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Tracing the history of food trucks: From carts to gourmet mobile kitchens

What a great surprise! We were camped in an off-the-beaten-path campground when a food truck entered the RV park. The truck offered all kinds of Mexican foods: tacos to enchiladas, chips and salsa, to burritos and more! Although we were just passing through, it happened to be Tuesday—the day that Tasty Taco (a food truck) regularly visited the campground. Hooray for us! Hooray for food trucks!

Have you ever wondered how food trucks originated? Me, too! Here’s what I discovered about their history…

18th century beginnings

Food trucks are believed to have originated as early as the 18th century, although some historians think a very basic form of today’s “food-mobile” was present as far back as ancient Roman times. Often the “truck” was a simple cart used to bring food to remote locations.

Food truck history in Europe

In the 1800s, London’s streets saw a very early version of today’s food truck. Vendors sold fresh produce as well as baked goods from their mobile carts. As time went on, food trucks evolved into simple mobile kitchens that offered customers cooked edibles.

Food truck history in America

Perhaps some the first food trucks in America were chuck wagons. These food-mobiles were vital to the survival of pioneers who traveled west to establish homesteads. Chuck wagons were essentially pantries on wheels and often a dedicated chuck wagon cook prepared meals for folks as they journeyed west.

Early renditions of the food truck in American cities were simple hand carts. Immigrants used these carts to sell foods from their countries of origin. Food trucks helped introduce German, Italian, and Jewish foods to folks living in America’s growing cities.

In 1936, the Wienermobile was introduced to the country. Oscar Meyer’s hot dogs (wieners) were sold from this eye-catching food truck that toured the United States, and the company saw great success as a result.

Look! Here’s publisher Chuck Woodbury driving the Wienermobile!

In later years, city food trucks sold sandwiches, pretzels, and more to working folks who stopped by for lunch. Street vendors in bigger cities enjoyed a robust business and by the 1950s, food trucks were a common sight in many U.S. metropolitan areas.

Modern food trucks

Today’s modern food truck got its start in the 1960s when vendors began selling more ethnic-specific edibles. Ice cream trucks toured U.S. cities and suburbs alike, drawing in customers with its infectious (and sometimes annoying) music.

Then in 1974, Raul Martinez purchased an old ice cream truck and began selling tacos out of it in East Los Angeles. Friends thought he was crazy, but King Taco (Martinez’s food truck) was a huge success. Others followed Martinez’s lead and food trucks became popular, though only in select areas.

Skip forward to 2008, when developing technology enabled food truck vendors to advertise on social media outlets. Now able to market their food offerings and provide their food truck location in real-time, the industry began to boom.

Recession boost

The recession of the late 2000s gave the food truck industry an additional (and unexpected) boost. As restaurants closed due to the economy, top venues bid farewell to their prominent chefs. And the food truck business benefitted. Many out-of-work folks opened their own food trucks and never looked back.

Today’s gourmet food trucks serve common dishes with fanciful touches. Who knew the lowly hamburger could go gourmet with a Japanese fusion flair? Or the hot dog could be reinvented to become haute cuisine? Food trucks make it happen.

What’s your favorite food truck food? How do you feel about food trucks in campgrounds? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Richard Chabrajez
22 days ago

As full timers, we love to see food trucks in our campgrounds. We check the weekly schedule to see who’s coming and what’s offered on the menu. We do feel however, that prices over the past year have begun to exceed the value of what’s offered. As a result, we only patronise about 1 in 5.

Thomas D
22 days ago

Never bought anything at a food truck:
Stick and brick business pays taxes and get inspected by health dept. Do portable businesses do the same? Restroom facilities? Both customer and employees? I think not.
Oh, you can go and use his competitor. Right?

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