It’s nearly impossible to walk down a New York City Street and avoid food trucks. It’s not just the Big Apple, these mobile restaurants can now be found across the country.
And they’re totally hip. You can even go to food truck festivals, with cash awards and accolades given to the best vendors.
But how do you know which ones are worth trying, and are they actually safe?
The History of Food Trucks
Food trucks are street vendors that sell fast bites like tacos, sandwiches, and fries. According to Zippia.com, the industry has grown about 12.1% annually since 2016. The number of businesses quadrupled from 2011 to 2021. It’s no wonder the industry has done its part in creating more jobs.
A food truck’s success depends mainly on location. College towns are hotspots. More specifically, streets with bars, clubs, and sports venues. Vendors often use Twitter to update their followers on where they’re parked.
Where It All Began
The nation’s first food trucks date back to the late 1600s when many people lived without full kitchens and couldn’t avoid eating out. As settlers started migrating out west, the wagons went with them. New Amsterdam, later called New York City, began regulating street vendors in 1691.
The chuckwagon gained ground in the mid-1800s, serving up easy-to-preserve food. Later, they added shelves to horse-drawn wagons with cooking utensils and water barrels. The concept expanded in the early 1900s when motorized box trucks arrived. Now there was room for refrigeration and a grill!
By the 1950s, you couldn’t walk down the street in the summer without spotting an ice cream van. College campuses became popular destinations for sausage vendors, burger stands, and taco trucks.
Modern Food Trucks
Although various iterations of the lunch wagon came and went, things really took off around 2008. La’s Kogi BBQ holds the status as being the start of modern-day food trucks. Owner Roy Choi’s Asian fusion started a trend, and now anything goes.
More importantly, his timing couldn’t be better. Americans were enduring the great recession and were broke. Buying a cheap food truck gave laid-off chefs a way out. And hungry patrons a cheap meal on the go. Social media and smartphones made self-marketing simple.
When The Great Food Truck race aired in 2010, we knew the trend was here to stay.
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Shady Facts Food Trucks Don’t Want You To Know
With all the fun history behind them, it can be easy to forget that there’s a downside. The convenience can’t be beaten. But when it comes to food safety and workplace hygiene, they’re not the best. Here are some reasons you might want to avoid food trucks:
#1 Food Storage
Proper storage is critical to keeping food safe for consumption. This means refrigerated items must be stored at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, hot food must be held at 140 degrees. And raw meat cannot cross-contaminate with anything. Raw chicken can’t be stacked on raw beef, for example.
Improper food storage is a welcome invitation for bacteria like salmonella, campylobacter, and more. And chefs short on space are notorious for cutting corners. Take a good look around before you order. No one wants to eat a sandwich only to have it come back up two hours later.
#2 You Don’t Know What You’re Eating
Food trucks can be heavenly when you’re starving at a music festival. But they can also be life-threatening for folks with food allergies. Many cities don’t require them to post ingredients.
Keeping surfaces clear of any cross-contamination is hard for anyone in a tiny kitchen. Even worse, some servers may not know that some food allergies can be deadly. Without city health inspectors around, high standards of food education go out the window. That means Allergy sufferers are better off avoiding food trucks.
#3 Health Inspections (and Ratings)
All food trucks are subject to city health inspections. But unlike brick-and-mortar restaurants, inspectors make an appointment. And they happen less often. Since owners have time to prepare for health officials, poor workspace hygiene isn’t as easily detected.
In addition, some states don’t require street food vendors to display health inspection grades. But you can ask to see their license to operate. If you see a grade displayed, avoid any food trucks that scored below an A.
#4 Truck Cleanliness
Where do we start? How about we take a look at what the attendants are wearing? Do you see any gloves or hairnets? According to the New York City Health Department, hair should always be covered. And food must be prepped with a barrier between the worker’s hands and all items.
How many times have you seen a truck vendor wearing latex gloves? Probably not very often. Even when they are, you can watch them handle cash without changing to a clean pair.
In addition, small workspaces can lead to all kinds of issues. Food trucks must have at least two sinks. Three is even better. Employees must wash their hands in a separate basin from one for dishes or food prep.
#5 Bad Food Reviews
Nowadays, it’s easy to find reviews on sites like Yelp and online magazines like TimeOut. With the eclectic array of modern menus, it’s likely that some bad reviews merely indicate the reviewer’s taste. But if someone says they saw a roach, it’s game over.
They don’t call them “roach coaches” for nothing! Although the nickname originated from vendors at construction sites, even the trendiest spots can have bugs. It’s best to avoid places with multiple poor reviews, even if it looks clean. Chances are, the chef’s making too many mistakes behind the grill.
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Avoid Sketchy Food Trucks
Food trucks are fun. We’re not suggesting that you never try food from one. But we think you should know what to look out for. If you have friends who regularly frequent a local spot, it’s probably serving up quality chow. Especially if it’s been around for more than three years.
But there are loads of reasons to avoid street food. We’ve only scratched the countertop of issues. You can judge which ones to pass up now that you know what to look for.
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