Food Trucks begat Diners; or, What’s old is new again

POSTED November 22, 2011
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Sometimes things come so clearly full circle that it’s elegant. An excellent case in point and the only one I can think of right now is the current trend toward buying one’s gourmet hotdogs and tacos from food trucks. It’s worth pointing out that it’s a trend in outlying cities like Atlanta, St. Louis. and San Francisco, though it’s has been pretty much permanent and largely taken for granted that at any given moment on certain streets in New York, there will be a line of trucks capable of preparing and serving hot food like gyros and sausages in exchange for cash only.

Although the origin of the trend toward food trucks in smaller cities can be traced to New York, it is not here where the cradle of food trucks lie. It is, instead, Providence, Rhode Island, and it is this city that we have to thank not only for food trucks, but even more for diners.

To be technical, we have a 17-year-old named Walter Scott who worked on the presses at the Providence Journal to thank for food trucks and diners. Being the industrious type, Scott sold food to his coworkers during break to make ends meet. Eventually his take from sandwiches exceeded his salary as a pressman and he turned all of his attention to the business of selling food. Scott realized that he would  be well served to have on hand a kitchen to prepare food, and place to store supplies. In 1872, he bought a covered wagon that served  both purposes; it became the first food truck. Okay, to be technical, it became the first food truck to serve any American city. Six years prior a fellow named Charles Goodnight had purchased a used government covered wagon and converted it into a food truck for use on the plains and prairies of the American west serving cowboys as the first chuck wagon. The distinction here is the locale and the clientele served: Food trucks serve city dwellers; chuck wagons serve cowboys out West. It’s my distinction but it’s a good one, I think, and I stand by it.

Food trucks were successful and became popular for the same reason. They were owned and operated by people who were willing to stay up late. In a centuries-established city like Providence or New York, there were plenty of restaurants, but they closed in the evenings, long before anyone from the late or graveyard shifts got off work or had lunch. A covered wagon converted into a food truck outfitted with a kitchen and perhaps a long plank on which to serve food, possibly with a few stools arranged along it and drawn up to a bustling factory filled with hungry workers at night could make its owner a decent living.

At some point one of these food truck operators made enough money from the enterprise that a parcel of land was bought or leased and the wheels came off the wagon. It was placed in situ, a stationary food truck, also called a dining car, converted by its immobility into what came to be simply called a diner. As the decades wore on manufacturing took over and the need for diner operators to convert old wagons and trolleys into diners became largely obsolete. The look of these prefab diners became sleeker, more streamlined, but what almost always remained was the long, narrow shape of the diner, modeled after the wagons, trolleys and train cars that were the originals.

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