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Gourmet Food Trucks Use Social Media to Drive New Street-Food Scene

From the chuckwagons of the Old West to mobile canteens on army bases to the suburban summer staple the ice cream truck, the mobile food vendor is certainly not a new invention. Coffee and sandwich trucks have been serving construction sites and big city commuters for nearly a century. But today's food trucks offer gourmet menus at an affordable price giving customers a chance to try exciting new cuisine from enterprising chefs with speed and convenience. Many trucks have found success building their brand in the increasingly crowded market by carving a flavor niche and harnessing social media to update hungry eaters on their menus and location. Because of the significant increase in quality food trucks are now even Zagat rated, an idea that at one time might have sounded ridiculous.

Food Trucks!
Night shift. © Thomas Kelley

California residents have long been familiar with the side-of-the-road taco truck. A culinary stand-by for decades where the food is usually served by the same people who made it, often Mexican immigrants looking to earn a living while sharing a piece of their culture. Modern food truck vendors like Kogi Korean BBQ have become mobile landmarks in Los Angeles with their unique combination of Korean and Mexican flavors. They got their start parking outside of popular bars and clubs but now use Twitter and Facebook updates to post their small army of trucks all over the city.

The Mud Truck, a pioneer in New York City's mobile food scene, started as a protest to the corporate coffee invasion in the East Village and became so popular that they opened their own stand-alone store in the same neighborhood. Their truck can still be found downtown serving their signature blend to NYU students, tourists and locals alike.

Daily Business
Daily business. © Thomas Kelley

In the past you may have been lucky enough to find a food truck on the street outside of your favorite bar come last call but now it's not entirely unheard of for the food truck to actually be inside the bar. Brooklyn's Union Pool has the uncommon New York luxury of a big back yard where they've posted El Diablo Tacos to satisfy all their hungry customers. Food trucks have become an increasingly trendy, reasonably priced option for all sorts of events, even weddings. There are local and national food truck contests, food truck parks and even a reality show devoted to the concept, with a bit of a Cannonball Run twist to up the ratings ante.

Mexicue co-founder David Shillace was selling medical devices while college buddy and soon to be partner Thomas Kelly was working in digital media sales when the pair decided to change course and buy a food truck.

Kelly, who had extensive restaurant experience prior to Mexicue and comes across as a chef-at-heart, explained how Mexicue got started. "I had always done a lot of barbecuing at home. And a lot of Mexican actually... So as soon as we decided on the concept and started doing some serious thinking about things we got a commercial smoker and put it on the roof of my building. Then we just started experimenting with the different flavor profiles and some of the Mexican flavors started working themselves into the sauces and spice rubs. It was a lot of trial and error out of my kitchen in Brooklyn. My wife was very patient with us, especially early on when we were doing extensive menu testing and smoking and braising large amounts of meat over night."

Daytime demand
Daytime demand. © Thomas Kelley

Taking advantage of a flavor combination missing in New York cuisine, they debuted their first truck in August 2010 and very quickly had lines around the block.

Mexicue prepare their food in a commercial kitchen, originally in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and now in Manhattan's Lower East Side near their recently opened second restaurant. The food is taken from there and prepped to order on the truck itself, a practical consideration that played a part during the menu's development.

Rice Bowl, fully loaded.
Rice Bowl, fully loaded. © Thomas Kelley

"It used to be that you had to have a half a million dollars to open a restaurant in New York. With a food truck, if you can get together seventy-five or a hundred thousand dollars you can get your idea out there," says Mexicue's CFO Julia Collins.

Despite the obvious struggles of running a year-round, outdoor business Collins tells us that the truck has devoted customers even during winter's coldest months and once warmer weather arrives everything gets easier. "Once summer hits, I have a line out the door of these awesome, well-educated hipsters who want to come work for me." Hungry New Yorkers eager to get outside the confines of their apartments with the first hint of spring quickly take to the streets and find trucks like Mexicue to be a fast, inexpensive way to eat delicious food with virtually no hassle.

Line 'em up: lunch line at 5th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City.
Line 'em up: lunch line at 5th Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City. © Thomas Kelley

Mexicue has also started doing small events throughout the city and surrounding areas. They've catered Billy Reid's Fashion Night Out event two years in a row and the man named GQ's Best New Men's Designer for 2010 even came up with a limited edition Mexicue t-shirt to commemorate the party.

Julia Collins tells us how several couples looking for a cool way to fit food into their budget have called the Mexicue truck to the rescue. "Weddings have become a big part of our business now even though it's not something we really pursued but I think there's a need for easy, less expensive food and we became an option. We had a couple of weddings at The Green Building that turned into absolute jams. Like grandmas taking their girdles off type of parties. I think there's just a sense of light-heartedness that's associated with having a truck there. It kind of forces people to loosen up a little bit because it's so unexpected. We even did our first same sex marriage recently."

Mexicue Co-founders Thomas Kelly and David Shillace stand proud by their red truck's reputation.
Mexicue Co-founders Thomas Kelly and David Shillace stand proud by their red truck's reputation. © Thomas Kelley

Mexicue has harnessed several different arms of social media to help them create a dialogue with their customers. Following Mexicue on Twitter might just lead you to an easy decision for lunch or dinner. Julia Collins talked about the many ways they are able to interact with diners using technology. "We're doing a Twitter coupon soon. We have a name the truck contest going because now that we have two trucks we can't just say, ‘The truck is out.' We use the Wildfire app on Facebook to get feedback from our customers. The Mexicue hotline is still answered by Thomas. We try to reply to people on Facebook and retweet people on Twitter. We also take advantage of other technology apps like Shopkeep which is an iPad point of sale system which is great for the truck."

Thomas Kelly has his own way of letting Mexicue customers help shape his ever-evolving menu. "One thing that we've done is work with a local farm each season and pick a specific ingredient to do a contest where people help us come up with recipes based around that seasonal ingredient. People love it and the ideas we get have blown us away. We now have this really awesome spin on an elote corn taco with corn on the cob and a mayo based spread with lime, cayenne pepper and cotija that was sent in. It won the summer contest and is now on our menu. The contests are just a really fun way to engage with our customers."

Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (11 images)

Related Links:

Mexicue
"One Year in Mexicue" - NY
"The Food Truck - a photographic retrospective" on Flavorwire

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Comments (2)

Mencar

posted by Mencar | 02/06/2012 08:57 pm

very well-thought-out and useful: I like to imagine that "Mini" too in the near future will design a truck-on-the-road like that!!...Congrats!

byrdery456

posted by byrdery456 | 01/12/2012 01:19 am

Hey Bryan,
Your blog are awesome. your recipe are so yummy... i think your blog are one of the best. overall your blog are very nice.
Thanks

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