Chain-Restaurant Food Trucks

No need to fear--corporate meals-on-wheels are a good thing.

A picture of a food truck branded by a major Southern biscuit chain recently surfaced on Twitter, accompanied by the caption "I'm all for food trucks, but this kind of ruins the spirit."

There's nothing scrappy and inventive about a food truck that serves Jack in the Box tacos or Carl's Jr. burgers. For fans of food-truck culture, it's unsettling when multimillion-dollar franchises co-opt a concept that's supposed to celebrate independence. But with a significant number of restaurant chains projected to put rolling units on the road in coming years, I started to wonder whether a wheeled fast-food restaurant is really all that bad.

A restaurant consultant this year told Nation's Restaurant News that he anticipates that more than 10 percent of the 200 top U.S. restaurant chains will soon launch trucks, following the lead of fast-food giants such as Taco Bell. Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n' Biscuits, the chain which provoked the skeptical tweet, beat many of its competitors to the street, debuting its mobile unit in 1997. The truck has since shown up at high-school football games and NASCAR races. "It's a good way to showcase our brand and make money," says Ken Scott, Bojangles' director of quality assurance.

As Bojangles' truck's itinerary suggests, fast-food chains can't be divested from American culture. Food activists may not like to think about it, but Bojangles' sweet tea, Sonic's cheeseburgers, Captain D's hush puppies, and In-N-Out's animal-style fries are as emblematic of our regional foodways as whoopie pies and Rocky Mountain oysters. Regional, though, is the operative word: Few of the most fiercely loved chains have outlets in every state. That's why so many homesick eaters create Facebook pages promoting their new hometowns as ideal locations for their favorite fast-food joints.

But no amount of online pleading is likely to lure Zaxby's to San Francisco or Biscuitville to Bangor, Maine. Bojangles' has no plans to expand to Seattle. So why not send a truck? A fast-food truck can satisfy nostalgia and school eaters in their fellow Americans' eating habits, all without disrupting a local food scene, right?

"Well, occasionally we go to places that aren't hotbeds for us," Scott says. "It's good for emerging markets, like Birmingham or Huntsville." That's about as far as the truck plans to stray from its home base in Charlotte, N.C., he says.

A word about Bojangles': While the chain has 400 restaurants in 10 states, it upholds the very Southern tradition of making its biscuits from scratch. Bojangles' is so serious about its biscuits that it won't serve them from its food truck, because its biscuit standards call for more floor space. "The effort we put into them requires a lot of equipment," Scott says. Knowing the truck offers only "freezer to fry" items ought to be some consolation to Pacific Northwesterners hungering for a country ham biscuit.

And since I fit that description, Scott promises, "I'll keep your name in mind. If I'm ever driving through Seattle with a mobile kitchen, I'll give you a call."

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