By Anneliese Klainbaum

It takes much more than culinary craft and social media savvy to succeed in the food truck industry. An academic study on food truck owners as entrepreneurs found that a collaborative community is one of the strongest influences that has helped to establish the sector as a legitimate new market in the culinary field, says the author of the study, Laura Pohopien, professor of business and hospitality management at Azusa Pacific University and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

“What was very telling throughout my research and observation was that these people work together a lot. More than I had ever thought or had ever personally experienced in the hospitality industry,” says Pohopien, who spent two years interviewing and observing food truck entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties of Southern California in one of the first studies of its kind.

“We believe entrepreneurs to be these lone wolves—on their own, rogue, and maverick,” she says. “These owners were not that at all. They had many opportunities to work on their own, but they choose to work with other food truck owners in this new, emerging business model.”

The Grilled Cheese Truck

A New Model of Community

Dave Danhi, founder and CCO of The Grilled Cheese Truck, agrees that even though the fine-dining world can be very tight-knit, food truck owners work together much more collaboratively, particularly when it comes to marketing. Food trucks market themselves through social media by marketing other trucks, to draw a crowd and grow their collective reputation as a gourmet option. In turn, customers expand that social media community and drive the viral marketing.

“You just don’t see restaurants promoting other restaurants in the same way,” says Danhi. “Social media is kind of a sub-community [in] what we do.”

While the initial boom in food trucks is widely attributed to recessionary factors, also playing a role is rising interest in the communal aspect of food. “Street food is one thing this country has been sorely missing,” says Danhi, who found inspiration in the food carts of Southeast Asia. The communal aspect of working among other vendors, reaching an underserved market, and being able to socialize with customers who give immediate feedback all prompted him to start his first truck in 2009. He has since expanded to 13 trucks in the Los Angeles area and was one of five owners who took part in Pohopien’s study.

Danhi has taken this collaborative movement a step further, beyond the food truck community, to partner with specialty food purveyors. He encourages local food makers to reach out to food trucks who may be interested in featuring their product, to cross-promote their brands in a grassroots manner.

Food truck collaboration

Collaboration as a Boon for Business

Professional collaboration among a community of competitors is a unique perspective of entrepreneurship. This collaborative style is also found in the winemaking and craft-brewing industries, where companies are working together to promote a style, region, or niche product. It’s been documented in the Japanese auto industry, and more recently has surfaced in crowd-sourcing. Across these collaborative learning environments, commonalities surface. Primarily, Pohopien explains, participants are not afraid to share information and they learn together from their successes and mistakes. They keep an open mind and listen—not just to customers, but also to colleagues and competitors.

In Portland, Ore., where the food truck scene is now a thriving part of the city’s culinary landscape, over 500 food carts are organized in “pods,” groupings of trucks in city lots that have become such a model other cities are exploring. Brett Burmeister, owner and managing editor of Food Carts Portland, says that many vendors have worked together over the years to make the pod model a success by influencing regulation, establishing segment presence, and setting standards that have become the industry benchmark.

The camaraderie Burmeister sees in Portland originally trickled down from the city’s robust fine-dining scene, though now it is well-established within the food truck community. “There are vendors that have become lifelong friends because their carts are parked next to each other,” he says.

By working with food cart owners, Burmeister has learned that finding professional success through collaboration is all about creating a broader community aspect. “Start befriending people in your industry,” he suggests. “Become a participant in the conversation. It’s going to bear fruit one way or another.”

Photos: Anneliese Klainbaum, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Research Chefs Association