Food trucks are by no means new to France. But after three years of consistently rising popularity, it’s near-conclusive that this American culinary concept is here to stay.
In 2011, Kristin Frederick brought the first food truck to Paris, “Le Camion Qui Fume.” A California native and graduate of French culinary school, Frederick embodied the original creed of American food trucks while paying homage to her classical training; Le Camion Qui Fume produced high quality, professionally prepared food at low costs with a high convenience factor. The stereotypical American fast food item, the hamburger, was served to French culinary standards using quality local ingredients and impeccable cooking techniques, with all the attractive qualities of American fast food (speed, mobility, and affordability.) Since the astounding success of Le Camion Qui Fume (lauded by influential celebrity food critics/chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and David Lebovitz) more than 100 food trucks serving foods from various cultures and culinary disciplines have hit the streets of France, and a street food festival featuring food trucks premiered in Paris just last weekend. The question that rises to the surface in light of this new culinary trend is similar to the concerns that surround fast food in France. What does the food truck mean for French culture, and how will it alter the traditional French dining experience?
Fast food is a much-contested issue in France. Many French citizens and officials voice concerns of homogenization and the loss of traditional cuisine in the face of American imperialism, even as fast food rises in popularity. In a previous post I cited that 54% of restaurant spending in France for the year 2013 went to fast food. More than half of all money spent on restaurant experiences went to something that is supposedly a hated detriment to French culture. But the reality of globalization means that greater integration in the global market not only introduces fast food, but creates the need for it. Shorter lunch hours and lower salaries are pushing the French to look for something cheap and convenient, and this is where fast food steps in to meet the changing needs of the modern French citizen. Fast food is usually synonymous with McDonald’s and its various imitators. But food trucks offer a viable alternative that retains all the desirable elements of fast food without the American corporate imperialism.
Food trucks marry low-end food (i.e. hamburgers and tacos) with high-quality ingredients and preparation. They are mobile, so they move within the existing infrastructure of the city without taking over a dining space that could have been preserved for a French restaurant. Due to space constraints and lack of long-term storage equipment, they must use local and fresh ingredients and prepare each food item to-order. Furthermore, food trucks may bring an entirely new cultural culinary experience – Mexican, Asian, Californian, or fusion food – in a transient and temporary way that does not disrupt the local culinary scene. Food trucks compete more with fast food restaurants than traditional restaurants, and may serve to draw customers away from McDonald’s. It may not be traditionally French, but the food truck is definitely not an American cultural imposition. Since it is a mode of production rather than an actual cultural artifact, food trucks can easily be adapted to the area in which they operate. McDonald’s brought an American product and an American brand to France. Food trucks are simply a concept, born in America, but not bearing any visibly American trademarks.
Food trucks might in fact be one of the very first innovations born of globalization, rather than a traditional national culture. They mirror globalization itself in their speed, mobility, efficiency, and ability to respond to shifting demand. They rely heavily on the Internet and social media to connect with customers and share their location in real time. Various websites that function as food truck maps and food blogs that list popular food trucks have aided in the wildfire spread of food truck popularity. Their very existence and ability to move throughout a geographic area acts as outdoor advertising, while their high levels of engagement on social media platforms comprise their digital advertising strategy. The low start-up cost (especially compared to a traditional restaurant) and integrated advertising techniques tailor them to the changing needs of restauranteurs as well as consumers.
Food trucks may be a new form of fast food, but they respond to a lot of the issues surrounding traditional fast food restaurants. You get all the benefits of a fast food restaurant without the cultural degradation and American corporate greed. Food trucks are a cross-cultural authentic food experience, a sort of artisanal street food that marries local, quality ingredients and high-level cooking techniques with convenience, speed, and affordability. They work within an already-existing framework and are highly adaptable to consumer demands. Perhaps they are a happy medium of globalization and French cultural tradition, a sort of guerrilla culinary form that works outside of traditional boundaries but can still claim to be authentically French. The reality of the disappearing lunch hour and decreasing salary creates new demands that fast food meets; why not eat your fast food from a truck that uses local fresh ingredients prepared by a French (or at least French-trained) chef?