Thursday, November 30, 2023

The History of the Modern Food Truck

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)

NATIONWIDE — Food trucks are a booming business, allowing savvy entrepreneurs to take creative cuisine ideas to the streets and for patrons to purchase a meal that they really can’t find anywhere else. It has become engrained in our culture to look for food trucks on city streets and neighborhood lots. But where did it all start?

A Texas chuckwagon circa 1900 (Wikimedia)


Let’s rewind back to 19th century America. The west was being settled and the American icon of the rough and tumble cowboy was born. During that time, these cowboys had to provide their own meals and carry them on these long cattle drives. This sometimes made it difficult to recruit good cowboys to participate in these lengthy drives which herded a great number of cattle.

Charles Goodnight of Texas saw this as a problem and also a great business opportunity. In 1866, he purchased a Studebaker wagon, which was durable army surplus, and converted it into a prototype for a chuckwagon.

The term “chuckwagon” was derived from the slang term for food, “chuck,” and that it would be situated upon a wagon.

Once the prototype was complete, he hired a good cook, outfitted the wagon with steel axels, and added other accoutrements such as drawers, boxes, and shelves. With a Dutch oven and some sour dough bread, the cook was able to serve an entire trail crew. Biscuits and beans were a popular menu staple but, occasionally, dessert would be available. The most common protein found were fried steaks but pot roasts, stew, and short ribs were also served.

A Suffrage lunch wagon circa 1912 (Wikimedia)

Lunch Wagons

In 1872, Walter Scott quit his job selling newspapers. He used his money to buy a horse and a small freight wagon to open the first-ever lunch wagon.

Since freight wagons were designed to carry large amounts of food, Scott could easily store his supplies and food items onto his new wagon. He easily moved from location to location, serving homemade items that are also considered to attribute to the birth of diners.

In 1888, 20-year-old Thomas H. Buckley began building lunch wagons and started the first known lunch wagon train.

A World War I-era mobile canteen (Wikimedia)

Mobile Canteens

World War I added to the continued evolution from chuckwagon to food truck with its mobile canteen. These were set up to deliver to soldiers books, newspapers, refreshments and other items. These coincided with the temperance movement, discouraging the drinking of alcohol.

In World War II, these mobile canteens continued to evolve. Many military branches would fundraise to supply them. In total, eleven canteens were gifted to the Y.M.C.A. and two to the Salvation Army.

By this point, mobile canteens were not only supplying soldiers, but also within British air raid shelters. The canteens continued to discourage alcohol but would offer coffee or tea as well as hot meals. These renamed “Water Wagons” would visit the various shelters throughout the night and morning hours.

Hubert Opperman eating an ice cream from a Peter’s Ice Cream truck circa 1936 (Wikimedia)

The Ice Cream Truck

A summer staple across the country, the ice cream truck really came into its own following World War II.

The company, Mister Softee, was founded in 1956 by two brothers who had specially built refrigerated trucks to sell soft serve ice cream from. The trucks flooded the streets with cold treats and filled the air with familiar tunes like “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin.

While Mister Softee certainly wasn’t the first portable ice cream store, it is definitely the longest lasting, with those familiar jingles still heard in neighborhoods across the country.

An early food truck, this was a popular “roach coach” in Columbus, Ohio (Wikimedia)

The “Roach Coach”

Here we find probably the closest to the modern food truck. “Roach coaches” were mobile kitchens that would set up often at construction sites, fairs, and festivals. They served a lot of staples including tacos, gyros and other favorite indulgences that could be easily cooked on the go.

And why were they called “roach coaches”? This referred to a stereotype that these mobile kitchens were not the most sanitary of cooking situations. However, this gives a bad rap to the many mobile kitchens in which the owners meticulously clean and the health inspections that they go through.

What they did do was bring unique cuisines at affordable prices to large groups who wouldn’t otherwise experience them.

From left to right, Shameka Hopkins, Jeanette Smith, and Jonathan Hopkins. (Courtesy of Funnel Cakes Galore & More)

The Food Truck

From the 1970’s through the early 2000’s, trucks serving unique eats started flooding city streets and parking lots across the United States. In 2004, the Street Vendor Project launched the “Vendy Awards,” which is a competition and celebration of New York City’s food truck scene.

Six years later, the National Restaurant Association dedicated 1,500 square feet of space to a food truck exhibit during its annual convention in Chicago.

Today, food trucks are a staple that we don’t remember knowing what we would do without. They serve customers outside of office buildings, school parking lots, at food truck fairs, sports games, and a number of other venues.

From gyros to tacos to sandwiches and sweets, anything can be found in food trucks across the country.

To find your local food truck favorites, make sure to check with WYDaily each Friday for our local Food Truck Tracker!

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