Not long ago food trucks were called “roach coaches” and served quick snacks to industrial site workers. Now, food trucks and food carts seem to be on every street corner and discussed on every form of media. In fact, just today I was listening to Here and Now on NPR, while the host, Robin Young was discussing mobile food trucks with Richard Myrick, editor of Mobile-Cuisine Magazine.
Myrick pointed out that many carts and trucks are opened by chefs and culinary entrepreneurs because they are less expensive to start and run than a traditional restaurant. It seems, as a result, many mobile food businesses are becoming known for the unique quality of the dishes they serve. This makes me wonder about the difference between street food, served from food carts and trucks, and so called, fair food, served from food concessions.
Whereas, many street food vendors are making a name for their selves based on the quality of their menus, concessionaires at festivals and fairs are known more for serving outrageous junk food. In fact, last summer, food booths selling deep fried sticks of butter and deep fried Twinkies were winning awards for the best food at many state fairs. Can you imagine street food carts having the same success with such a menu? At first glance, it sounds like only street food vendors serve good food because that is where all the good cooks are. But, that’s not it.
Food sold on the street is different from food sold at fairs because the market is different. Like restaurants, street food businesses are generally open full-time, and depend on a steady clientele of repeat customers for their success. Food concession businesses, on the other hand, are open part-time in a variety of markets, and therefore, must serve hundreds or thousands of customers within a very short window of time. Food sold from a concession business must also have a higher profit margin to offset high operating costs.
Perhaps, more importantly, people who attend fairs and festivals eat differently. They allow themselves to splurge on food that is not particularly good for them while enjoying an infrequent “special event”.
I occasionally meet professional chefs, who, as new concessionaires, show up at fairs with newly minted manufactured trailers, fully equipped and prepared to serve gourmet food. I never see them return the following season. It’s likely because; they had the wrong business model for the market.
That’s not to say; there aren’t successful concessionaires serving gourmet food at special events. But they are the exception. Until the market evolves, it is hard to earn a consistently high return in the food concession business unless you serve traditional fair food that is fast, cheap, and, often loaded with calories. I think the market will evolve. Just as people in urban areas now like grabbing a quick meal of quality food from street vendors as an alternative to the menus available at fast food franchises. They could soon look for similar quality in their food as an alternative to typical fair when they attend special events.
But, if you think it is a simple case of achieving critical mass in whatever food sales market you serve, it’s not that simple for concessionaires. The special events food sales market is hard to nail down because all special events are different. County fair goers eat differently than art show goers. More on that in a future post. I welcome your opinion.