Barely 5 years old, food trucks now mainstream

May. 31, 2014 @ 10:11 AM

This is hardly a new development, but it struck me last week that food trucks have truly gone mainstream in Durham.

The latest sign? Since late March, the Research Triangle Foundation and Fidelity Investments have partnered to sponsor weekly food truck rodeos in the park. Take it as another measure of the park’s evolution from sprawling, isolated campuses to a place that caters to a modern generation of creative-class workers for whom congregating around gourmet food trucks is an important touchstone of the week.

Food truck rodeos, of course, have long been institutionalized in downtown Durham, where the center city’s recent resurgence and the food truck trend have seemed inseparable partners. Rodeos of 40-plus trucks have become frequent events at Durham Central Park – the next one is coming up June 15.

Food trucks lined up bumper-to-bumper on Hunt Street next to the market have become an integral part of the Saturday-morning farmers’ market experience. The energy of the trucks, the market vendors, the nearby crafts market and street musicians blend into an urban vitality that might have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

Recognizing the trucks’ popularity, the South Durham Farmers Market, which has been growing steadily and creatively since its inception three summers ago, now boasts at least one truck each week. A side note: Durham has always embraced food trucks more eagerly than those neighbors who long thought themselves far cooler than the Bull City -- Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I’m a fairly frequent visitor to both of those markets, too, and have yet to see a trace of food-truck activity.

With the trucks having embedded e themselves so much in Durham’s culture these days, it may be a bit hard to remember our food-truck explosion is barely five years old.

Food trucks of one sort or another have been around far longer, although mostly as snack-and-sandwich trucks serving construction sites and similar spots, or catering to narrow ethnic markets – the long familiar taco trucks, for example.

If you wanted to pick a date for the dawn of our current gourmet food-truck craze, a good bet would be March 2009 when Brian Bottger joined the two original partners of OnlyBurger. Bottger had witnessed food trucks emerging as a West Coast fad and thought he could bring the same experience here.

Did he ever.

His arrival and energy and the subsequent profusion of trucks -- some short lived, some now long-familiar places -- actually put us in the vanguard of what The New York Times last week dubbed “the modern food truck movement.” The Times’ David Sax cited its origins as the launch of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck in Los Angeles that year. (Another side note: My family dearly misses NCBulkogi, the Korean barbecue truck that was an early arrival but sadly faded after an unsuccessful try at a brick-and-mortar store in North Raleigh.)

“Many cities had street food, from New York’s and Chicago’s hot dog carts to California’s taco trucks,” Sax wrote, “but the Kogi truck and the thousands of fancy food trucks it inspired upended the status quo.”

The story’s main focus was the creation in April of the National Food Truck Association. “If the group gains a foothold, it will signify the rapid evolution of the business from a quirky fad to a national industry with an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue,” Sax wrote.

There you have it – yet another example of food trucks’ mainstream status. And it seems so very modern-day-Durham that we’ve been among the pioneers in that rapid evolution.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.