It was one of those rare Sundays. I had no work and it was sunny in Seattle. I heard about some famously great Cuban sandwiches in Fremont and the mere mention of that was all it took for my husband and I to trek through weekend Fremont traffic. But we never got our hands on those sandwiches. We ended up strolling along the Sunday Fremont Market, which sits along a canal. That day, it was packed with vendors selling custom aprons, jars of preservatives and antique furniture. I picked up a few used books. I love old paperbacks—they smell like my childhood library by the sea, in Mukilteo. My husband meanwhile is always on the look out for cheap DVDs—I mean really cheap—he’ll only buy it if the asking price is under $3. Anything more is ludicrous to him. “’Stand By Me’ for five bucks? That’s waaay too much.”
When we reached the end of the market where Hmong vendors were selling brightly colored tulips, we got wind of a food truck rally down the street. As it turns out, it was no rally—it was a full-fledged rodeo—the Food Truck Rodeo. We gasped as we turned the corner and saw thousands of people surrounding dozens of brightly colored food trucks that served every cuisine possible: Mexican, Peruvian, pan-Asian, even custom ice cream sandwiches. Trucks lined the street as far as I could see and hugged the perimeter of a nearby parking lot. Viewable through the truck windows, cooks worked furiously inside, while cashiers barked orders and conversed with customers. Long lines and wait times for your order were typical. The trend is understandable. It harkens back to the days of authentic street food made cheap, to-go, and by passionate people and cooks you had personal access to. In a digital age, people are craving intimacy more than ever.
“I can’t believe how big food trucks got,” my husband said, eyeing the scene. I knew what he meant.
He ran into an old friend who was on a break from cooking in one of the trucks. “I can’t believe how big food trucks got,” his friend repeated. They spoke about how both of their families started operating food trucks years earlier and at their astonishment how these catering trucks have emerged as the latest craze when, for their families, it was just a way to make money.
My husband’s family has owned and operated a food truck for 15 years. The operation continues to this day. The truck itself isn’t impressive—it’s white, with blue sky windows, old worn seats and a plain aluminum interior—but that truck helped at least three kids through college, paid down payments on homes and cars, supported a daughter and her family in Vietnam and immigrated them to America, and much more. It’s the little truck that could.
My father in law started the business after working on a truck himself. He and my mother in law saw the potential and purchased a truck and route, which traversed the Bellevue area, feeding truck drivers and factory workers. The work was and is tough. Operators wake up before sunrise, stock their truck with supplies and food, cook continuously throughout the day in cramped and overheated spaces, oftentimes while the truck is moving to its next site. Trucks are usually staffed by a cook and a driver, who doubles as a cashier. It’s physical and hard work, but some operators become friends with their regular customers in relationships that last years.
They eventually sold that Bellevue route and truck and invested in a new vehicle, creating an entirely new route in the south King County and north Pierce County area—servicing Safeway warehouse workers, manufacturers and factory workers whose facilities offer no other lunch option other than a vending machine, if they’re lucky. Over time, my mother in law took over the truck operation. She’s a great cook and in no time, lines started forming before the truck would even arrive to the site. She prepared a variety of favorites for a low flat rate: tacos, fried rice, teriyaki chicken, sandwiches, egg rolls—whatever sells—and everything does.
They’ve operated the truck, called On-the-Go Catering, for over 15 years and my husband’s mom said she’d retire soon for the last half of those years. She’s surprised by the popularity of food trucks. For her, it was practical. People need to eat and where they work, there isn’t food. So they provide a simple and honest service.
Many large grocery chains started as food truck services—Uwajimaya and Viet Wah both started as food trucks to feed people who wanted their own cultural food that wasn’t available any where else. It gave them a sense of home, culture and community. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of food trucks today. But for those in the trucks, it’s a lifeline for their families and their road to the American Dream—in a little truck that could.