A new study analyzes the food truck market, but are its conclusions accurate?

Food Trucks
Credit: © John Eccles / Alamy Stock Photo

You already know that food trucks are big business. But have you ever wondered how big, and what they do to attract their customers? The Atlantic's CityLab analyzed a sprawling new 62-page academic study and shared some obvious and not-so-obvious observations.

The study starts by introducing a needlessly complex phrase—"spatial information friction"—to refer to the fact that people can't rely on which trucks will be where for a number of reasons: bad weather, parking problems, equipment breakdowns, and so on. The researchers analyzed the Twitter feeds of 200 trucks in the Washington, D.C. area between 2009 and 2013 and found that there is a 1 in 13 chance that your favorite food vendor will not roll up to its anticipated spot. It may not happen often, but there's some of your friction.

But here's a finding that flies in the face of common sense: Food trucks made more money when they varied their location from day to day. Some people, myself included, would have guessed that food trucks do best by catering to their loyal eaters on a regular basis. But apparently diners seek diversity, so they don't want the same truck's food every day.

Also noted: Bigger cities show more Google searches for food trucks. Washington, D.C., San Diego, San Francisco, and Raleigh are among the top of the list. Surprisingly, the biggest cities—New York and Chicago included—don't have the most searches. The reason? Well, and this is speculation, some urban areas have so many trucks that the hungry masses need not seek them out online... or else some cities have savvier food-truck fans who can follow their favorite trucks' social media without resorting to Google searches.

As mentioned earlier, all this taco-making and sandwich-grilling adds up: Food trucks make more than a billion dollars annually. The numbers here are fuzzy, though. The study says food trucks reached $1.5 billion in revenue in 2012. But other sources suggest it wasn't quite that big until recently: The National Restaurant Association claimed 2012 saw only $650 million in revenue and Mobile-Cuisine.com says that food truck revenue reached only $1.2 billion in 2015. Regardless, you get the gist: big bucks and growing every year. The only unanswered question: Has anyone looked into how food trucks affect the Port-a-Potty business?