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Meals on wheels: The food truck business in India

These mobile eateries feature everything from gourmet burgers to homemade goan curries, and offer gluten-free and vegan options

The food truck, Nina Pinta Santamaria in Pune.
The food truck, Nina Pinta Santamaria in Pune.

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There is a 2014 film, Chef in which Carl Casper, (Jon Favreau), a chef loses his job at a restaurant and travels across America in a food truck to reclaim his culinary creativity. Well, something similar is happening across India. Young chefs and food entrepreneurs are dishing out an array of awesome dishes from their kitchens on wheels. On the menu, there are sumptuous ramen bowls, perfectly constructed sushi and slow cooked meats which you would otherwise find in high-end restaurants. The only difference being that these young chefs haven’t lost their restaurant jobs. They have chosen mobile food trucks to dish out restaurant-style food.

Humble beginnings
The very first food truck can be traced to 1872 when Walter Scott, a food vendor, parked his covered wagon in front of a local newspaper office in Providence, Rhode Island. Having pre-cut windows in the wagon, he inside and sold sandwiches, pies and coffee to the newspaper’s hard-working staff. But the heyday of what we now know as the food truck phenomenon began in Los Angeles in 2008 when entrepreneurs, Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin, along with chef, Roy Choi, set up the first food truck serving Korean BBQ and Mexican tacos in a tasty, inexpensive and unique way. As the food trucks evolved, their appearances improved, and they began to offer more variety.

In Mumbai the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) finalised its much-anticipated food-truck policy in April this year. A total of 50 sites have been marked for food trucks in places that will not have restaurants or eateries within 200 meters. Indians are no strangers to food on the go. We have grown up watching a mountain of cheese melt slowing on a dosa at a food stall and butter sizzling on a tawa before being gobbled up by pav. But the allure of eating off a brightly painted food truck is something else. While instant gratification in precious little time has provided a foundation for food trucks, the most obvious reason for their popularity is the food itself, believes Mitesh Rangras a chef who runs two food trucks at Bar Bank, an open air food truck park in Mumbai's Powai. “There’s always something new to try. Of course, if you want comfort food like chole bature, you can probably find a food truck for that too. The best part of a food truck is walking right up to the kitchen, seeing (and smelling) what’s cooking. Typically, you’ll talk directly to the chef when you order, adding a personal touch to your food. With a food truck, chefs have more freedom to get creative with their menus. That’s not always possible in a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” adds Rangras.

Bar Bank in Powai, Mumbai.
Bar Bank in Powai, Mumbai.

Low startup costs and operational expenses of running a food truck add to the allure. “The cost for setting up a food truck is roughly 12 lakh, whereas its upwards of 50 lakh for opening a restaurant. Even the rentals are one-third of a restaurant,” says Chirag Havelia, founder, Truckila, a food truck in Mumbai. Yet another reason for the huge popularity of food trucks is their convenience. There’s no booking or dress code required. Food trucks cater to foodies who are more interested in taste than the formal trappings of restaurant life. These days it’s not uncommon to see food trucks turn up at big events, like festivals, sports venues and even weddings.

Trucks go gourmet

Food trucks have come a long way from their early days of selling plastic-wrapped sandwiches and bland coffee. These mobile nom machines serve up everything from gourmet burgers to gluten-free and vegan sandwiches, sides and desserts. Bombay Food Truck (BFT) which led the mobile gastronomy in Mumbai way back in 2015 does a gourmet take on the kheema pav and an Indianized version of the most popular western food truck item – hot dog. “We add our Bombay touch to it by laying a saucy chicken keema on the bun and topping the sausage with dill and cucumber. For the kheema pav a toasted bun is dug hollow and filled with chicken keema and topped with a sunny side up,” says founder Ashesh Sajnani. The bright red truck with a cheery Sajnani neatly caricatured on the side is parked at private corporate parks in BKC and travels to concerts and music events across the country. BFT isn't the only truck making drool-worthy eats in a trailer. South Side Mumbai, a food truck at The Bar Bank in Powai, does scrumptious south Indian staples with a fun twist. Think malabar parotta pockets stuffed with yummy chicken chettinad, mushroom pepper fry or mutton cutlet, comforting rasam bowls, pesarattu with Sri Lankan sambal spread and filter coffee ice cream. Burp a food truck located at the façade of Crossroad Mall in Dehradun has been churning out mouth-wateringly divine ‘super shakes’ crowned with donuts, brownies and caramel popcorn. The shakes come armed with chocolate syringes for an extra shot of cacao.

Burp Food Truck in Dehradun.
Burp Food Truck in Dehradun.

Then there is Nina Pinta Santamaria, a food truck in Pune named after Columbus’ ships. But unlike the ships that were meant to reach India but ended up in North America, the truck confidently steers patrons to delicious crepes filled with desi filling like silky butter chicken, spicy kheema and Puneri chicken. “I saw the appeal of food trucks while travelling in Europe and thought why not set one up in Pune. But I didn’t want to do the regular street food. Crepes work well as the base is similar to a dosa and the fillings are popular Indian dishes,” says founder Soham Bhatawadekar. The bright green truck festooned with warm paper lanterns also does dessert crepes with Argentine dulce de leche, sliced bananas, cookie crumble and whipped cream. In Kolkata, Kebab Pavwala has been using the local pavroti bread (used by tea stalls for the famous malai toast) to wrap sumptuous kababs generously smeared with house sauces like Kasundi Mayo, Pineapple Sweet Chilli and Fire Roasted Salsa. The purple truck designed to look like a Volkswagen retro camper has been a hit with locals looking for comfort foods with a twist.

Not an easy road

Though the low barrier of entry attracts a high number of operators the food truck business is a tricky one. Apart from umpteen licenses (FDA license, NOC from traffic police, fire license for kitchen, police NOC, etc) the major challenge for operators is the lack of regulation. “There isn’t really any specific regulations for food trucks yet as it’s still a new and growing concept and the sector is largely unorganised. We can only park in designated spots which limits access to a wide range of neighbourhoods. But the biggest challenge is pricing. Since food truck is still considered street food, customers expect street-food pricing,” says Meenakshii Malkani, founder of Kebab Pavwala. Most trucks don’t have access to regular electricity and use a petrol run generator which adds to the operating cost.

Despite these challenges, food trucks continue to find fans who like warm, delicious and innovative food on the go.

Nivedita Jayaram Pawar is a Mumbai-based food writer.

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