Delve podcast: Gourmet Food Trucks and the Authenticity Recipe with Daphne Demetry

(Read Transcript)

Delve podcast, October 2021: Gourmet Food Trucks and the Authenticity Recipe with Daphne Demetry
Robyn Fadden – host: In the past decade, a new kind of consumer has arisen – a fusion of myriad tastes and eclectic wants prone to mixing highbrow with lowbrow, and just a little bit obsessed with all things unique, crafted and authentic. This consumer has been dubbed the cultural omnivore. And it’s interesting to observe how the rise of the cultural omnivore identity brought with it an increased consumer desire for authenticity in everything from fashion brands to restaurants. So how to win the heart and wallet of the cultural omnivore? Well, look no further than gourmet food trucks which hit a sought-after balance of DIY spirit, twists on tradition and pop-up intrigue.
Robyn Fadden – host: Welcome to the Delve podcast. Delve is the award-winning thought leadership publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. You can find Delve at, and on most podcasting platforms.
Robyn Fadden – host: If you live in a major city, or if you’ve visited a major city in the past decade, you’ve probably come across a gourmet food truck or 10. For the foodies among us, no doubt you’ve purposely sought out those food trucks, following word-of-mouth tips and social media discussion about where to get the best tacos with a twist, a crunchy Korean corndog or an unexpected twist on traditional Quebecois poutine. Back in 2008, very few people had heard of a gourmet food truck and now they seem to be everywhere, especially in major cities like Los Angeles, New York and right here in Montreal. The rise in popularity of gourmet food trucks has a lot to do with what they represent as a business. They’re an affordable way for chefs to explore the life of an entrepreneur without breaking the bank on a brick and mortar restaurant. And on the other side of the grill is the customer and their desire for new, authentic and even experimental fusion dishes at an affordable price point.
Robyn Fadden – host: McGill Desautels Faculty of Management Professor Daphne Demetry studies the creative and cultural industries, specifically the varied experiences of entrepreneurship. She recently co authored a paper with Professor Todd Shiffling titled The New Food Truck in Town: Geographic Communities and Authenticity-based Entrepreneurship. That paper shares research on gourmet food truck owners and their experiences as entrepreneurs, including what cuisine they chose to make and why – and how much the cities they work in effect their choice of cuisine and their experience as entrepreneurs. But before diving deep into food truck culture, Professor Demetry gives us a crash course in what authenticity really, truly authentically is.
Daphne Demetry: Authenticity is a really complicated word, in part because it’s socially constructed. And so it’s very different by person, by place. So what I think is authentic, you may not think is authentic, we might both walk into a restaurant, and I say it’s inauthentic and you say it’s authentic. Which is what makes it so fascinating to study because it’s just different in every context. And how we define authenticity is complicated. So like I mentioned, it’s a social construct, it’s a dimension word, which means that it’s locally produced based on something – an organization, a place a person – but there are some general trends to how we define authenticity. So more recently, people have thought about it in sort of three veins: connection, consistency, conformity. So connection: are you authentic to a particular entity or person. So for example, we talk about, you know, paintings in this way, I have an authentic Picasso, I don’t actually, I wish I did. Or this is an authentic wine producing country, we use it a lot when we talk about the concept of terroir. Consistency is another way of thinking of authenticity. And it’s a really interesting way in which authenticity emerged in conversations of philosophy and psychology, which is we have an authentic self that we supposedly try to present to society, and that mirrors who we are inside. And that can also be applied to organizations. So authenticity as consistency within the organizational realm means that the organization’s signals to their audience, to their consumers, mirrors what the consumers’ perceptions of that organization is really about. So it’s all about alignment between your front stage self, or the organization’s front stage shelf and the backstage self. And then finally is authenticity is conformity. And what that means is whether or not an object or person sort of fits within a category, an institutionalized category. So it’s an idea, for instance, if you go to a Chinese or Thai or Mexican restaurant, you go, this is authentic, you know, Mexican food, and we have sort of pre-established notions of what that means. Whether they’re real or not is completely beside the point. But that’s the third sort of final way we tend to think about authenticity.
Robyn Fadden – host: When we think about authenticity and organizations these days, we often think about authenticity as more of a buzzword, almost as if it’s something that can be constructed, yet that would seem to go against your definition and the very ethos of authenticity.
Daphne Demetry: Yeah, definitely. And what’s interesting about that is it’s a slippery slope, because on the one hand, you can manufacture authenticity, you can create these signals as an organization to say, look we’re true to who we say we are, we’re morally authentic. But you can’t go overboard, because the second you go overboard, then consumers will think you’re fake. So there’s a really interesting study that was done recently that looked at when restaurants overtly claim that they’re authentic. So they say, I’m an authentic X. And actually, consumers think they’re less authentic if they claim authenticity directly. So it’s just like, you know, as a person, if you walked up to someone said, I’m authentic, you probably go, hm, I don’t know about that. The same applies to organizations.
Robyn Fadden – host: Your research paper, as you alluded to focuses on gourmet food trucks and notions of craft and authenticity-based entrepreneurship. Was there a spark that inspired you to research this particular area?
Daphne Demetry: Yeah, so gourmet food trucks are a nice extension to my other research on underground restaurants. Which is just that they’re similar in the form that they are alternative pathways to entrepreneurship in the culinary industry. They’re a different way in which people can achieve a food business. Whereas it used to be you had to, you know, work starting as dishwasher, work your way up through the hierarchy in the back of a restaurant, maybe if you’re lucky, you would get funding from investors, but for the most part, it would be really hard to break through. And it would be years and years of arduous work. Here with gourmet food trucks, you don’t have to be a skilled chef, you can go on eBay and buy a food truck. And that’s actually what some of the entrepreneurs talked to us about. They went on eBay, and bought their truck. And then the next day they started it. There’s sort of an easy entry point, there’s lower barriers to entry for those particular entrepreneurs.
Robyn Fadden – host: Can you tell us a bit more about your data sources and methodology for collecting data from these entrepreneurs?
Daphne Demetry: My co-author Todd Schiffling, who’s at Temple University, he created this method of collecting all of the Twitter handles for gourmet food trucks. And what’s interesting and what enabled him to do that is on Twitter, food trucks follow other food trucks, so he could create basically a spider model of sorts, and which he could collect, if you were a food truck, you were likely friends with other food trucks within the same city. And so you could figure out through that sort of network approach who all the other gourmet food trucks are in a city. And one of the reasons we could do this or is because gourmet food trucks heavily relied on Twitter in their early days. So the emergence of Twitter coincided with gourmet food trucks, and the early gourmet food trucks would use Twitter to advertise their locations. And then in later years, they became much more regular about where they would park. Another important element that came out in my interviews with gourmet food truck entrepreneurs was, park at the same spot every day at the same time, or you always know that the cupcake truck is going to be on this corner on Wednesday at 3:30. And what they found is, while early on the early adopters loved to chase the gourmet food trucks based on where they would post they were on Twitter. Later on, the general population just wanted the repetitiveness of knowing the food truck was going to be parked outside of their office space on Wednesdays, or Thursdays or whatever it may be. So essentially, he created this database, we had 3600 trucks.
Daphne Demetry: Really, the paper began as a puzzle, where we noticed that the gourmet food trucks were not necessarily in cities that we would expect them to be in. They weren’t necessarily in cities that had greater resources for entrepreneurs. They were sort of haphazardly across the US. And that they grew over time, in an unlikely way. And so we were trying to get at this puzzle, which was why? Why was it that Seattle had more food trucks than Austin, if there are a similar sized city and in theory have similar access to these resources? Because again, this is not necessarily a specialized form of production, you can buy this food truck on eBay. And so that was puzzling to us. And so we started to look at what are the characteristics of each of the cities? And that’s where we sort of stumbled upon the cultural omnivore theory, looking at a variety of variables such as you know, how democratic is each city, what’s the ethnic diversity of the city, what were the symbiotic organizations in each city? This is another really important element or story, which is that people in particular locations are more accepting of craft authenticity, if they have other organizations that espouse craft authenticity, already, of which we predominant look at the presence of micro breweries and farmers markets, which has an ethos of craft. And what we find is really important in sort of how we set up the paper is not just that people enjoy craft authenticity, but rather and this early stage, they don’t see gourmet food trucks as a violation of traditional food trucks. One could argue what gourmet food trucks do is kind of bastardize original street food vendors. They take what has been historically a very low-brow dining experience, and they’re often called roach coaches, they did not move very often, they were very stable. The fact that these local audiences at least very early on in this of 2008 to 2010 period were accepting of the creativity that gourmet food trucks were infusing in a traditional format is very important, so that they did not see this as risky.
Robyn Fadden – host: You and your co-author found in your data that the top 10 cities for gourmet food trucks were Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Portland, Miami, Austin, New York, Houston, Denver, and Orlando. Those are big urban centers with a diversity of cultural offerings and the audience and consumers for that. The bottom 10 cities in your research, which often only had one or two gourmet food trucks were cities like Arlington, Toledo, Des Moines, Augusta, Georgia, what did the data show you about entrepreneurs and their experiences in these different locations?
Daphne Demetry: We had our quantitative results, but we also wanted to get more into Is there something about at a cognitive level for the entrepreneur in these particular locations, that makes them more willing to jump on the bandwagon of this very, you know, early days? And so what we did is we went back to our quantitative list, we looked at some of the first food trucks in each of these five cities. And then we reached out to them. And what was amazing, even though this was like 10 plus years later, is that some of these people were still running food trucks, or they had been running restaurants. And they were all amazingly willing to talk to us. And a lot of them sort of discussed how it was like the wild wild west of you know, food trucking, people just jumped on the bandwagon. And it was an insane craze in the US during this period.
Robyn Fadden – host: Not all cities were welcoming to gourmet food trucks back in 2008 to 2010 when they started to first emerge. Do you know why food trucks succeeded among certain adversities at the time, such as some restaurant organizations being against them?
Daphne Demetry: What’s interesting about the food truck industry is that it’s not an industry characterized by competition. It’s one that is characterized more by collaboration. And in particular, the food trucks realized early on the gray legal zone they were in, how the entire city was largely focused on eradicating them. And they actually banded together to create these food truck associations. And often they parked together. Sometimes they’re called like food truck rodeos. So they’re very collaborative, they support each other. In fact, I would say one of the key secrets to success as a food truck is to not park by yourself, it’s to do it with other food trucks. So, you can’t just like exist on your own as a food truck.
Robyn Fadden – host: What is the role of consumers in the success of gourmet food trucks?
Daphne Demetry: Consumers absolutely love food trucks. I mean, if you read some of the Yelp reviews of all these food trucks, people actually use food trucks as a litmus test to evaluate their regular dining experiences. So after around 2010, as food trucks really start to accelerate in particular cities, you start to see, and we’re looking at Yelp data in particular, you start to see consumers say, this lunch was okay, but I could have just gone down the street and gotten a much better quality meal much cheaper, much faster at this gourmet food truck. And so gourmet food trucks really have everything and anything for consumers, and they absolutely love them.
Robyn Fadden – host: In your paper, you talk about the concept of the cultural omnivore, which is fascinating. Could you elaborate on that identity and how it relates to gourmet food trucks?
Daphne Demetry: Yeah, so the cultural omnivore is a concept that came from sociology, that was looking at how elites consume goods and how that has changed over time. So historically, when we think about elite cultural consumption, we know that elites, you know, they would go to the opera, they go to ballet, they go to fine French dining. And the argument goes that that has changed over time, that now elites have become cultural omnivores. So, they still do all those things. They might still go to the symphony on Saturday night, but they also might be listening to pop or country music in the car on the way to the symphony. And so they at least in genre, they consume a wide variety of genres. And in food, how that works out is they often consume both high and low brow forms of food, which food trucks are really – one of the reasons they were accepted and loved is because they sort of bridge the highbrow lowbrow, they bring something that is very low brow, the sense that you’re dining on the street, you’re consuming what historically has been known as food that might give you food poisoning from roach coaches, but you’re doing it in a gourmet fashion, you’re eating a grilled cheese sandwich with a grilled cheese sandwich has this artisanal French cheese that you know, was raised by some local farmer. And so by doing that, they appeal to these cultural omnivores. But what happens from that is the cultural omnivore not only dines at the, you know, three star Michelin restaurant and also the hole in the wall, but they start to use the way in which they dine at the low-brow locations as another form of distinction. So it’s actually another way in which elites distinguish themselves from others, even though it’s under the guise of democratizing those cultural goods.
Robyn Fadden: I have to ask this question. Is there an authentic food truck equation that appeals to cultural omnivores? Yet doesn’t make the food truck lose its authenticity status?
Daphne Demetry: The food truck equation, as I mentioned before, you know, food trucks seem to be more collaborative and competitive. So I think it’s really important to be part of a community, the food truck community, not just to go off on your own. The second is to find a unique niche. So something that we haven’t talked about yet is that food trucks engage in a lot of fusion foods. This is what is super fun about food trucks. So they the originator food truck, often the lore goes is that it’s chef Roy Choi in Los Angeles and he basically created this Korean taco, where he melded the flavors of Korean food – he is Korean – and the Mexican taco – he grew up in an ethnically Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles. And so since then, the combining, the hybridity, combining of different ethnic cuisines is something that is unique to the food truck. The more idiosyncratic the concept, the better.
Robyn Fadden – host: How are gourmet food trucks distinguished in the greater sphere of entrepreneurship?
Daphne Demetry: What’s really great about gourmet food trucks and also underground restaurants and pop-up restaurants are they are kind of like incubators for entrepreneurs. So they allow entrepreneurs to test their ideas. See if there’s an audience, in a very low expense. I think the experience of the food truck entrepreneur is like many other experiences of small business entrepreneurs, which is the most common form of entrepreneurship in the US and elsewhere, it’s hard, it’s difficult. One of the things that came out acutely when interviewing gourmet food truck entrepreneurs is that the financial incentives to owning a gourmet food truck are not great – it’s very difficult.
Robyn Fadden – host: How much entrepreneurial innovation and creativity balances with restaurant traditions and food familiarity?
Daphne Demetry: So what you’re bringing up is really about this tension of the optimal distinctiveness story. So the idea that you want to be unique enough to make an impact to find your market niche. But you don’t want to be too unique and too weird and too out there because then you are too innovative and you might lose customers. So what’s interesting about gourmet food trucks and what we talk about in the paper: before they became popularized, so this is like 2008 with the emergence of Roy Choi, they were not necessarily accepted everywhere uniformly across the United States. What we find is that in the growth and diffusion of gourmet food trucks, they were accepted in particular communities, particular cities, that had to do with the customers in those cities that were more accepting of that innovative side of the optimal distinctiveness story – they were more accepting of something extremely quirky, like a Korean taco, then something more traditional, a more traditional taco. And so that’s an a very important part of the gourmet food truck emergent story is that, at least initially, these local consumers appreciate and find value. They’re really the early adopters and gourmet food trucks, and then slowly it begins to diffuse across the US and then becomes a category within itself. So the gourmet food truck category, you know, we know what it looks like we know it has this typically very colorful wrapping around the truck. And we know that we’re going to get something that is artisanal that uses typically local, local ingredients that is prepared by the chef on board. You know, we even have the movie that comes out in the early 2010s. And so that starts to define what a gourmet food truck category is, which I think allows local entrepreneurs to play more with sort of creative fusion ideas because people are more accepting of the category of the gourmet food truck.
Robyn Fadden – host: Thinking about new ideas for gourmet food trucks, local ideas, what is the future of gourmet food trucks and have their markers of success changed over time?
Daphne Demetry: I’m really interested in this because gourmet food trucks emerge post-recession, in 2008. And they were in part because people did not have the money or the funds to go open restaurants, often in very expensive cities like New York City or Los Angeles, where opening a restaurant can cost somewhere upwards of half a million dollars. So now we kind of have our different kind of recession with the pandemic. And what it means to dine at a restaurant has changed quite dramatically. And so this might be an opportunity for gourmet food trucks to flourish again. So I’m very interested in in hearing what’s going to happen with that. What we saw a few years after the gourmet food truck started to emerge and become very popular is we saw a lot of chefs begin to transform their gourmet food truck idea to restaurants. So using the originator story of chef Roy Choi, now he owns and operates several restaurants. Some other people in our sample have done the same, in part because owning the restaurant is a much easier financial path than continuing to run the gourmet food truck.
Robyn Fadden – host: This brings us back to the authenticity question which goes beyond the food itself to the overall experience of the gourmet food truck, from getting an insider’s eye on who the chef is, to how the food is made.
Daphne Demetry: We have now moved especially in the culinary industry, in the food industry, towards the consumption of production. So we are obsessed, and this is what’s craft authenticity is all about, is we’re obsessed with seeing the preparation of our food. You know, we see this with the growth of Food TV, we want to see, you know, watching Chopped or Top Chef, you want to see how people create the food and be intimately close to that. In fine dining restaurants, you have the chef’s table, which is usually in the back of the kitchen. And so gourmet food trucks are just playing into this overall trend.
Robyn Fadden – host: When people can see the craft as it happens, there’s little doubt that it is authentic. And at the same time the consumer gets to be on the inside for a moment, rubbing shoulders with the people behind the product and glimpsing the process of creation.
Daphne Demetry: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why authenticity through craft has become so popular. I think it’s because it’s the transparency of seeing the production of whatever you’re doing, whether you’re drinking a craft beer, or you’re eating a hamburger, that seems authentic because you as a consumer can evaluate those signals that the organization is making and you can go alright, they are true to what they claim to be. They really are a craft brewery, because I can see you know them producing the beer, I can see the hops or whatever it may be. And that just allows an even stronger claim-making for the organization, it’s actually really quite powerful for the audience.
Robyn Fadden – host: The path for gourmet food truck entrepreneurs isn’t usually straightforward, often combining a chef’s passion for creative food with a nascent yet burgeoning financial know-how. While gourmet food trucks have flourished in certain cities and some chefs have made the transition from food truck to their own brick and mortar restaurant, the willingness of people to invest in entrepreneurs chefs has also increased. Why that is may come down to what gourmet food trucks stand for as businesses and even brands, especially to today’s ever-evolving consumers, including the cultural omnivores among us, who seek out a blend of behind the scenes creativity and authenticity that is so delicious and unique that entire Instagram personas are based on it. More than simply another persona though, whether for a consumer or a business the drive for authenticity summons much bigger questions about personal and collective identity in a world where the next big trend could be parked right around the corner. This has been the Delve podcast. Find more podcasts, articles and videos at