Last week I got the opportunity to talk with James Cunningham, host of Food Network & Cooking Channel’s Eat St, a show highlighting mobile eats across North America.
We spoke about food truck culture and its rise in recent years, James’s experience on Eat St, and his new food truck cookbook, “Eat St: Recipes from the Tastiest, Messiest, and Most Irresistible Food Trucks.”
Have you seen the mobile street food scene develop and change over the course of filming Eat St?
We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years.
What really struck me has been that most of the trucks we’ve featured in season 4 didn’t even exist in season 1 and 2.
A lot of the food truck owners told us that the reason that they started operating a food truck was because they saw our show, which I thought was pretty cool.
Has this upsurge been consistent across all the cities you’ve been to?
Yes, this whole street food thing has just been exploding everywhere!
We actually did some research to trace it back, and we found that the whole rise of the food truck movement started around 2008 or so. When the economy took a down turn, a lot of high-end chefs found themselves out of work. So what do you do when you’re a highly skilled chef and you’re out of work? You open your own restaurant, or you get a couple thousands dollars together and buy or lease a food truck. In LA, the food truck industry is a little different than with other cities, and you can lease a food truck for a couple grand.
This west coast model started to influence other major metropolitan areas across North America, and suddenly all these really creative chefs were behind the wheels of street food trucks.
What was once a fry truck, chip truck, or a burger truck, is now a Korean fusion truck, or a gourmet taco truck.
Trucks like Bulgogi Beef Burgers started to pop up, and all this awesome creative street food started to appear.
And then what happened to really add fuel to the fire was the rise of social media. Previously these food truck businesses has to rely on people stumbling upon them or pedestrian traffic, but then with Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp, trucks started to be able to communicate directly with their fans and potential clients through social media.
In Boston, New York, or especially LA, which is a very spread out city, food trucks would plan and tweet out their routes, and many trucks were finding that they’d pull up and already have lines forming waiting for them. It completely changed the industry.
So really, you had this explosion of creativity from all these really high-end chefs, combined with the rise of social media, resulting in this whole new food truck phenomenon.
I’m not going to use the word trend, because they are here to stay.
That’s another question I was going to ask you – do you see this rise in food truck popularity becoming a long-term movement?
The thing is, it’s all so brand new –as I said, a great deal of the trucks we shot in season 4 weren’t even around in season 1 or 2.
A lot of people think running a food truck is easy, or easier than running a restaurant. In fact, it’s a bit harder. The people who aren’t really dedicated and just thinks it’s an easy, fun way to make money are going to be weeded out. I’ve yet to meet a food truck owner who doesn’t put in 50, 60 hours a week. It’s all the stress of a restaurant, but on wheels – it’s tough.
Everywhere I go now, I hear people saying, “Oh my brother wants to start a food truck,” or “we want to do a food truck”. It’s really important that people considering open a food truck buckle down and do their research, because about 50% of restaurants fail, and we’re going to see that with food trucks as well, so you do need to be careful. The good ones will definitely last though.
Some people will start to see food trucks failing and say, “Oh, the food truck trend is over,” but no, that’s really not true. There will always be the hardcore folks doing it properly, and they will be the ones that carry through.
But again, you have to understand, everyone talks about the food truck trend, but it’s not a trend really – it’s a new thing we’ve never seen before, and there is going to be some leveling out obviously, some thinning of the herd. There are good food trucks, just like there are good restaurants, and there are bad trucks, just like there are bad restaurants.
What are the best food truck cities?
Well, weather ends up playing a big factor. Areas with warmer climates on the west coast and in the south, places like LA or Austin, can be open year around, so they’re really spoiled in that sense. The vast majority of trucks on the eastern seaboard and in Canada, on the other hand, are very seasonal. I’ve noticed that in NYC, the number of trucks you see in the summer is double and triple what you find in the winter. It tends to be a pseudo-seasonal business for a lot of these truck operators. But they’re coming out in force now, and people just couldn’t be happier. I think it’s going to be a good summer across the board for a lot of food truck operators.
Cities have different personalities too – Portland and Austin tend to be non-transient, since their food trucks tend to work in pods. The way it works there is that you get your license, you have a food truck, but most trucks don’t move around so much – they stay parked most of the time in little areas. Whereas in LA, NYC, and Boston with more transient food truck industries, some food trucks do 4 different stops a day.
By sheer numbers, Portland is probably the food truck mecca, and then Austin. But every city really has great food trucks. It’s difficult to compare Boston with Miami or NYC with Austin, since they have completely different approaches. Any major city now – Detroit, Washington DC, they all have a good food truck presence.
What do you think of the relationship between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants?
People talk about the “war” between restaurants and food trucks, but there’s no war. Really food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants are two sides of the exact same industry.
On our show, we see a lot of really great food trucks that are spinning off into restaurants, and a lot of really smart restaurants spinning off into food trucks.
For example, there is a great guy in Vancouver – Vikram Vij. He is well known throughout the country as one of the top Indian chefs in North America.
This guy is just unbelievable. He launched a food truck last year, and we were talking about his decision to do that, and he explained to me, “I have a restaurant, and I have no need to do a food truck, but I saw the food truck as a really great way to educate my future clients. People who don’t even know that they love Indian food yet – that’s who I want to bring my food to.”
There’s also a great Steakhouse in Calgary, Alberta called “Charcut Roast House” – it’s a 5 star steakhouse. And this story is fascinating. These guys are doing extremely well – very profitable, great restaurant. One of the chefs was a finalist on Top Chef Canada, and it’s a destination place.
So, one day one of the chefs was in the kitchen and said, “Hey, we have this triple A Alberta beef in here, with the leftover steak pieces cut off from what was served. You know what, instead of throwing this out, I’ll make chuck out of it.” Then he’d get on Twitter and say “Hey guys, I’m serving some ground chuck burgers in the back door of the alley, come on down”. The first night 12 people showed up. Then he thinks, OK, I’ll sell them for $5 bucks a piece and keep this thing going, why not? Then the next night, 24 people showed up, then after a week, they had a line going out the back. So they said you know what, let’s do a food truck. And that’s what they did! They’ve been one of the most successful food trucks we’ve ever seen, called “Alley Burger.”
As I was saying before, the food truck phenomenon is not a trend – it’s a whole new thing, so get ready. It’s not going away anytime soon, and the people who are doing it well will last. If you look at Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, food trucks are now major parts of their tourism industry. People are now planning their vacations around food trucks! Sometimes I think I should be getting a check from the Austin Board of Tourism because I’ve told so many people to head down to Austin just for a great vacation.
Are you coming back to Boston? We’ve love to have you back!
Yeah, we visited Boston in season 1, when we met with Clover Food Lab – they were amazing. And I think we also did Silk Road BBQ. [ME: Actually, I’m not sure they’re around any longer] Oh, no, really? He was more of a cart. I remember people were like zombies, coming out from the offices and saying, “where’s that BBQ smell coming from?” That guy was awesome. That’s a shame he’s not around anymore.
It’s been too long though, and we’d love to come back to Boston. I really love Boston – it’s such a great, brilliant city. Except for the driving – it’s on par with Greece when it comes to driving.
We just finished season 4, it’s on the air right now, but we haven’t been renewed yet for season 5. We’re still waiting with our fingers crossed. So, if you can encourage folks to get on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel site and say “hey, we want more Eat St,” we’d love to come back to Boston, since we haven’t been there since season one.
We definitely hope to come back to Boston – if we get renewed, we’ll definitely be there for sure.
[ OK guys, you heard James, let’s make season 5 happen so we can get Eat St. back to Boston and show off our awesome food truck scene! Tweet at Food Network and Cooking Channel: ]
What makes a food truck successful?
When we look for food trucks to feature on the show, we have a great research team, and they start online. So our research team goes out, and food blogs like yours are usually our first contacts. That way we can see which food trucks are hot and what the vibe of the city is. We start there, then we go to each individual truck and say, OK, why are these trucks getting buzz? What are they doing differently? How are they unique? We look at the owners and their stories.
When we first started, there were a handful of food trucks to choose from, but now it’s crazy – there are thousands of food truck we sift through.
We are looking for trucks that are really good at what they do – people who are passionate. The one underlying common denominator that stands out across all the seasons of our show is having food truck owners saying “I just want to make people happy – I love seeing people happy and enjoying my food.” That’s one of the biggest keys to success in the food truck business – passion. Running a food truck is a hard job. It’s a business, and I think to do it well, you need to have passion. A great love of food, and a great love of people.
It’s also great to have a really cool or unique concept. Successfully marketing is another huge factor. The most successful trucks are the ones that manage their Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp accounts. It’s a pretty multi-faceted business. It’s all the stress of running a restaurant but on wheels.
The people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the last couple of years have been awe-inspiring – really great folks that love what they are doing.
What inspired the Eat St food truck cookbook?
You see, on the show we do shots of the chefs preparing their dishes in the kitchen, but we don’t show amounts or temperatures. We didn’t really plan that segment as a recipe segment, but people were trying to recreate the recipes by slowing down their DVRs, and would say “Hey, this isn’t working!”
We said OK, people really want to prepare this stuff at home, let’s try to make that happen. We sent out an email blast thanking the trucks who have been on the show, and asking them if they wanted to contribute to a recipe book.
Immediately we were inundated with amazing recipes. We were really impressed because trucks were sending in their signature, best dishes. They want people to enjoy these meals at home, and if they’re ever in the area, stop by and try them in person.
That’s how the cookbook was born. I wrote the introduction and the intros for each recipe, and I’m really pleased with how it all came out. Apparently we’re a best seller, which is just great.
What’s your favorite recipe from the cookbook?
It’s so impossible! People always ask me questions like that, and ask what my favorite food truck is. How can you choose really? There are desert trucks, Korean fusion trucks, BBQ trucks, breakfast truck. There are so many different flavors and styles of food trucks.
If they are on the show, they are an amazing truck. I know it’s middle of the road for me to say that, but I really love all those trucks. Let me put it this way - I’ve yet to find a truck I didn’t like.
Thanks for the interview James!
Learn about James Cunningham and Eat St, and be sure to check out the new food truck cookbook, “Eat St: Recipes from the Tastiest, Messiest, and Most Irresistible Food Trucks.”
And don’t forget to tweet @cookingchannel and @foodnetwork so we can get another season of Eat St and a visit to Boston!