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Twitter, truck 'ghettos' and consumer behavior


Would trucks like Fry Captain draw even more patrons if they were parked in a dedicated lot? (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In the battle between brick-and-mortar restaurants and the District’s mobile, tweeting food trucks, one suggestion caught my attention: a dedicated lot where the food trucks could park. The eaterati immediately denounced the idea. Linking to an item on Washingtonian's blog, Raphael Brion at Eater wrote, “Like a food truck ghetto?” You could practically hear the indignation as he typed.

I don’t like the idea of over-regulating the boisterous food-truck culture, and I hope the City Council approves new rules that help the mobile operations keep on truckin’. But to dismiss the idea of such a lot as anathema to the concept of food trucks ignores the fact that such “ghettos” have been at the center of some cities’ absolutely dynamic street-grub scenes.

Most famously, there are the hawker centers in Singapore, the setting of "Top Chef: D.C."'s recent part-one finale and the inspiration behind chef Charles Phan’s plan for something similar in San Francisco. In Austin, some carts collect in dirt lots along South Congress. But the best example stateside would have to be Portland, Ore., where more than 300 carts park in several “pods” downtown, and eaters line up for Bosnian pita, vegan rice bowls, burgers whose “buns” are actually little grilled-cheese sandwiches, even some fantastic espresso.

When I visited Portland in the spring, I relied on FoodCartsPortland.com and Willamette Week to show me where the pods were. But I didn’t need to seek out a particular vendor. I could just stroll around and weigh the options firsthand. That’s a stark difference from the scene I’ve experienced in Washington, especially when researching my taste-around of 13 of the newest trucks. Here, I’ve had to depend on Twitter (or aggregators like The Post’s) to track the progress of individual trucks in my lunch pursuits. (Will Fry Captain be at Franklin Square today or L’Enfant Plaza? Has Curbside Cupcakes already moved on to Metro Center?)

I certainly have gotten a charge out of it, as have others, but why? It’s something that Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely explained as the “scarcity” principle.

“If you have a truck that’s always in the same place, it’s not that exciting,” said Ariely, whose latest book is “The Upside of Irrationality.” “But if it’s not always there, once you find it, you get a feeling that you’ve triumphed in some way, that you’ve achieved something. That you’re in the know.”

Moreover, he told me in a phone interview, the Twitter connection means that when you follow a truck, virtually and then literally, “there’s a good chance you’ll meet your friends there.”

I remembered from my college psychology courses that the strongest form of reinforcement is random positive, and Ariely agreed. He thinks the idea applies to the tweeting trucks. The principle is based on experiments showing that when a rat hits a lever and gets food as a reward, its motivation to hit the switch increases when the connection between its action and the food is random: Sometimes it comes after 10 presses; sometimes after 200. Once the reinforcement is strong, “even when you take the food away, they keep pressing for a really long time.”

That might explain why I can’t stop thinking about the Mexicali fish tacos from Sauca. Or perhaps it’s just because they’re excellent. Maybe I have overdosed on the Twitter chase, but I have found myself longing for the day when I can ask a colleague, “Feel like street food today?” rather than, “Should we try to find the lobster truck?” I have found myself longing for Portland.

As Brett Burmeister, co-owner of FoodCartsPortland.com, sees it, the pods in his city have allowed the city’s street-food scene to develop critical mass, making them destination dining. “There’s power in numbers,” he told me in a phone interview. That means that a pod with, say, 15 carts may include a few that are “superstars,” and have very long lines, which benefits nearby carts when eaters arrive who don’t feel like waiting as long. “So it forces people to try new things. And it helps the carts that may not have been showcased in the New York Times or Bon Appetit but still have really good food.”

In other words, a rising tide lifts all carts.

The pods developed organically over the past 10 years or so, Burmeister said, as the owner of private surface lots downtown realized that letting a cart or two park there – and charging hundreds of dollars a month for the rent – made good business sense. As those carts did well, more followed, and the snowballing has become a 50 percent increase in food carts in just two years.

The new model, he said, is more focused: Developers specifically turn an empty lot or field into a food cart pod, bringing in power, a structure to cover the dumpster, awnings and picnic tables, and then the carts. Last year, one called Mississippi Marketplace opened with an anchor tenant, a brick-and-mortar bar that lets patrons grab food from one of the carts and bring it inside to eat.

That sounds like something I could get used to. And it makes sense to professor Ariely that such setups exert their own psychological pull on consumers.

“If you’re a follower of a truck, you’re a follower of a truck, and you go wherever they are,” he said. “But if you are merely hungry, the question is, where do you go? If trucks are next to each other they’re much more likely to be top of mind as a destination. And they all benefit, as a whole.”

In downtown Washington, I’m not sure exactly where such a “pod” would best be located, but the first place that came to mind was the 11th Street NW lot near the Convention Center where the “art walk” crosses Astroturf and the buses to and from New York City line up for passengers. Turns out that lot is scheduled for development as CityCenterDC. In the meantime, it will host the 2010 Curbside Cookoff on Oct. 7 and 8.

Couldn’t the owners let gatherings of trucks assemble there regularly? That’s what's happening at a lot on the Southwest waterfront, where developers are planning a $1.5 billion project. For now, they are arranging seasonal attractions that include a food-truck roundup on Fridays.

Sounds like a ghetto to me. And a delicious one at that.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  | September 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Tags:  Joe Yonan  
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Comments

A designated food truck lot would completely eliminate the main advantage of a food truck, that it can go anywhere. The primary benefit in my opinion is that they go to the people rather than make the people come to them. I am much more likely to try something new from a food truck that parks a block from my office once a week, than if I had to travel to a food truck lot. If the trucks were not allowed to operate throughout DC I am sure a lot of people would go back to their Cosi/Au Bon Pain/fast food routine.

Posted by: SweetieJ | September 29, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, SJ -- I wouldn't want the trucks to be restricted from moving around, but why couldn't we have both? A lot (or more) that a collection of trucks park in, but with other trucks motoring?

Posted by: Joe Yonan | September 29, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I live in Portland and am so thankful for the food cart pods! A roving food cart would drive me batty. I don't have enough time at lunch to go hunt down a travelling cart. Plus, the food cart pods transform an abandoned lot into a vibrant food scene. It's pretty awesome to see.

Posted by: lauraparisi | September 29, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

In Austin, we have completely mobile food trucks as well as several "food truck ghettos". While it is fun to track a favorite truck down via Tweets and other social media postings, it is ultra convenient when others are in the same lot every day. Great food is great food, whether I'm chasing it down or pulling into a dirt lot & parking.

Posted by: ATXFoodnews | September 29, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I moved from Portland to DC almost a year ago... I miss the 'pods' every day.

Posted by: emily771 | September 29, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I lived in DC (Capitol Hill) for 16 years before moving to Portland in 2006 and can confirm the food scene here is fantastic. Whether mobile or fixed-location, the cart owners have a single-minded passion for innovation and flavor that has to be experienced to be believed. With the growing competition (new pods/carts are opening every day), they really have to stay on top of their game...and they do. Every day is another chance to try a new cart for breakfast lunch or dinner.

Posted by: chaunceyc | September 29, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I am a DC-born Portlander and can't tell you how incredible the food cart scene and the pods are here. Carting has become a new dining choice when we run down our list of restaurant options. DC may be a bit too high-brow for the bohemian style our pods exude; but that's why we say, Keep Portland Weird. They aren't food truck Ghettos...they are little eclectic clusters of culinary heaven.

Posted by: pdxagent99 | September 29, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Count me in as another former DC-er now in Portland LOVING the food cart scene. Before moving to pdx, I was very skeptical of food from a truck, but some of the most innovative, tasty, and reasonably priced food I have had in Portland has come from a truck in a pod. There is a developing pod across from my office (about 6 carts so far), a pod of about 20 trucks 2 blocks from my office, and another pod of about 20 carts 4 blocks from my office. The variety and quality within such a short distance is amazing. Are they all great? Of course not. But where else can you get gnocchi for $6, a thai combo (with drink) for $5 or vegan hand-rolled oatmeal with agave nectar and seasonal fruit for $4.50 within 20 feet of each other? We have an oatmeal cart!!! What's not to like about that?

Posted by: annaroe | September 29, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

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