The West Coast is responsible for a smorgasbord of food trends. There's the California-style burrito, now decades old. Farm-to-table? Credit California for that, too. And food trucks — the gourmet kind with fusion tacos, falafel and wood-fired pizzas — can also trace their genesis to the Golden State.

Raul Martinez, an East L.A. cook who converted an ice cream truck to sling street-style tacos, is often credited with the first food truck. Martinez's King Taco would eventually become a multimillion-dollar brick-and-mortar franchise, and L.A. became the test kitchen for similar rags-to-riches food stories.

Out of that creative food scene came the L.A. Food Fest, which gets the nod as the first big food truck festival. The inaugural event in 2010 boasted only 30 trucks, working overtime to serve more than 10,000 hungry patrons. That stunning popularity was a harbinger of things to come, inspiring legions of similar fests from coast to coast.

'It's a foodie festival'

In central Ohio, tens of thousands gather annually at the Columbus Food Truck Festival, now one of the largest in the country. Mike Gallicchio, who organizes the fest with business partner Chas Kaplan, says the reason for his success is simple.

“People like food,” he explains. “It's a foodie festival, really.”

Columbus (Ohio) Food Truck Fest 2016.

David Heasley

Food trucks boast restaurant-quality fare, but one up their brick-and-mortar brethren by gathering together and turning out a dizzying variety of dishes prepared fresh on the spot.

The Columbus Food Truck Festival has all the appeal of the county fair food court, but rather than corn dogs and cotton candy, there's bakmi ayam — egg noodles with ground chicken and bean shoots — served up by Aromaku Indonesian food truck. Forget the funnel cake, and check out Hai Poke for traditional Hawaiian poke, a savory raw seafood salad.

The fest also doubles as an outdoor concert venue. There's a networking element, too, where food truck vendors share ideas with other industry professionals. It's a winning formula that drew a crowd of 10,000 at the first event, catching organizers off-guard.

“It was really crazy,” Gallichio recalls. “There were not enough bathrooms or drinks, we sold out of water and there wasn't enough food. We just weren't prepared.”

But in the midst of the chaos, one prevailing myth surrounding food trucks — that they're damaging to traditional restaurants — was dispelled.

Gallichio recalls a frazzled man who owned a sandwich shop across the street from the festival, who approached for a big hug after the dust had settled. “''I want to thank you for bringing all these people in,'” Gallichio remembers him saying. “We created all of this business for downtown, and we continue to do so.”

'Customers expect more from the food truck experience because they've been around for so many years.'

Food truck owners can energize local business communities in other ways. In Portland, Oregon, they organize in “pods,” bringing loads of tourists to the central business district. The story's the same in Austin, Texas, where food truck parks dot the city.

Austin is also home to the Texas Trucklandia Fest. Event organizers curate some of the best vendors in the area to compete for a $10,000 cash prize. That, and the fact that the city's clientele is uncommonly savvy about food trucks, creates the perfect venue for potential stardom.

Food truck celebrities? It's a thing. Just look at Roy Choi, whose Kogi BBQ taco trucks have earned him star status, not to mention a nationwide fleet of food trucks and a number of brick-and-mortar eateries.

“The ones who succeed are in it to win it, and they're the ones who are going to expand to multiple trucks and, eventually, brick and mortar,” says Trucklandia organizer Brian Erickson. “They're out to build a business.”

'The festivals are fun and offer people who have been curious about food trucks the chance to try lots of them in one place on one day.'


With past Trucklandia participants like Valentina's Tex-Mex BBQ truck winning accolades in The New York Times, and USA Today, Austin's food truck owners can carry as much clout as some of the city's top restaurant chefs.

“It's like, 'Oh it's a food truck, I wonder if it will be Austin's next best restaurant,'” Erickson says. “Some of the most successful businesses in Austin are food trucks.”

With so many discerning consumers, Erickson says he feels extra pressure to curate the best selection of food trucks for his fest.

“Customers expect more from the food truck experience because they've been around for so many years,” he explains.

Food Truck Festival

A 2014 food truck festival in Palm Beach, Fla.

But not everyone is so food truck savvy.

Food Truck Festivals of America is a Boston-based company bringing moveable feasts to areas without a strong food truck presence. “That way, people who have heard about food trucks but don't have them in their backyard can experience them,” says Janet Prensky, a spokesperson for the company.

That means throwing a food fete in Worcester rather than Boston, or in Syracuse over Manhattan, she says. Those who eschew meat are covered by the Vegetarian Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival in Watertown, Massachusetts, a city of about 33,000.

“The festivals are fun and offer people who have been curious about food trucks the chance to try lots of them in one place on one day,” Prensky says.

Lots of options may be the biggest draw for food truck festival, Erickson agreed — especially in an era where instant gratification and zero commitment are big selling points.

“It feels easy for people, like there will be something I like, and I don't have to commit,” he says. “I can go to this nucleus where surely I can find something to eat.”

People figure a food truck fest is an answer to one of humanity's age-old queries: “It's the big question that plagues America every night,” Erickson says. “What are we going to eat?”