It’s autumn in North America, and in the United States that can only mean one thing: festivals. To be fair, winter, spring, and summer are also quite busy with festivals, but roundabout September and October, things get weirdly specific. Port Huron in Michigan hosts the annual Hobo Fest, celebrating America’s love of railroads, wanderlust, and Spam carving. In Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, you can attend the Hollerin’ Heritage Festival, where the time-honored tradition of screaming at pigs while calling the young’uns to dinner is given its rightful due. A few weeks later and 900 miles north in Bethel, Maine, the Sunday River Ski Resort is the site of the North American Wife-Carrying Championship. Not a euphemism, the sport of Wife-Carrying is a demanding one, in which athletes from across the continent compete in a display of mettle, strength, and wives.
Outside of these oddball festivals, though, there are plenty more mainstream ones. Especially in the northeast of the U.S., where it’s harvest time for growing number of small, family farms, the fall festival is a staple of the culture. Families spend a day wandering fairgrounds and open spaces, taking in the changing colors of the foliage, sampling small-batch apple cider, and perusing local artists’ crafts. And of course, there’s the tendency to pumpkin-spice the hell out of everything: pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice beer, pumpkin spice legal services. The only thing that could be considered just as quintessentially American as the annual harvest festival is a road trip where at every stop you buy fried food with a credit card. Until recently, though, unless you wanted to swipe your luck with one of those old school credit card imprint contraptions, the rural setting of an October festival was a cash only affair for the vendors and food trucks.
This has all been changing in recent years, as the ubiquity of cellular broadband and the rise of cloud point-of-sale intersected, and the idea of a brick-and-mortar marketplace is becoming outdated. When the only infrastructure you need to do business is an iPad and a 4G data connection, there’s a freedom to running your own business that not even the internet and its promise of e-commerce can match. Sure, you’ll have a much more limited pool of potential customers to sell to, but there’s nothing quite like taking your business on the road and experiencing life while doing something that you love. No kid ever said, “When I grow up I want to sit on my couch and Google Street View the world.” On the flipside, even the people for whom the itch to travel was never particularly strong don’t dream of being locked down to one location for the workweek wearing business casual clothing and staring at computer. That’s the sort of thing that just happens. This is why the idea of food truck has been having something of a renaissance lately, and more and more legit chefs are giving it a try. Chefs, like any other creative type, tend not to enjoy routine or predictability. Great food is the result of trying something new, and inspiration is hard to find when you show up to the same place, cooking the same food, day in and day out. But unpredictability is isn’t something banks like to see when issuing loans, and it isn’t something most people–regardless of their creative bent–want to factor into their plan for earning an income. And it’s this innate sense of wanderlust, combined with a desire to Love What You Do, that’s been calling chefs to the road in an attempt to reinvent the mobile hot dog stand of the past. But it’s technology that’s making this all possible.
It’s not that buying a truck, or outfitting it with the right kitchen equipment, suddenly became more affordable. Even in the face of rising costs for the driving and cooking hardware needed to make a successful food truck, the risk of recouping your initial investment is going down. Over at the Statistic Brain Research Institute, they’ve got some fairly eye opening numbers as to how much money goes into starting up a food truck business, and how much can be expected to come out of it. According to their research, the average startup cost is just over $90,000–not a small chunk of change. Bundled into that number is the average cost of buying the “Register / POS” (as they have it described): $500. This doesn’t say what they’re basing this average on (is it a plain old cash register? is it a digital POS?). But even if we double that amount–a more realistic number for an iPad based system complete with receipt printer, credit card swiper, and till–that’s still just one percent of the total startup costs. And with a modern, cloud-based POS, you’re not just getting a register for that money. You’re getting inventory control, easy accounting, the ability to take credit cards, customer management and marketing, advanced reporting and analytics to assist in future decisions. With add-ons for mobile ordering, long slow moving lines are no longer an obstacle. Especially in a festival atmosphere, the idea of ordering food without queueing up and then just showing up at the pickup window when it’s ready is ideal. No one wants to waste 30 minutes or so on line when they can be roaming the grounds sampling pumpkin spice deodorant.
Today’s food truck operator has more going for her in terms of running a successful business than was ever possible in the past. And the numbers bear this out. The annual revenue in 2014–for all 4,130 food trucks in the US that made up the basis of this report–is $1.2 billion dollars. Yes, billion. That’s a 12.4% increase over the past 5 years, numbers so compelling that even Taco Bell has gotten in on the act. Thankfully, they’ve mostly been hitting big sporting events and office parks, which leaves the festival scene still very much a small business experience. Which is a great thing for the nostalgic feeling that permeates a fall festival, as far as I’m concerned. Leave the tacos to a someone who knows how to really make them. Besides, there’s something more rewarding about gastro-intestinal upset when it’s served up at the fair in the form of a locally produced deep-fried stick of butter.