Food trucks have come a long way from their early days of selling plastic-wrapped sandwiches and bland coffee to factory workers looking for something cheap and quick. Today these mobile eateries feature unique offerings of every type — from freshly caught seafood and gourmet burgers to gluten-free and vegan sandwiches, sides and desserts. And their popularity is growing. According to Technomic, a research firm specializing in the food-service industry, sales for the food truck segment — comprised predominately by independent operators — are growing about 15 percent annually, compared with around 5 percent a year for the casual dining segment.
The popularity of food trucks got a big boost after the recession when folks, laid off from corporate jobs, decided to take a risk running their own business, explains Brett Lindenberg, founder of the Food Truck Empire, a site dedicated to the food truck industry. These mobile restaurants are more affordable than a brick-and-mortar location (a new truck can cost anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000, according to Technomic, versus nearly $1 million to open a stand-alone restaurant). And because food trucks run on volume, they can reach $400,000 or more in sales a year pretty quickly.
Here are the top 10 most popular food trucks in the United States, according to the latest survey by The Daily Meal, a service that provides research on dining news and trends. (Warning: Don't be surprised if you're hungry after reading this.)
There's plenty of pedigree behind this Music City food truck that started rolling in 2010. Co-owner Crystal De Luna-Bogan is a Le Cordon Bleu–trained chef who's worked in fine-dining spots such as Napa Rose in southern California and the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. She and her husband Joseph started the business (there are now two trucks around Nashville) as way to serve up gourmet grilled cheese melts using eco-friendly sourcing.
The menu features specialty melts such as the B&B of Tennessee (buttermilk cheddar cheese and bacon) and the Pimento Mac & Cheese (housemade pimento cheese cheddar, macaroni and bacon bits), or customers can create their own choosing from differing cheeses — there's even vegan cheddar — and breads. In January the couple opened their first brick-and-mortar location in suburban Nashville, serving up an extended menu of grilled cheese melts and milkshakes.
In 2009, when co-owners Jason Scott and Chris Viola launched their food truck in Hoboken, New Jersey, they got right to the point with the name. But don't let the generic moniker fool you. The Taco Truck sells authentic Mexican street fare, including Al Pastor Tacos (marinated pork, onion, cilantro, pineapple, fresh green salsa), Aguacate Tacos (crispy avocado, black beans, sesame seeds, pickled onion, tortillas fritas, chipotle salsa) and a Barbacoa Burrito (braised beef, onion, cilantro, roasted red salsa, red rice, black beans, crema), to name a few of the items on their menu.
Both men had spent time in Mexico after college, and with the help of consulting chefs from the region, they designed the menu. The food truck splits its time among locations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. There are also four brick-and-mortar locations in the New Jersey towns of Hoboken, Princeton and Morristown and at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania.
The first thing to know is that this food truck is named after co-owner Colin Fukunaga's last name, not a sly twist on a favorite expletive. After flipping burgers in his grandfather's sandwich shop while growing up, Fukunaga was looking around for his own gig. Back in 2010, his mother noticed all the taco trucks popping up in Los Angeles. Fukunaga had no interest in tacos, but he did love the idea of fusing West Coast burgers with Japanese flavors.
On July 4, 2010, he opened his Fukubuger Truck in Las Vegas, featuring burgers with toppings like wasabi mayonnaise, pickled red ginger and his secret "crack sauce." In 2015, Fukunaga opened a brick-and-mortar location in Las Vegas' Chinatown district.
For pure comfort food, it doesn't get any better than mac and cheese. Marti Lieberman started her Mac Mart Truck in 2013 on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she had graduated two years earlier. Wanting to be her own boss — and knowing she made a mean mac and cheese — Lieberman started testing out different recipes before buying her truck. In addition to her classic seven-cheese mac topped with potato chip panko crunch, there's BBQ in a Bowl (classic mac topped with BBQ chicken chunks, cornbread crunch and a BBQ drizzle) and the Crabby Mac (mac topped with cream cheese and jumbo lump crabmeat dip and Old Bay potato chip panko crunch).
For pure indulgence, Mac Mart also features something called Return of the Mac — a classic mac sandwiched between two buttered slices of Texas toast and melted American cheese. Demand for her mac-and-cheese creations proved so robust that Lieberman opened her first brick-and-mortar location in Philadelphia last spring. The restaurant features all the dishes available on the truck, plus a dozen or so toppings that can be mixed in.
How does a former investment banker become a lobster roll restaurateur? Luke Holden, founder of Luke's Lobster, grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where his father worked as a fisherman and lobster processor. Holden spent summers working the docks as a kid, but after graduating from Georgetown University with a business degree, he moved to New York City to work as an investment banker. When he couldn't find a decent lobster roll that wasn't wildly overpriced, he decided to create his own.
His first location, in 2009, was a tiny shack in the East Village. Because of his father's background, Holden was able to buy directly from fishermen in Maine, guaranteeing that the lobsters were fresh. Today there are 20 Luke's Lobster shacks in 11 cities and two food trucks in New York City selling lobster, crab and shrimp rolls for about $17; lobster grilled cheese sandwiches; and chilled lobster-tail platters with cocktail sauce and butter.
Philadelphia may be known for its cheese steaks, but thanks to The Cow and the Curd food trucks, residents have grown to love a Midwestern favorite: fried cheese curds.
Founder Robert Mitchell was into a 16-year career as a teacher when he decided he wanted a change. After helping out at a friend's concession stand, he realized he liked the food business but needed a unique concept. His wife grew up in the Midwest and suggested cheese curds. Basically, curds are cheese in its youngest form. Before cheddar is formed into wheels of cheese, it starts as two parts: curds and whey (the liquid). The curds can be eaten in their unprocessed state — or better yet, battered, fried and served with sauce. And indeed, that's what The Cow and the Curd sells.
An order of classic curds is $8 and comes with three dipping sauces — sriracha mayo, chipotle ranch and smoked ketchup. Mitchell started with his first truck in January 2013 and added a second truck to serve Philly in 2014 and began selling to local bars and restaurants. Next up: a wholesale distribution business to introduce the rest of the country to curds.
Roy Choi, the owner of this Los Angeles-based food truck company, is known in the industry as the godfather of the food truck movement. Born in Seoul, Korea, and raised in Los Angeles, Choi is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and later worked at such high-end restaurants as Le Bernardin in New York City. In 2008 he launched his first food truck in L.A., fusing Korean and Mexican food with items like spicy pork tacos and Kogi kimchi quesadillas.
He now has four Kogi BBQ trucks cruising around Los Angeles, as well as several brick-and-mortar restaurants, including the Hawaiian-inspired A-Frame, the cool Alibi Lounge and Chengo, serving Asian rice bowls such as the chubby pork belly bowl (kochujang-lacquered pork with a fried egg, pickled radishes, greens, cotija and peanuts) and the sour cream hen house (marinated grilled chicken with a fried egg, greens, sour cream sambal, Thai basil, toasted sesame and red chillies).
It's hard to argue that grilled cheese isn't king of the comfort foods. The owners of Ms. Cheezious, the Miami-based food truck company, certainly believe that. In 2010 husband and wife Brian and Fatima Mullins, along with their friend M. Christian Dickens, started talking about parlaying their considerable food and restaurant experience into a business of their own. Brian developed a love for cooking from his mother and grandmother while growing up in Long Island, New York, and went on to help open more than 30 restaurants around the world. Christian also had a long career in the food industry and had opened nearly three dozen Planet Hollywood restaurants.
In December 2010 they rolled out their first Ms. Cheezious food truck in Miami, featuring a modern twist on the grilled cheese sandwich. Offerings include the grilled blue and bacon (crisp bacon with creamy blue cheese and green onion on sourdough bread) and the BBQ pulled pork melt (pulled pork with sharp cheddar cheese on Texas toast), and for dessert the s'mores melt — roasted marshmallows, salted chocolate hazelnut spread and graham cracker crumble on sourdough bread.
Fatima handles social media for the Ms. Cheezious brand, which now includes two food trucks and two brick-and-mortar restaurants in Miami and Coral Gables.
This food truck, and its brick-and-mortar iteration at Penn Station in New York City, makes vegan food enticing even for folks who aren't vegan. Chef Adam Sobel worked for about a dozen years in vegetarian and vegan restaurants but decided to launch his food truck in February 2010 to attract people who would never have thought to try vegan fare. The Cinnamon Snail serves delicious sandwiches (Korean BBQ served open faced on a chili butter grilled tortilla), burgers and bowls (any menu item served over greens and red quinoa pilaf instead of bread) and a dizzying array of more than 30 different vegan donuts and pastries daily.
Sobel says the truck is off the road for the winter but will return in the spring at various spots in New Jersey and New York City and at the Red Bank, New Jersey, farmer's market on Sundays. The restaurant at Pennsy Hall in Penn Station is open daily, and a new location will open later this year in NYC's financial district.
Founder and chef Josh Sacks set out to serve the best BBQ in New Jersey when he launched his first Oink & Moo BBQ food truck in the fall of 2012. He had spent years traveling the country, looking for the best flavors and techniques to compliment any meat. With a meat smoker right onboard the truck, Sacks turns out fare such as brisket or pulled pork sliders, pulled pork and chicken tacos, and baby-back ribs served with coleslaw and cornbread made from scratch.
There are now three trucks that serve New Jersey and Philadelphia, and they've won a slew of awards since opening. In January 2015, Sacks opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in Florham Park, New Jersey. It serves everything available on the trucks, as well as party packages for groups of four or more.