Can a city or town known for its brick-and-mortar food scene benefit from having a vibrant food truck scene? I believe the answer to that question is unequivocally yes! Having lived in what is arguably one of the best food scenes in the U.S. (particularly for its size) the past 10 years, I have observed the rise of the food truck scene alongside the city’s more established restaurants in New England’s second largest city, Providence, Rhode Island.
In 2013, Rhode Island had its fair share of food-related accolades when the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists were announced. Additionally, in 2012, Providence was named the top destination in the United States for “Food/Drink/Restaurants” in Travel + Leisure magazine’s “America’s Favorite Cities” poll. Providence is also home to the oldest operating American diner on wheels: Haven Brothers. Basically, this city knows food — both fine dining and casual options!
Providence is also home to one of the premiere culinary arts school in the U.S., Johnson & Wales University. It has seen its fair share of culinary giants walk its hallowed halls, such as chefs Tyler Florence, Emeril Lagasse, Michelle Bernstein, and Aarón Sanchez, who are all alums of this school.
Over the past five years or so, Providence has also undergone a significant bump in public events like farmers’ markets, concerts in its parks, festivals, and other arts and cultural activities around the city. Food trucks have quickly become an integral part of those events. In fact, this coming September, Providence was named the host city for the Taste Trekkers conference, the nation’s first food tourism conference, and you can bet food trucks will not only be on the agenda, but on the streets working their magic.
Providence’s food truck scene is growing, but not bursting at the seams, which makes it an interesting comparison to larger cities. There are actually market force lessons to be learned. In a January 2013 article in the Huffington Post by Rachel Tepper entitled “Food Truck Failures Reveal Dark Side, But Hope Shines Through", the article cites food truck association leaders stating “that 100 trucks launched in 2012 in Los Angeles and 35 failed”, and “30 trucks have gone out business since 2009” in Washington, D.C.
Providence’s food truck scene is different in that since it is a bit more compact, the bar is increasingly rising with each new truck that comes on the market (both in quality and being different from others already roaming the streets), and I also believe there’s increased room for competition. Also, unlike some smaller cities where there can be mixed reaction to food trucks, they are being woven into the fabric of the community in Providence. If there’s a public event worth being at, you can bet there will be multiple food trucks there. Additionally, with lots of activities going on, the city has helped to get many of these trucks off the ground. In other words, it’s an ecosystem thing. Providence’s ecosystem is a friendly environment for highly creative ventures, such as the ones included in the slideshow.
Given Providence’s advanced palate for a city of 180,000 residents, situated between New York and Boston along the coveted I-95 corridor, it’s no surprise that the food truck scene that erupted here would come out of the gate swinging. Providence is living proof that size does matter, particularly when it can be leveraged in a smaller, highly networked location. There’s a running joke here that you are never more than one phone call away from anyone you’d like to have a connection with. Our food trucks, in many ways, are merely a reflection of the city’s entrepreneurial community with people viewing themselves less as competitors and more as complimentary assets in a compact place. For instance, I have seen food trucks sharing generators when one truck’s generator goes down (not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to food trucks). It’s one of the things that sets Providence apart from larger cities throughout the U.S.
This has led me to believe that there are at least three good reasons for a community to nurture and support its food truck industry:
1. Food Truck Industry Spawns Other Ventures
Take Johnson & Wales alumni and serial entrepreneur, Eric Weiner, for example. He was able to merge his passion for food with his expertise in logistics and transportation, created FoodTrucksIn, a national database that currently has approximately 3,800 registered food trucks from all 50 states. Eric figured out that while social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have helped to build the food truck industry in the U.S., they don’t necessarily expose them consistently to new customers. His geolocation check-in service allows residents and visitors to cities around the U.S. to find their favorite food trucks by location, food type, or simply the food truck’s name. Eric even went back to his alma mater and had students work with his venture on developing his press kit and other materials. He eventually gave them “real world” learning opportunity.
2. Food Trucks Make Events Better (and Can Drive Additional Traffic)
If you are having an event in Providence, locking in your food truck vendors is one of the first things on your “to do” list. Just ask Maria Tocco, who founded The Providence Flea, which launched this past June. One of the first things she looked at was having mobile food trucks at her upscale urban flea market on the Providence River Greenway each Sunday so that vendors and visitors alike had access to good food and didn’t have to wander away if they got hungry. Her event has grown larger each week! Smart lady!
3. Food Trucks Can Contribute To “Buy Local” Efforts
For example, here’s a list of food trucks that regularly buy local ingredients throughout Rhode Island.
Food trucks, and food in general, are highly personal subjects. Ask local food blogger, chef and photographer, David Dadekian, of Eat Drink RI, what his favorite moveable feasts are in and around this creative capital city, and he doesn’t blink twice. Check out the slideshow to see his, as well as my own top food truck picks!
But there are many others. For more information on Providence’s food and food truck scenes, please visit the following sites: Food Trucks In, Eat Drink RI, Providence Warwick, and Providence Food Trucks Twitter.
You can also follow along with an evolving curated tour of Providence’s history, culture and food on Pinterest.