Kale trail

Food truck nation: America mapped by its kati rolls, bulgogi tacos, and artisanal slushies

August 20, 2014
August 20, 2014

Food trucks aren’t a new phenomenon in the US—they were popularized in the suburbs after World War II, and in their earliest incarnations, they even predated the invention of the automobile. But the gourmet variety now plying $15 lobster rolls and artisanal slushies to urban foodies only arrived around six years ago, fueled in part by Twitter, which alerts customers to their whereabouts.

Two researchers—Todd Schifeling at the University of Michigan and Daphne Demetry from Northwestern University—took advantage of that social-media trail to conduct a quasi census of the new wave of US food trucks. Using Twitter, they counted 4,119 trucks—all of which served their first meals since 2008—in the 289 US cities with populations over 100,000. And they dug into the data to explain why food trucks have clustered in certain areas.

Some of their conclusions are intuitive. Cities with more college graduates, more workers in creative industries, more diverse populations, and more craft breweries and farmer’s markets (institutions that align with what Schifeling and Demetry call “the new authenticity economy”) have more food trucks. As do urban areas that have fewer chain and fast food restaurants.

That suggests food trucks aren’t simply an economic phenomenon—a result of the rising costs of brick-and-mortar stores—but a social one. So if you’re looking for a promising city to park your kati-roll-BBQ-fusion business, you might first check if there’s a place to buy kale nearby.

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