Jim Duffy comment: Appetite for the food truck revolution is growing

The option to open a food truck with minimum investment is becoming more appealing than the risk of opening a restaurant, says Duffy. Picture: Contributed.
The option to open a food truck with minimum investment is becoming more appealing than the risk of opening a restaurant, says Duffy. Picture: Contributed.
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Starting a restaurant business is probably one of the toughest gigs around. Keeping it going is even harder. The number of UK restaurants going bust jumped by a fifth last year as major chains came under pressure from rising costs and competition amid a squeeze on consumer spending.

One only needs to look at Jamie Oliver’s empire to see what happens when you take our finger off the pulse and your loyal clientele are actually pretty fickle. There were nearly 1,000 insolvencies across the restaurant industry in 2017, compared with 825 the year before, according to law firm Moore Stephens. Casualties included the Handmade Burger Company and Liverpool-based Viva Brazil steakhouse, which was later bought out in a rescue deal. Add to this Byron branch closures along with many smaller mom and pop ventures literally going “pop” and one can see how hazardous opening and running a restaurant actually is these days. But, there may be a more entrepreneurial solution which seems to be working both in the UK and in places like the US – the humble street food truck.

Street food? From a truck? Yes, and the numbers of vendors using food trucks is rocketing. Twenty years ago, street food was barely a concept in the UK. If you told your friends you had eaten a street delicacy, it generally meant you had succumbed to the late-night temptations of a greasy burger or kebab van. As Wahaca co-founder Thomasina Miers remembers: “Getting anything other than a hot dog or Mr Whippy on the streets was almost impossible.” But, now we have a hugely diverse range of street food offerings, many of which are setting the benchmark in quality and taste.

Street food is consumed by an estimated 2.5 billion people every day. Places like Thailand, Singapore, India and Vietnam have led the way in this area, with micro-entrepreneurs using street food to provide them a living and allow them to become business people, contributing to the local economies. In the West, as those with dreams of opening restaurants and eateries see the cost of these premises rising, the option to open a food truck with minimum investment is now becoming more appealing.

An average truck kitted out for your catering needs can be on the street corner for £20,000. So, one can see how the start-up risk is minimised as there are no onerous landlord leases to sign with scary personal guarantees. Ostensibly, one could put one of these on a credit card!

With such a low barrier to entry, many chefs are encouraged to enter the street food profession. From beef brisket with smocked mac and cheese to delicious tacos with handmade guacamole, the street food revolution is currently under way and heading for a town centre near you.

In the US, many cities have relaxed planning to encourage food entrepreneurs to locate there, so one can find food trucks corralled in little communities sharing a parking lot with customer tables in the middle. They share the costs and support each other. Additionally, many bars who wished they could offer food but don’t have the interior space or required skillset, can literally park a truck in their own car parks, set up some seating and charge it some rent. The food truck entrepreneur then hooks into the power and away we go – mutually commercially symbiotic. Punters can enjoy the pub and have delicious food on the doorstep.

Tastes are changing, and the food truck concept is ideally placed to allow new businesses entry into the market. Some areas are encouraging food truck days, where the city centre is transformed into a bustling eating venue with live music and a community atmosphere.

Who knows, perhaps our dying town centres could be rejuvenated by turning empty shops into homes with street food vendors positioned at each end. The humble street food truck could be the start of a new wave of foodie entrepreneurs and hipster communities.

- Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special