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National Restaurant Association - Food trucks give sustainability green light

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Food trucks give sustainability green light

Food trucks, currently one of the most popular segments in foodservice, are driving an effort to be more eco-friendly, industry watchers are saying.

It's not that this emerging segment is "greener" than market sectors populated by brick-and-mortar restaurants per se, observers agree. Because the trucks are proliferating so rapidly, they're increasing the number of foodservice places that can engineer sustainability into the operation from the ground up.

Or, in the case of rolling feeders, such as southern California's Green Truck or New York City's Snap Food Truck, from the tires up.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association's Research & Knowledge Group, said the rollout of sustainable food trucks is "a developing trend that overlays the mobile sector as well as conventional restaurants."

He further noted that food truck operators enjoy great confidence that their customers, who tend to be of a younger demographic, value their sustainability efforts.

"When you look at the preference for sustainability, that trend skews younger, too," he noted.

According to Chris Moyer, subject matter expert for the NRA's Conserve Sustainability Education Program, "Sustainability is a major point of interest for foodservice operators so it's natural that it's taken hold within the food-truck segment.

"Food trucks that run on biofuels or use renewable energy, like solar power, typically are viewed as more sustainable," he continued. "Ones that minimize packaging or use recyclable or compostable materials to pack the finished products also are seen as more sustainable. And if you have room inside the vehicle, it's relatively easy to collect recyclables."

Before the Green Truck debuted in Los Angeles in 2006, co-founders Kam Miceli and Mitchell Collier decided not to use the commissary that fed most of the quilted-stainless-steel food trucks known to fans and detractors alike as "roach coaches," that populated the mobile market at the time. Instead, they built their own commissary and installed solar panels on the roof.

"Today we don't have any electricity bills, and when it's really sunny out we put some power into the grid," said partner David Holtze, who joined Miceli and Collier in their mobile venture last year. He operates the trio's second Green Truck, in San Diego.

Both vehicles have diesel engines that burn used oil from Green Truck's fryers. The conversion, he said, is handled by an outside party. In addition, all disposables provided with meals are biodegradable, and the water used inside the Los Angeles-based truck is captured and reused for cleaning its exteriors.

Holtze said that even the bottled water sold on the Green Truck is desalinated Pacific Ocean water that is packaged in biodegradable or recyclable containers.

Many of these green-minded efforts carry a premium price, but "it's what we believe in," he said. "I couldn't ethically do otherwise."

Still, he acknowledged that the Green Truck's commitment to sustainability is "marketing gold ... huge. It's helped us get a number of catering jobs," he said.

Some operators contend that food trucks have an easier time adopting conservation methods because their operations leave little room to do otherwise. For example, water conservation is a given because the trucks can only hold so much of the liquid on board.

"In New York, there's actually a legal limit on how much you can carry," Snap Food Truck's Zeph Courtney said.

There is nearly a consensus among year-end prognosticators that food trucks will continue to grow rapidly in number during 2012. In the NRA's annual survey of nearly 1,800 American Culinary Federation chefs, 61 percent of respondents said they would consider launching one.

Green Truck's Holtze said he is sure many of those newcomers will incorporate sustainability into their ventures.

"Every day we receive e-mails from people who want to start their own green trucks," he said.

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