular over recent years, but where did it all come from? 

Food carts have been in use for millennia, dating as far back as the Roman era. The food truck as we know it today was a gradual evolution of this format, as trucks advanced and became literal mobile kitchens.

Want to find out more about the history of food trucks? Ready to see how the food truck revolution happened and why? Then read on!

The Early History of Food Trucks

The very first food trucks date back to the chuckwagon. These covered wagons sold perishable food to cowboys and loggers in the American wilderness.

In a typical chuck wagon, you’d find beans, cured meat, coffee, and biscuits. It would also carry water, and wood to build fires. Many also functioned as mobile barbershops and dentist’s surgeries.

Jump forward to the 1890s, and these early food sellers began to cater to university students. Wagons selling sausages would be set up outside dorms at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, among others. 

Arguably the very first food truck that we would recognize as such was the Wienermobile, created in 1936. Made to advertise—what else—Oscar Meyer wieners, the Wienermobile toured the United States selling hot dogs. It rocked up at schools, orphanages, parades, and hospitals. 

If you were hungry, the Wienermobile had you covered. Today, the Wienermobile has been repurposed as an Airbnb.

By the 1950s, ice cream vans were touring neighborhoods across the United States. Their playful tunes drew children (and adults) from across the neighborhood, and the utility of the food truck was becoming obvious.

The Modern Food Truck

The Wienermobile was great, but it didn’t go everywhere. Ice cream trucks are awesome, but only sell one type of food. When did the first food truck start selling tacos, that lunchtime favorite?

Let’s jump to LA in the 1970s.

Since the 1960s, Mexican loncheras had been selling incredible food, but the first food truck selling tacos would not come until 1974. One Raul Martinez bought an old ice cream van and opened up King Taco. Friends told him he was crazy, but he set up shop outside an East LA bar and sold $70 of tacos on the first night.

A few evenings later, he was bringing in $150 every evening. Six months later, he opened up a brick and mortar store, which has become an LA institution. By 1987, there were three King Taco trucks doing business in the city.

While he had the first taco truck, Martinez wasn’t alone for long.

If you were at Rutgers University from 1979, “grease trucks” were a common sight. These trucks sold “fat sandwiches,” essentially rolls stuffed with two cheeseburgers, fries, lettuce, and tomato. So bad for you, but so delicious.

These food trucks were huge successes, in limited areas. It wasn’t until 2008 that the broader modern food truck revolution would begin.

The Food Truck Revolution

Mark the year: 2008 was an incredibly important time in the history of food trucks. This was when truck catering technology, social media, and a growing interest in street food caused the food truck revolution.

Roy Choi’s Korean BBQ truck, Kogi BBQ, was creating a stir on the west coast. In the East, New York’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar was serving up delicious dumplings to foodies. Social media like Facebook and the nascent Twitter meant that customers started to do the marketing work themselves.

The great recession of the late 2000s also provided an impetus for the food truck. Chefs from top restaurants were being laid off, and few restaurants were hiring. 

Food trucks were the obvious solution. They were cheap to buy, and easy to run, requiring no more skills for a chef than working in a restaurant. It was this movement that started making food trucks truly gourmet.

There have been good and bad developments in the industry since. In 2010, LA started requiring food trucks to pass inspections, like brick and mortar restaurants. In 2011, New York food trucks were forced to relocate away from parking meters, after city authorities ruled no vendors could park up and sell food.

Despite the occasional hiccup, food trucks have gone from strength to strength. They have started to be granted liquor licenses, offering customers superb wine and beer pairings with their food.

The preponderance of different food types is another string to the food truck’s bow. 

A food truck can sell any kind of food. Want a pizza truck, a grilled cheese truck, or a kimchi wagon? They’re all possible.

The combination of low cost, delicious food and a strong variety of choices has made food trucks a nationwide success. But what’s next for the industry?

The Future of the Food Truck Industry

In many metropolitan areas, food trucks are now as entrenched as restaurants and bistros. Across the country, millions of people buy lunch from food trucks. 

The good news? This industry is expected to keep growing.

Established restaurants, such as the famous Katz’s Deli in New York City, are starting to get in on the action. Such branded food trucks are something we can expect to keep seeing. They offer a low-cost, high-impact marketing solution.

More and more, we’re also starting to see food trucks in places other than the sidewalk. Food truck festivals are hugely popular and it’s not unusual for trucks to cater to events.

In contrast to the early history of food trucks, we’re also starting to see more and more healthy food trucks. These take advantage of the clean eating culture that is particularly popular in California.

Technology is another feature that today’s food trucks are taking advantage of. For example, it’s not unheard of for trucks to offer free Wi-Fi. This not only attracts customers but also encourages sharing on social media.

Thinking about starting a food truck? Curious about costs, or wondering if you have what it takes? Take a look at the options available on our site, and get in touch if you have any questions!