Food trucks have been around since the 1970s, when taco trucks began making the rounds in New York City, but didn’t become a national sensation until 2008 when two events coincided in such a way as to make a long extant — but largely niche — subsegment of the restaurant game into a mass market phenomenon.
According to Kenny Lao, co-founder of New York’s Rickshaw food truck, social media in general (and Twitter in specific) was blowing up in a good way, while the U.S. economy was blowing up in a bad way. Restaurateurs didn’t want to invest the massive sums that go into establishing a permanent location at just the same time that a new, informal and free marketing channel popped up ideally suited to the needs of dining locations that were always on the go.
“It’s the social aspect. It’s really about shared experiences around food. I think what we’re doing with Twitter is an electronic version of that share,” Lao noted in an interview.
That social aspect grew into something of a mass culture phenomenon and now a wide range of food trucks are a common part of the landscape in urban areas and the idea that once can get a good or even gourmet meal out of the back of a truck is non-controversial.
The question a wave of entrepreneurs like Claudia Villegas are asking themselves now is if fashion can make the move to the as truck as easily — and as successfully — as food did. Villegas is the owner of the Richmond, Virginia-based Clavillè Fashion Truck. It’s Richmond-based, but not anchored — as the name implies, Clavillè is a mobile business in the most literal sense of that term and is therefore on the go a lot. Surrounding towns, surrounding states and festivals represent the bulk of the drivable boutique’s business, according to Villegas, and among the great benefits of a fashion truck is that she can go wherever the business is.
“I like the novelty of having a truck; I can go to festivals, have parties at people’s houses and move around every day! Another advantage is that I can bring Manolo, my puppy and fashion truck mascot, with me anywhere we go,” Villegas said.
On a more serious note, she said, what drew her to the fashion truck when she first encountered the idea in Cleveland about six years ago was the far lower overhead involved, particularly when compared with a shop, combined with the greater flexibility. Also, she noted, because the business can quite literally travel to the customer, it gives her a much greater ability to personalize the experience to the consumer that simply wouldn’t be practical in a stationary store.
“Our boutique is intimate and we can guide customers through our inventory and curate what we set out. We are also more able to offers suggestions based on what they’re looking for or their body type. Because I am a seamstress, I can help to customize their favorite pieces from the truck on the spot,” Villegas said in an interview.
It isn’t easy work — and there are unique challenges in offering up a boutique on wheels. The concept is still a lot more foreign to consumers than food trucks are. That is changing — fashion trucks and mobile boutiques are appearing in greater number and in a greater number of places in the last 24 months than ever before. But thus far there has been no major breakthrough brand like the Kogi BBQ truck in LA that developed such a large and devoted following that it pushed food trucks into a national story in 2008.
Any of the many up-and-coming truck brands would like be quite happy to be that national breakthrough brand, of course, but Villegas’s lesson of the five years her Clavillè Fashion Truck business has been open is that small and steady wins the race. Her staff is small — her husband is the firm’s main truck driver. But her business is growing, and has every year since it’s been open. It can be challenging getting customers in the door the first time, she noted, because “buying clothes out of the back of a truck has some strange connotations to people still.”
But once they’ve had the experience and found they enjoyed the novelty and the unique customer experience, most come back. And many bring a friend.
And if people can buy gourmet food out of a truck, there seems no reason they couldn’t buy designer clothing from a truck, if the experience was right.