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When Twitter met food trucks

Cities like New York and LA are witness to a rise in the number and quality of roving trucks offering victuals from tacos to waffles--and sounding off via Twitter.

Old school meets new school: Mister Softee and the Mud Truck. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

NEW YORK--Goat cheese is the new black. Introducing goat cheese cheesecake, asserted the Twitter account for a Manhattan food outlet called the Dessert Truck one morning in April, a few hours before it opened up shop at its semi-regular haunt on the corner of St. Mark's Place and Third Avenue.

The Dessert Truck is usually in good company. Walk out of the Astor Place subway station into Cooper Square, the gateway to the St. Mark's and Bowery nightlife strips, and depending on the time of day you can buy a cup of coffee, an order of Thai chicken, a Belgian waffle drowning in whipped cream, or a cone of local-ingredients-only ice cream--or, for that matter, goat cheese cheesecake--without ever setting foot inside a storefront. If you ask whether you'll find them there the next day, your server will likely tell you to keep tabs on the truck's Twitter account.

Cooper Square is a local hot spot for gourmet food trucks, a phenomenon that's been making headlines in cities like New York and Los Angeles for about two years now. And more recently, these roving food outlets found a promotional niche on the Web thanks to the rise of Twitter, which lets them broadcast their changing location, advertise deals, and keep up a customer base. It fits: were there a culinary embodiment of short-and-sweet Twitter, it would be the food truck, mobile and ultra-niche and in the midst of broad yuppie popularity that some say will be a lasting cult following and some are still pegging as a fad. Plus, at least in certain U.S. cities, they're pretty much unavoidable.

Kogi verde is coming to Koreatown! Wilshire and Ardmore! @ 11.45. Bring it! announced the Twitter account for Kogi BBQ, a Los Angeles purveyor of Korean barbecue tacos, Thursday night. The first Kogi BBQ truck (and accompanying Twitter account, which now has more than 20,000 followers) debuted in November, and the company is now about to increase its numbers from two to four trucks. Each Kogi truck regularly experiences hundreds of customers per night and sometimes even runs out of tacos.

"People search for it," said Alice Shin, Kogi BBQ's in-house blogger and Twitterer. "It's kind of like a treasure hunt for them."

Once restricted to hot dogs of questionable quality hawked on busy city corners and to Mister Softee ice cream vans drifting sleepily down tree-lined suburban streets, food trucks have ventured into yuppie culture. In New York you can go to the taxicab-yellow Wafels and Dinges truck and spend $7 for a "WMD" or "Wafel of Mass Deliciousness," a chewy Belgian waffle piled with as many confectionary toppings as you could possibly want. The cream-colored Van Leeuwen Ice Cream truck will serve you flavors like ginger and red currant, donating part of the proceeds to a nonprofit that supports endangered mountain gorillas. The Rickshaw truck sells Asian-inspired dumplings. Somewhere in the city there's even an Anarchist Ice Cream Truck that hands out political pamphlets.

In Los Angeles, the Cool Haus truck sells wacky ice cream sandwiches, and the Heartschallenger truck will hand out music samplers. Portland, Ore., is about to get its own Korean taco truck, called Koi Fusion, and hundreds of people are already tracking it on Twitter. This week, San Francisco is slated to get a new food truck of its own when French restaurant Chez Spencer unleashes a Twittering vehicle that sells, among other things, frog legs on-the-go.

Not every gourmet food truck uses Twitter. But for the ones that do, the microblogging service is usually an integral part of their nascent success stories.

"Twitter first had a practical purpose of telling people where we were. They'd call us 'the elusive waffle truck' because we'd show up, and the next day we'd be gone, and nobody knew where we were."
--Thomas DeGeest, founder, Wafels and Dinges

"Twitter first had a practical purpose of telling people where we were," said Wafels and Dinges founder Thomas DeGeest. The waffle vendor's Twitter account now has more than 1,200 followers. "They'd call us 'the elusive waffle truck' because we'd show up, and the next day we'd be gone, and nobody knew where we were." DeGeest, who specialized in social-networking consulting at IBM for years, bought a 1968-vintage hot dog truck two years ago, and spent three months turning it into the Wafels and Dinges truck. He began to use Twitter about a year later.

"Sometimes we have a secret password, or sometimes we have a challenge," DeGeest said. "One of my guys came up with a challenge earlier this week to come and do an impersonation of a peacock." The reward is typically a free topping (or "dinges," the Belgian term for it), and DeGeest said that yes, people actually show up and do it.

Wafels and Dinges typically makes two stops each day: one in a business district during the workday, usually in midtown or outside the New York Life Insurance building on Park Avenue South, and one in a shopping district like SoHo or Union Square. The responses to Twitter challenges and "secret passwords," DeGeest said, are much more likely to come during the workday.

"Something we see that with the office locations is that people are spending their days behind the computer, and we get more response to the Twitterers," he explained. "I don't have numbers, but I don't think a lot of our customers are mobile Twitterers. I think from what I see, most of them must be onscreen."

Kogi BBQ's Shin also testified to the benefits of Twitter to boost business.

"When we went to the UCLA restaurant industry conference, nobody knew we were going to be there or where we were going to park that day," Shin said. "I Twittered that we were there at the hotel, and within two minutes it was kind of like 'Night of the Living Dead' when you see zombies. I saw all these people walking out of buildings toward the truck, and they were all looking at their phones and was sort of both cool and creepy."

Marketing in the Digital Age
Both Twitter and the food truck craze are, in a sense, testaments to the mobility and spontaneity enabled by the Digital Age. And ultimately, they also may have their best niche as marketing vehicles (no pun intended) rather than standalone businesses.

The Mud Trucks, for example, are a small fleet of brazen orange vehicles known for parking conspicuously right outside Starbucks outlets in downtown Manhattan. They've long had a physical storefront among the vintage boutiques of Ninth Street in the East Village. The Rickshaw dumpling truck, on the converse, has always been a mobile outpost of a mini-chain of dumpling shops. Van Leeuwen ice cream, meanwhile, is now sold in Whole Foods supermarkets, and Wafels and Dinges may be doing something similar soon.

"My strategy is not to build an empire of food trucks," DeGeest said. "I have actually retail products that I put on the market too...prepackaged waffles to sell in stores, and I'm looking at bringing a waffle mix on the market that allows people to make waffles that are very close to our original Belgian waffles at home."

The Wafels and Dinges truck, ultimately, is "kind of like an In-N-Out Burger trailer, which is the biggest thing you can have at your party in L.A," DeGeest said.

Some of this may be connected to a problem that will sound all too familiar to Twitter experts: It's cheap and easy, relatively speaking, to launch a food truck business, but profitability becomes less of a guarantee when food trucks are at the mercy of community boards and municipal legislators.

"It's a lot easier to find a loophole and start a truck or a pop-up restaurant than an actual restaurant," said Paolo Lucchesi, San Francisco editor at restaurant blog network Eater. "Whether it's sustainable, that's yet to be seen, but in terms of starting a new project, there's a lot of things that you go around when you have a truck."

Some business owners in Sheridan Square, a quaint pocket of Greenwich Village dotted with retail storefronts and a small park, lobbied to restrict the presence of food trucks that could potentially undercut their rent-paying businesses. The bright orange Mud Truck has been temporarily booted from Sheridan Square at the request of none other than the local Starbucks.

In perhaps the most bizarre of these such incidents, a community message board for residents of northern Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood was a aflutter earlier this spring with complaints about a noisy ice cream truck playing its familiar jingle late on a weekend night: as one resident put it, "At this late hour this time of year I wonder if the truck is selling more than ice cream."

For food truck owners, dealing with both growth and complications can involve looking into more advanced and creative ways to use technology. Something you'll probably see soon, at least with some of the trucks, is a way to track them on a map using GPS.

"I'm actually talking to Sprint about (GPS tracking), and it's going to happen," DeGeest said. "We have a new truck coming out soon, our second truck. The second truck is coming out because I really thought that the '68 was going to die. It was in such bad shape that I finally bit the bullet and spent the money to put in a new transmission."

But he doesn't plan to give up on Twitter, the technology that really fueled the mobile food craze in the first place. "I don't think you can eliminate Twitter," DeGeest said. "You kind of maintain a dialogue with your customer. GPS can never do that for you."

Last Friday evening as the sun set, the Dessert Truck was opening up in its usual Cooper Square spot, goat cheese cheesecake still on the menu, as the Mud Truck shuttered its coffee sales for the day a block away. The Wafels and Dinges truck announced that it would be parked for the evening right off Washington Square Park, a stone's throw from the rowdy West Village watering holes frequented by college students who've just rolled into town for summer internships.

But if they're new to the city, they probably don't know yet that on this given night they can earn a free topping by telling the waffle vendor who their top three favorite fictional villains are.