Food on four wheels: how food trucks have become an exercise in design

What does it take to build a food truck, and to what extent should the truck’s design be taken into consideration? Caution: extreme levels of hunger may be experienced – we strongly advise keeping emergency snacks close by.

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They say we eat with our eyes first, but that doesn’t have to stop at the food itself. One doesn’t have to look far to find an Instagrammable eatery these days. It seems like people everywhere are on a mission to find the sexiest or coolest looking restaurants, whether it’s the overbearingness of Sketch in London, to the steely industrial bareness of any gentrified exposed-brick cafe. Even the rise of the term “Instagrammable” – to lure readers to city guides – is evidence enough of how much people value aesthetics when it comes to choosing where to eat. But there is a different kind of satisfaction in scouting out for your food on the move, especially via a food truck.

In 2019 the term “street food” hit a ten-year peak in online search results. In fact, the UK street food market has grown faster than the fast food industry; in 2018 it was worth £1.2 billion, and a quarter of Brits say they eat at a street vendor at least once a month in search of “authenticity”. What is a fairly novel trade over in the UK and US, though, has been the standard elsewhere in the world. The Middle East, Latin America and East Asia are perhaps the best examples of this. Their street food markets aren’t as “artisanal” and expensive as Borough Market, and the food is so much better. In order to mimic the authenticity of this street life with “street food”, food trucks have become a driving force (pardon the pun) in entrepreneurship.

A food truck also raises an interesting design brief. As they’re a little harder to pin down, their design needs to not only be eye-catching and inviting, but they need to immediately inform passers-by of exactly what they’re selling, lest they risk losing customers. From bright flashing signs to funky colour combinations, food trucks around the world are showing how the vehicle might be one of the most interesting intersections of food and design, and why the food truck is about more than just satisfying your belly.

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

It’s harder to know exactly when the food truck started to become such a craze, but one particular truck, and its design, has been so commonplace on our street corners we don’t give it much thought: the ice cream van. With a somewhat ominous but infinitely joyful tinny tune playing down cul-de-sacs, ice cream trucks soundtracked our childhoods and have been key to our collective visual and creative imaginations. Running from your garden to the street to pick up a 99p Flake – now probably sold for about £7.50 somewhere – to be greeted with a gorgeously kitschy pink and cream van with a chubby typeface and plastic ice creams latched on. (Contrary to what you’ve heard, Margaret Thatcher did not help invent soft-serve ice cream.) Founded in Birmingham in 1958, the colour scheme was adopted to emanate the creamy deliciousness of its goods topped in sprinkles or sauces, now perhaps the most familiar of food trucks.

Across the pond, in Cincinnati to be exact, drives around a food truck that similarly harks back to the joy of our childhood, and a certain favourite furry friend. A few years back, during his cousin’s wedding rehearsal dinner, local food truck founder Ben McCoy overheard his cousin Jordan tell his mother about his dream job; starting a food truck serving poutine, the Canadian French fry dish. “Most people spend the first several months doing research, making the menu, and developing a business plan. But our first move was just to buy the truck.” The Poutine Machine food truck began as a joint venture between Ben’s family – his mum, his two brothers and him – Jordan, and Jordan’s parents, Jamie and Doug.

“The moment he pulled the finished truck out of his garage, my heart exploded with joy. I knew we had a hit on our hands.”

Ben McCoy, founder of The Poutine Machine

The Poutine Machine, hilariously, is dressed up as Scooby-Doo and the gang’s iconic Mystery Machine, merging two of the best things: cartoons and comfort food. “At first I wasn’t even sure I was gonna go with the Mystery Machine look,” Ben tells It’s Nice That. “My first design incorporated the skyline of our hometown, Cincinnati, where all the skyscrapers were actually french fries.” But lingering at the back of Ben’s mind was a vision of the Mystery Machine driving down the road. “Oh, how people would love that!” he recalls thinking. “So, even though Scooby-Doo has nothing to do with poutine, I set about designing a logo and a truck based on the Mystery Machine.”

When drawing the logo by hand, and writing out the letters of “Poutine Machine” in the same “groovy” font as the Scooby-Doo van, Ben noticed that the words “Mystery Machine” appear on the original van within the boundaries of a rounded, green square with squiggly lines. “I thought it might be clever to incorporate this shape into the logo, but instead of a rounded square, it would resemble a food truck,” Ben tells us. “I also noticed that when stacking the words ‘Poutine’ and ‘Machine’, the ‘I’s’ line up perfectly. It dawned on me that the two ‘I’s’ could be replaced with one long french fry.” (If only everything in life could be replaced with one long french fry.) Following the logo’s development by hand it was then sent over to Ben’s buddy Dave, “a master at Photoshop”. Final touches were added by turning the traditional daisies adorning the Mystery Machine to maple leaves, to pay “homage to the Canadian heritage of poutine,” he adds. All was brought together with the helping hand of another friend, Justin, who “just so happens to work at a sign shop and had just recently started dabbling in wrapping vehicles in vinyl,” adds Ben. “The moment he pulled the finished truck out of his garage, my heart exploded with joy. I knew we had a hit on our hands.”

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

If a food truck’s purpose is to serve food, one wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why its design is so important to the community’s attachment to it. But Ben rightly states that he wants people to enjoy the experience of eating The Poutine Machine’s food, “and the design of the truck is an extension of that,” he says. “Every time I drive the truck, I see flashes of light crackling out of iPhones as people take pictures... I see smiling faces and friendly waves from the people that walk by. Even for people who don’t eat our food, our truck is a popular photo opportunity at fairs and rallies.” Poutine, fries healthily doused in cheese and gravy, is a comfort food, and Ben and his truck team wanted the vehicle to reflect that. “The design of The Poutine Machine is comforting because it’s nostalgic. Almost everyone remembers the Mystery Machine, both adults and kids. So the design of the truck encapsulates everything we wanted our business to be: a family-friendly comfort food boutique that specialises in delighting customers.”

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

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The Poutine Machine (Copyright © The Poutine Machine, 2021)

Although it’s surely getting your tummy rumbling reading about it, the name “poutine” isn’t instantly recognisable, and certainly wasn’t a well-known food when Ben and his team were setting up shop. “We knew starting out that people wouldn’t be clamoring to go check out the poutine truck. And the reality is, some types of food will always be more popular than others. In the food truck world, burgers, wraps, and tacos are king,” says Ben. To overcome this little caveat for the new business, the eccentricity of his truck’s design meant that it didn’t matter if they were 20 trucks deep at an event and surrounded by more popular types of food, “people always came to check us out, even if it was just to get a better look at the ‘Scooby Doo truck’.”

“We have such a huge portfolio now, largely because people like the way we look. But of course, the most important thing is the food.”

Florian (Flo) Rohrmoser, of Heisser Hobel
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Antojitos (Copyright © Antojitos, 2021)

On the other side of the world, another food truck owner needed to employ a similar tactic. On his trip to Goa, British-Indian photographer Jai Toor, stumbled upon Antojitos, a little food van serving up messy and delicious bites on the side of the road. Jai says he’d heard from a few local friends of a food truck that did unbelievable burgers and hot dogs. “First, the colour scheme that covered the truck was incredible, the vibrant blue and red made it a great contrast from the main road it was placed on.” In a vibrant city like Goa, Jai says you have to stand out – “especially if you’re a food truck.” Also in a location where the food will inevitably be incredible wherever you go, design might not be such a key factor in attracting people to your stall, as Jai admits it’s the food that had him going back to Antojitos. But the difference of Antojitos’ design to the majority of the food vendors in the area, thinks Jai, is what helps it attract more people to discover it. “The truck is situated along a green park where local residents go for a walk around sunset and then enjoy the evening with a juicy burger. The setting blends well with the truck’s design.”

Steve Dias, the owner of Antojitos, says that he and his chef friend Elvis began the truck venture with the aim to get gourmet food to the streets. “We have travelled and have experienced the food scene in different countries and were quite impressed, and thought it would be a good idea to get stuff out to the locals at an affordable price.” Having seen various food truck designs across the internet, and having travelled across the state of Goa for inspiration, the two settled with their current design after they had finalised their menu. The visuals therefore take heavy inspiration from the food itself. “The flavours and the freshness were the two aspects that we looked to highlight through the design of the truck,” Steve explains of the appetising contrast of colours. All of the drawings for the truck are designed in-house too, “as we were bootstrapped,” adds Steve. Other than taking cues from the food itself, the earthy tones of the truck seem to echo the sustainable nature of the venture: “We try to be as green as possible and are powered by solar rather than a Genset, which is fairly popular on this side of the globe. All our cutlery and crockery is biodegradable,” Steve outlines. Yet the design of the truck, claims Steve, is just as important as any other aspect of the van’s business, because people still recognise the truck wherever the team goes after five years on the road.

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Heisser Hobel (Copyright © Heisser Hobel, 2021)

As with Ben’s Poutine Machine, a little van in Berlin wants to ooze comfort, this time by recreating grandma’s kitchen on the road. “Our food is a real traditional dish from southern Germany which you eat at home, at grandma’s,” say Myriam (Mimi) Touka and Florian (Flo) Rohrmoser of Heisser Hobel, one of the first food trucks in Germany.

Mimi and Flo are somewhat of a revolutionary couple in Germany. At the time of founding, “there were standard big white vans selling kebabs and chicken, but the street food movement with stylish food trucks didn’t exist, so it was useful to get into big events,” Flo tells It’s Nice That. Heisser Hobel gained traction on the scene because the truck, simply, looked good. “We have such a huge portfolio now, largely because people like the way we look. But of course, the most important thing is the food.” Flo is almost recreating his childhood by serving the traditional Bavarian dish out of a van to passers by. As a child, Flo worked at German Christmas markets selling a “Bavarian version of mac and cheese” – the dish consists of fresh noodles, two different types of cheese, which Flo sourced from his own family’s organic cheese dairy. It’s finally topped with black pepper, fried onions and fresh chives. Yum.

“The ones who look big and impressive but sell shitty food never keep their customers past the first day.”

Florian (Flo) Rohrmoser, of Heisser Hobel

In terms of design, on the outside Heisser Hobel is stylish, but the inside is homey and cosy – without forgetting about a professional kitchen which is functional and clean. The design of the truck may look minimalistic, but it’s undertones are surprisingly political and drenched in history. “We only do one dish so we didn’t want a big truck, like the American ones,” claims Flo, while Mimi wanted the truck to be connected to Berlin, a city with a long history of political separation. “The GDR played a big role here, so one day Mimi found a caravan from the GDR: it was perfect in size.” In turn, by using an old GDR van and serving Western food out of it, Flo and Mimi were combining West and East. Mimi, who has a background in interior design “knows some stuff!” according to her partner, and took charge in choosing the colour palette: “She’s the one that has the eye for the beautiful things, I’m the one that cooks.” The design of the van has become somewhat iconic in Germany’s capital, with the van even getting its own book and keychain. The logo features a cow and a cheese grater – a nod to the heavy dairy content of the dish (to the dismay of lactose intolerants like myself). As for its type, the combination of its bold lettering in a deep maroon sits in sharp contrast to the cream background, meaning it’s easy to read and eye-catching for passersby.

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Heisser Hobel (Copyright © Heisser Hobel, 2021)

Yet being the first of anything has both its benefits and grievances. “After we started, the same van kept popping up like mushrooms everywhere around Berlin! I don’t want to say we were trendsetters but…” admits Flo, “in the beginning, I was angry.” However, the founder reminisces that this mentality was “bullshit.” In the end, he and Mimi are proud of what they’d achieved: they had a good idea. “What’s really funny is that every year we go to the biggest festivals and we’re the smallest van. The people who are really drunk, or really high, go to the bigger stands on the first day but by the second day, we get the biggest queues. The ones who look big and impressive but sell shitty food never keep their customers past the first day.” And it’s not easy working in a small truck with a busy team serving the hungry masses. “When we work, we work really hard,” Flo tells us. “It’s really hot inside, especially in the summer. It’s a physically strenuous job. We don’t have a lot of breaks, it's three or four days a week, 18 hours a day.” However, the lows of the job are coupled with pretty neat highs. In the autumn and winter when festivals and outdoor events are few and far between, Flo and Mimi have a lot of free time. “We choose the events, and we have a lot of demand, so we can decide how much we work. It’s also a bit of a party when we work. I’m 40 years old now, so I’m looking forward to working fewer events. I’m too old for that shit now.” Looking to the future the dream is to open up a restaurant where the two can interact with, and grow, their community even more.

“Ironically while every other business struggled during Covid, most food trucks were actually thriving.”

Ben McCoy, founder of The Poutine Machine

The past 18 months have of course meant our roads have been quieter for food trucks during lockdowns, however. “Staying in business during Covid has definitely been an interesting experience,” explains Ben of The Poutine Machine. “That was a very weird time for everybody.” Yet while the hospitality industry was hit hard during the pandemic, interestingly food trucks couldn’t chime in with this sentiment, finding that serving their community meant they were able to keep themselves afloat, whilst offering light relief during a collective dark period. “Some of the food trucks found success operating as a neighborhood pop up, essentially parking at a pool or community centre and serving the surrounding houses. This idea caught on quickly, as everyone was sick of being stuck at home and cooking for themselves,” explains Ben. Soon, The Poutine Machine was driving around three to four neighbourhoods per week, “and it was the busiest we had ever been up to that point; we doubled our sales from the previous year.” Ben explains that the neighbourhood pop up business lasted after lockdown restrictions were lifted too, due to how simple yet satisfying the food venture is. “So, ironically while every other business struggled during Covid, most food trucks were actually thriving.”

But ultimately, Ben wants just the same thing as Flo and Mimi over in Berlin; a bricks-and-mortar restaurant to welcome his community into. “We have a small but very dedicated fan base,” says the owner of The Poutine Machine, “and we owe everything to their support.” For instance, Ben and his team have started to recognise customers who come to see them often, or the ones who comment on their Facebook posts and share pictures on Instagram. “We learned their names and little things about them, and when they come to see us, it’s like seeing a friend.” Ben describes having a fan base like this “touching,” and it’s no wonder. The amount of strenuous perseverance needed to not only start a food truck, but keep it running smoothly and successfully is no walk, or drive, in the park.

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia joined It’s Nice That as a news writer in July 2021 after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. She's written for various indie publications such as Azeema and Notion, and ran her own magazine and newsletter platforming marginalised creativity.

dad@itsnicethat.com

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