So You Want to Own a Food Truck?
A socio-technical field study on food trucks in the era of post-pandemic-lockdowns that aimed to answer the following: what were the experiences of small food truck business owners during and after pandemic lockdowns?
Team: Ell Park, Oscar Vinicio Reyes, Jorge Ortiz Flores, Fernando Gomez
Our team of four conducted a 10-week long study on the food truck business as it adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic in Orange County. We utilized various methods to gather our data, such as interviews, field site observations, and online media analysis.
Our major findings revealed six significant themes to consider in the current understanding of success in the food truck industry.
The presence of food trucks spans a large range of locations, from diverse physical spaces, like music festivals, apartment complexes, and breweries, to digital internet spaces, such as Instagram, Facebook, and their own websites.
The flexibility of location for food truck businesses was a key aspect that helped them financially survive the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown era.
Many of the food trucks in the current market are family-owned. This creates a close-knit sense of identity for the business that is maintained throughout its growth and operation.
Various food trucks rely on separate food truck agencies to secure locations to serve their food, especially in private spaces, like corporate buildings and apartment complexes.
Varied Technology Use
Food trucks utilize today's popular Internet tools, such as social media and websites, to advertise and operate their business
Gaining a popular following and maintaining its popularity early on in the start of the business are key aspects to securing a positive reputation for a food truck business.
Our team recommends that future technologies aiming to advance the food truck industry must account for these nuanced findings; specifically, the various factors that allowed food truck businesses to remain relatively financially stable in the pandemic, such as the maintenance of a closed-knit identity for family-operated businesses, the reliance on agencies to secure locations, and the boost in public exposure through internet technologies.
We sought to discover the individual experiences throughout the pandemic of the food trucks that service the Orange County area of southern California. Our goals were to 1) gather information on these experiences through observations and interviews with food truck owners, 2) understand how and what kind of technology fits into this space, and 3) uncover how the food trucks we observed managed to adapt to and survive the pandemic, as opposed to the ones that did not stay in business during the past several years.
Our field site focused on family-owned food truck businesses in Orange County. This specifically excludes food trucks owned by larger corporations or those that originated from brick-and-mortar restaurants. This also excludes street vendors, such as ice cream trucks, as we wanted to focus specifically on the food truck business owners who prepare and sell their own food. We wanted to focus on this specified field site because observing and interviewing with those involved in family-owned businesses would result in more personal stories about their experiences in the food truck industry, and how their livelihood was impacted during the pandemic. Food trucks owned by corporations or restaurants do not necessarily share the same financial risks if their food truck business venture does not succeed in comparison to small business owners who rely on their food truck as a significant source of income. By bringing the focus onto the individual people behind these unique and personal food truck businesses, we hope to provide a deeper, more personal insight into the food truck industry, and how they are a vital part of creating food variety in the community.
Since food trucks are versatile in their mobility and thus have a very broad range of locations in which they can sell their food, it was a challenge finding them on any given day for our research. However, a discovery of a website named Street Food Finder eased the search for available food trucks within the OC area. The website pinpoints exact locations of where specific food trucks will be located and provides access to their social media accounts to get updated information about a food truck's schedule. The use of social media made it easier to communicate with food truck owners to make arrangements for a time to interview them and gather more anecdotes and their perspectives on working in the food truck industry. This process helped to narrow down the selection of food trucks to collect data from and made it manageable for our team members to fit the research into our schedules.
To gather the most personalized information of how food trucks thrived and handled themselves during the pandemic, we opted to conduct interviews with the owners of the food trucks and their employees, like the cook and the cashier, to see how much has changed in order for them to continue on with their business. A script is provided for the interviewer to ask a series of pre-made questions, written by the team, to ask about how well they established themselves during and after the pandemic. Interesting to note is that there were some additional questions and follow-up questions that were asked during the interview to clarify some of the answers that were given to us and to collect further information that seemed important that related to the food truck in particular. The interviewing process took an average of 30 mins to 1 hour to complete and would generally be conducted by one or two people that are available to visit the food truck. Each interview paved the way for understanding further about the food truck industry with a side of personal experiences/ stories that were shared by the interviewees. Once the interview process is completed, an observation is then conducted about the place, to see how well the food truck thrives in gaining new and returning customers and how much the environment impacts the success or failure of the food truck. The observation would generally last about 30 mins to gather all the information about the environment and the food truck to denounce how much it affects the business of the food truck.
To maintain the privacy of some of the food trucks, their names will remain anonymous when discussing the interviewing and observation process conducted about them.
Food Truck 1
This particular food truck is known to serve a fusion of American and Vietnamese styled food since they notice a lack of restaurants and other food trucks that don't provide this interesting food category in the market. The owners wanted to share their culture through serving up American-Vietnamese fusion food. This unique fusion brought along the success of their business by providing a new dish to the market and allowing people from both cultures to become more open to both sides. An interesting fact about this food truck is that they have their own agency to help provide locations for them instead of hunting down a spot, themselves and minimize competition.
Food Truck 2
This particular food truck is known to serve Middle Eastern dishes in a more Americanized style. The American-Iranian fusion dishes attract various customers; some who shared that they were unfamiliar with the cuisine, and many more who stated that they regularly enjoy the type of food served by the truck. The owners of this food truck frequently use social media to promote their business and provide exclusive information of where they are stationed at and the hours of operation they are going to be running within the week. Observing this food truck gave us an understanding of how social media influences the success of the food truck. Looking around their Instagram page shows how persistence in promoting their food truck through posts, stories, and profile highlights can help to attract new customers.
Food Truck 3
This particular food truck is known to serve mexican-style dishes that specializes in catering events for corporate festivities and concerts. The owner start-up their business within the early years of the pandemic, since he noticed a trend of food trucks being marketable due to the flexibility they have in serving food to their customers through a safe distance. Additionally, the owner of the food truck operated and gained some experience from another food truck that was owned by his oldest brother. This allowed him to understand the fundamentals of owning and advertising his food truck business and consider the reputation of his brand when deciding to capitalize on serving for concerts and corporate events.
As we finalized our interviews and observations, we noticed a trend of each food truck being parked by corporate office buildings. There were many commonalities between these settings: each place was hard to reach due to a lack of free public parking; the locations that the food trucks were stationed were secluded; and the only customers that the food trucks attracted were those who worked inside the office buildings on their lunch breaks. As such, it was a challenge to reach these areas for our data collection, but as we came to find out later, these food trucks that were stationed outside these offices did not mind this secluded setting, as they often did not have the necessary manpower to service a larger number of customers.
Models were drawn during and after our observations. These depicted a diagram of a typical food truck, the locations of these observations, and the flow of actions during a particular observation. Memos were created after coding the field notes. These memos were based on patterns we detected in our observations and interviews, surprising information we discovered, and further elaboration on some of our codes. We synthesized the information from our memos and models in order to create an analysis of our findings. Within this synthesis we discovered some broader themes about family-owned food trucks and how they were affected by the pandemic.
Above is a physical model that shows where Food Truck 1 was located relative to the office building it was stationed by, and the flow of action that occurred during their business hours.
Themes and Findings
Location played a key role in the ways that observed trucks operated. Different locations afforded different types of customers to be attracted to the business. While our observations were concerned mostly with trucks set up in urban environments our team was aware of another setting we were unable to observe during the time of our study. The location of festivals and other large outdoor events that lend themselves to mobile businesses to partake in are a common place where people think of food trucks being present. Seeing a more secluded and private side of the food truck business was an interesting change of pace related to food truck business. This is not to say the trucks we visited and observed were devoid of customers either; many of the trucks observed had steady flows of customers from the areas surrounding the trucks. With many of the observed trucks we saw they negotiated with business buildings in the Irvine area to serve workers up to several times a week for a few hours most commonly from the hours of 11am to 2pm.
Through an interview with the second truck we had observed, our team discovered that this truck was actually staffing the business complex through a contract that was provided to them by an agent. They described how their agent would provide them with a schedule usually with varied business complexes and the truck would follow this schedule not relying on public support or having to scout their own locations. This method of business they explained was perfect for them. It let them focus less on their social media and ensured that they would have a steady flow of customers without the possibility of becoming too popular which they feared would require them to expand their business and hire more employees which they did not want at the moment. Other businesses found these contracts with business complexes themselves, and had hopes to expand their business from food truck work to build up to a brick and mortar restaurant. While observing the trucks serving business buildings our team found ourselves to be a bit out of place. Most of the businesses that these trucks attracted were workers of said business complex they were serving.
Despite the lack of what we would describe as public customers there was one public space many of the trucks did focus on advertising around. This of course is the internet and more specifically deals with social media. We found that many trucks even if they were not active on social media did in fact have a page dedicated to their business on one or more of the most popular sites. Social media was not the only location trucks advertised themselves. Another site our team used regularly to locate potential trucks we wished to interview and observe were located on sites that solely mapped out food trucks locations and schedules.
Though there was not always a perfect seam between the physical and online spaces in which trucks catered. Many times our team found ourselves discouraged due to the trucks we found online that were located in business parks in Irvine were not easily accessible to outsiders. We often found ourselves lost and questioning whether it was worth paying parking rates to stay at a location for an observation where as mentioned we would be seen as four young strangers in a crowd of business professionals. It is for this reason we found that the location a truck serves plays a key role in several aspects of a food truck business. They include the customers they attract, the experience of these customers, and the truck's overall business practice.
Our findings would be incomplete without the mention of the pandemic and the effect it had on these food businesses. While conducting our initial interviews we were informed by one of the owners that the locations they served had slightly changed in response to the pandemic. They were the only truck in front of the building they were serving but did inform us that before the pandemic there would regularly be up to three trucks at a time serving lunch to the workers of the building. They noted that this change was due to the fact that remote work lowered the amount of workers that were in the building at any given time. They noted that during the height of the pandemic they had to rely on other locations such as apartment complexes in order to sustain their business. Overall they explained that many other trucks that they knew of also had to make similar changes in order to survive the pandemic and the strict lockdown rules.
One interesting story that was brought up while we conducted interviews was the partnership that was formed between breweries and food trucks. During the first year of the lockdown as restrictions grew more intense breweries had a hard time remaining open as there were restrictions put in place for businesses that where people gathered but were not serving food. As a workaround to this problem many partnerships began to occur between these breweries and food trucks where both benefited financially by being able to remain operational during the height of the pandemic.
As mentioned earlier, service focusing more on apartment complexes became more common as more people stayed home and worked remotely. Our team was able to observe one truck at this location. We found that even with being at such a close proximity to many people and being in the most convenient location for the residents of that community it was one of the least visited trucks we observed. It showed our team how as mentioned location played a huge role in the amount and quantity of customers that were attracted. This was an interesting note because as mentioned trucks had to serve these apartments more often during the pandemic to attract enough business in order to remain afloat.
Despite all of the changes that had to be made there was an underlying appreciation for the mobility that a food truck business allowed. The changes mentioned above were possible due to the mobile nature of the business.
While conducting our research our team found a common point for many of the trucks in the business. Most were family owned with the owners partaking in the duties of maintaining the truck. This was important for our team in order to distinguish what the experiences and struggles were for smaller businesses rather than trucks that had been owned by corporations. These smaller businesses we found tended to fall under the family-owned and operated category. We found that though goals for the future of the business may have differed each owner was committed to making their current truck successful and cared to provide the utmost quality food possible.
During observations the average number of people working within a food truck was three individuals. Very often we would find trucks with fewer individuals working the truck. We found that even with only two people working within a truck they could manage to serve about 20 orders per hour without having longer than 10 minutes of wait time if the food had to be prepared. This meant that for most sites we visited two people would be enough to sustain the truck for the hours they operated. As we discovered for one truck this was a perfect amount of business for them and they had no plans to expand any further in the near future. This consistent flow of customers was enough for many trucks to comfortably sustain their business.
We came to find many other trucks had aspirations to expand past what they had currently been serving. Some had hopes to expand to include multiple trucks and perhaps even a full restaurant. In order to achieve this, owners would also have to expand the number of people they employed. With some families, there was mention of bringing in more extended family into the business to help this expansion but with other trucks this expansion left questions about who they would bring in to help carry the load. Some owners were hesitant to the idea of hiring more employees, especially due to the simple fact that they preferred to keep their business to their immediate family. We found that the family aspect of the business was important to the identity of these trucks which they hoped to carry on with or without expansion.
Since location played a particularly important role in the success of food trucks, certain food trucks relied heavily on agencies to secure and finalize locations for them to sell their food to move away from the competition. Instead posting their spots through social media to promote their business, they opted on a more secure tactic that allowed them to publicize their business to those who are closest to them without the inconvenience of selecting a location that could lower their success in gaining customers. Agency owned food trucks tended to follow a pattern in settling their business near corporate buildings and apartment complexes since those places tend to have the highest number of potential customers without the need to promote/ advertise themselves.
During our observation it was clear that the majority of customers that these food trucks would serve tended to be office workers and residents of the apartment complexes since the majority of them would come out during lunch time to purchase the most available food that is closest to them. With this in mind, location is still highly considered in regards to the success of the food truck and the reputation of the food truck to keep people coming back.
Varied Technology Use
Throughout our data collection of both in-person observations and interviews with food trucks and in our online research of different food trucks in the area, we came to the conclusion that they tended to vary in their use of the Internet when it came to advertising and operating their businesses. Many food trucks advertised their business through a social media presence, often Instagram or Facebook, and uploaded photos of their menu items, owners, and locations that they were servicing. Most of the food trucks we observed were also found via streetfoodfinder.com, a website that is seemingly dedicated to showing all the food trucks local to an area, and/or Google Maps. Many of these food trucks also had their own business websites, where they often showed their menu, story, schedule of locations for the following week(s), options for catering, and sometimes an option to order from the truck online. However, many trucks did not take online orders, like all the ones that we personally visited and observed.
A food truck's reputation is the main determining factor of whether or not it succeeds or fails. Since many food trucks rely on gaining a vast amount of customers to continue their business, it is considered one of the most important concepts that could lead to the increasing numbers of new and returning customers, and allow for the business to become known around the state, city, or country. Reputation allows for the food truck to lower the amount of work they need in advertising themselves to gain more customers. However, the process in gaining such a reputation isn’t much of an easy process and could possibly take several years for the business to gain such high attraction.
Keeping this in mind, while interviewing the food truck owners they pointed out how difficult it was for them to gain customers, in the beginning, since they were unknown to the public and were not considered as reputable due to their starting position within the food truck market. As soon as they started locating themselves in popular places, like concerts, festivals, and brewing and catering events, their popularity began to rise. The reputation of those places/ locations allowed for each of those food trucks to gain recognition since they were able to put themselves out there within an already established, popular area.
Our research project had to adapt to various study limitations. Obstacles included the fluctuating availability of food truck workers, the physical access to their business locations, the lack of a completely accurate observation experience, and the limitation of capturing the voices from food truck businesses that fell through because of pandemic struggles.
To start, our journey in exploring the business state of modern food trucks was hindered by the fluctuating availability of food truck workers. While it was convenient to refer to the schedule and location of food trucks on streetfoodfinder.com, it was not always 100% reliable. Our team would plan trips to no avail as the website’s provided location and schedule of some food trucks were inaccurate. By heading to a truck’s supposed location and finding no one present, we encountered a major loss of time and money. In addition, we weren’t able to secure proper times and locations from some food trucks when asked. This was usually based on their desire to remain anonymous to their competitors in order to not garner attention from them.
Furthermore, the difficulty in accessing the location of these trucks was a significant obstacle for our data collection process. We often discovered that particular food trucks station inside corporate building grounds or private residential areas. It was difficult to enter these premises since they were closed off or required a separate permit to enter. This impacted the amount of data collected since not every food truck we aimed to contact was accessible.
In addition, our team placed our best efforts to observe food truck sites in the most accurate way possible. When settling in the field site, we tried to blend in with the public through holding casual conversations, eating our food, and avoided making our observational views uncomfortable. Despite these efforts, our team was still oddly perceived in various field sites. There have even been occurrences where food truck customers approached us as they were curious about our suspicious behavior. This inevitably might’ve distorted the credibility of our observation data, clearly limiting our study’s potential.
Lastly, one major study limitation in our research project was mainly focusing on the voices from businesses that prevailed in the post-pandemic era. Our team only aimed to study food trucks that were currently operating around Orange County. Our team was not able to capture insights from food trucks that went out of business as it appeared infeasible for the scope of this research project. This research project was limited in this sense as it could not acquire the complete picture of managing a food truck business during the post-pandemic era.
In summary, food trucks were able to adapt to survive the pandemic due to their high adaptability in comparison to brick-and-mortar restaurants. Family-owned food trucks tended to have less manpower and thus service more private, secluded areas. There are also food truck agencies that secure these contracts with locations for the food trucks, taking the strain of needing to get these contracts themselves off of the business owners. The use of the Internet varied from food truck to food truck: some took online orders; some broadcasted their location on Google Maps or Street Food Finder; many advertised their business through a social media presence; many have their own business websites; and a few have a very limited online presence and prefer to not broadcast their locations or maintain a social media profile. The varied technology use implies that any technological solution for the food truck industry must be designed with these nuances in mind. We believe that efforts to help the food truck industry should also be an effort toward increasing food variety for the community.