I recently went to Providence, Rhode Island to attend Brown University’s spring weekend. Massive concerts, blasting music, tipsy teenagers and ringing ears were the sights and sounds for the weekend, but the taste that I left with was unexpected. Food trucks littered the Providence streets and I soaked it in. Cheeseburgers, crepes, quesadillas – you name it, they had it within a mintue’s walk from the concerts. People wanted food, truck owners supplied it and the booming business kept a steady pace throughout the evening. My experience that evening provided me a glimpse into a booming industry currently hauling in over 800 million in revenue. Last year’s revenue logged a 3.5 percent growth and, in a 2012 article, Lauren Helper of Silicon Valley Business Journal even projected the U.S. Food Truck industry revenue to soar to well over $2 billion in the next few years.

So what is fueling the food truck industry? Many speculate that while it might seem like a temporary fad, the food truck industry will become a much more viable market opportunity than people anticipate. To start, market entry is easy because the process is relatively cost efficient – trucks are not very expensive and the amount of capital required to create and run a food truck is much cheaper than the amount required for a “brick and mortar” restaurant. On average, food trucks cost around $55,000 to $75,000, which is significantly less than the $250,000 to $500,000 standard cost of a brick and mortar operation. Aside from the start-up costs, operation costs also run at a level much cheaper than restaurants. Costs are derived from a combination of inventory (27 percent), truck insurance, repairs, fuel (26 percent) and wages (18 percent) to other factors such as fuel, licenses, websites and accessories (29 percent).

On average, most companies generate upwards of $85,000 in costs while revenue can reach around $290,000. Together, the industry of more then 4,250 trucks has seen 12.4 percent growth in revenue in the last five years, which might seem odd considering the impressive growth in market competitors. From 2011 to 2013, the number of food trucks grew by 200 percent and while many big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago have saturated markets, small and unexpected cities are also leading the charge of this industry. In Hanover, two food trucks provide Dartmouth students with a variety of options ranging from falafel to pad Thai – their lines sometimes stretch for over twenty yards.

Food trucks have grown in popularity largely because of social media. Twitter allows truck owners to communicate with followers and, in some cases, owners have thousands. Roy Choi is famous for selling two dollar Korean tacos outside of nightclubs in Los Angeles and frequently tweets to his 70,000-plus followers to announce where he plans to be each night. Twitter can even provide the truck owners with feedback – Jae Kim, owner of Chil’Lantro BBQ, a Korean and Mexican fusion food truck explained that, with Twitter, he is able to see “what we’re doing wrong and fix it.” Twitter acts as a medium through which owners have a voice to connect with their customers and customers can provide feedback to the owners.

The future of the industry is largely dependent on the U.S. economy. Much like the rest of the restaurant industry, the mobile catering market is dependent on personal consumption expenditures. We can distinctly trace this relationship from the upswing of the mobile catering industry as personal consumption expenditures marked a clear upward trend. The healthy economy over the past seven years has warranted a period of easy entry and revenue growth for the food truck industry, but many fear that with a downturn in the U.S. economy, the industry will suffer along with it.

For many of the owners, this risk combined with the increase in time and investment over the past few years has made the market lose its original luster. Jethro Naude, owner of Slapfish food truck in California, mentioned in April 2014 that because of these factors, “the excitement has faded away… [and] the good ol’ days of the food truck are gone.” On the other end of the spectrum, proponents of the industry argue that a down economy would encourage growth and revenue for food truck owners. With a decrease in personal consumption expenditure during a recession, demand for high-end catering for household parties and company events would decrease. As a result, individuals and household will likely turn to cheaper alternatives like food trucks, propping up the industry and providing hope to owners like Jethro Naude.

So what do we make of all of this? Prospective owners should watch the market closely and avoid entry for now. Because food truck owners have yet to truly endure the gauntlet of a down economy, any sort of projection would be unfounded. Regardless of the economy, however, it is likely that the market will continue to grow due to low levels of saturation in thousands of medium to small sized cities across the nation. While revenue might not stretch pass $2 billion and while the restaurant industry will continue to dwarf food truck industry, food truck owners around the world will continue to push forward – filling college-aged stomachs with sustenance and creativity.

In August 2011 FarmPlate.com launched in Hanover, NH with the goal of creating an online sustainable foods community. Founder Kim Werner tells the Dartmouth Business Journal about the challenges and successes of starting a business to connect small town farmers, big city foodies, and everyone in between, across the US.  

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): First, could you briefly explain what FarmPlate does?

Kim Werner (KW): FarmPlate.com is an online community and resource targeting consumers, businesses and organizations who want to find and support sustainable foods businesses. Our mission, ultimately, is to spur the growth of the sustainable foods marketplace by making it fun and easy for consumers to find and enjoy real foods. We launched on August 31, 2011, with the most comprehensive database of real food enterprises nationwide. We have more than 30,000 listings of farmers, fishermen, food artisans, restaurants, markets and organizations from Maine to Pennsylvania as well as California, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. There are two primary components of the first release of the website: 1) Find real food producers as well as restaurants and markets that source sustainably— for example local cheesemakers and breweries, a sustainable fisherman who can ship line-caught products to your door, a restaurant that is committed to serving only foods with traceable sources, CSA options near you, a market where you can buy your favorite baker’s bread, and much more. 2) Explore a business’s food web to see where to buy and eat a particular producer’s products, and to see where a restaurant or market sources from.

DBJ: Why did you decide to found FarmPlate?

KM: Food has been more than a necessity throughout my life. My family traveled extensively when I was young, and our trips inevitably were focused around the foods of the cultures we were immersed in. From this, I developed a lifelong love of cooking, and in my previous professional incarnation was a cookbook editor. (I “retired” on the Joy of Cooking in the late ’90s.) When our first daughter was born, I wanted more than ever to have easy access to wholesome food fresh from the source. I spent hours googling nearby farmers’ markets, farms where we could purchase a side of beef and winter CSAs. What I found were pieces of the larger puzzle I was trying to put together. From this I decided to find a way to bring together all of this information into a single source and use technology to build a powerful and efficient community platform for sustainable foods.

DBJ: What have the biggest obstacles been in starting a sustainable foods business?

KM: There are many obstacles to starting a business in general! And if I had to choose a “space” to be in, it would be the sustainable/green business sector because one of the end-goals is to have a positive impact on society. But I would say perhaps the biggest potential obstacle, and one that can halt a start-up in its tracks, is that there is an absolute requirement to be able to do more than anyone thinks is possible with fewer human capital and financial resources than imaginable. It also requires that you are 100% prepared to give up your life as you know it. I love challenges so I have been fueled by this over the years, but it is certainly just that, challenging!

DBJ: How do you think the environment for a green business, or a sustainable food business in particular, has changed since the idea for FarmPlate was first conceived?

KW: It has vastly improved. It is an underestimate to say green businesses are a trending topic, as this is a sector that is here for the long-run. Sustainable food businesses in particular are positioned to thrive, thanks in part to the press as well as the growing environmental movement, which is spurred by a real and immediate need to re-examine how we are co-existing within our world today.

DBJ: Why did you decide to base FarmPlate in Hanover?

KM: Purely a lifestyle decision. We have deep roots in Vermont, but selected Hanover as a great place to raise a family and be surrounded by great arts, great educational opportunities and the great outdoors!

DBJ: You mentioned that FarmPlate features over 30,000 businesses    – how have you found most of the businesses listed on your site? What kind of standards must businesses meet in order to be listed in FarmPlates’s database?

KW: We have a wonderful crew across the country that screens and loads businesses into the FarmPlate database. They find the businesses by researching both online and in the field, and we collect the information from original sources, whether it’s a business’s database, Facebook page or the result of an in-person visit. We have a handbook detailing suggested criteria a business should meet in order to be listed on FarmPlate. Criteria ranges from “sources locally” to “sells direct to the consumer” to “farms the land in a sustainable manner” and so on. We err on the side of inclusion, however, as we want to help businesses expand their commitment to sustainable products, and not screen them out because they are not doing enough along these lines to warrant a listing. We’re here to help!

DBJ: How popular has the profile upgrade option been? (In which business owners pay $195/year to manage their own FarmPlate profile.) How viable is the profile upgrade option for small businesses?

KW: We have had a tremendously positive response to the upgrade option. We are offering a cost-effective way for businesses to build a website if they do not currently have a web presence (less than $4/week), and for the many businesses that do, FarmPlate is an easy, effective way to reinforce their online presence and current marketing efforts, as well as to reach a highly targeted customer base.

DBJ: How have people responded so far to what FarmPlate is doing?

KW: Frankly, we have not actively promoted our launch yet. ,We are focusing now on the great feedback we are getting from our early adopters, but we are thrilled by the organic search traffic we have begun to generate. We also have been very excited about the number of listing suggestions submitted by both businesses and consumers who want to be sure their favorite businesses are listed on FarmPlate. We look forward to 2012 when we will be more actively promoting the website.

DBJ: How do you compete with other sites offering reviews for local restaurants or sustainable food sources?

KW: Our community is highly targeted, and we see it as a destination site for foodies and sustainable food businesses trying to connect with like-minded consumers and businesses.

DBJ: What do you see as the next steps for FarmPlate?

KW: We are going to continue to build our database aggressively to deliver on our promise of a comprehensive nationwide resource. We will also be integrating more communication and social tools to further develop the community features. And we are looking forward to learning more from our audience so we can continue to grow the website according to the needs and wants of the very community we are here to serve.