Why are food trucks so popular? Culinary entrepreneurs in Wabash weigh in

Food trucks have become a beloved and integral part of the culinary landscape in cities across America. Since 2016, the food truck industry has grown by an average of 9.9 percent each year.

Wabash County is no stranger to that food truck culture. From Thai street food delicacies and mouth-watering Americano-style hotdogs to Irish fusion creations and specialty cocktails, the food trucks of Wabash are many and diverse.

Customers wait in line to order from Tim's Thai 2 Go at First Friday.It might seem strange to some to leave behind a brick-and-mortar dining experience for a mobile eatery, but time and time again communities show up to support food trucks of all types.

But what is it that makes these trucks so popular?

Access to entrepreneurship

For entrepreneurs, owning and operating a food truck offers several advantages to opening a standalone restaurant. Advantages like a significantly lower start-up and overhead costs give aspiring culinary artists an opportunity to share their love of food with the public. Food trucks also require a much lower number of employees to operate.

Emmett McIlvenny, owner of Emmett’s Paddy Wagon, talks with customers outside his food truck.
Emmett McIlvenny, owner of Emmett’s Paddy Wagon and an Irish immigrant, turned his passion for cooking and hospitality into a thriving food truck business. He has a long history in the food industry. He started as a dishwasher and then moved up the chain of command, serving as a line cook, bartender and restaurant manager before starting his own venture. 

He says his journey was driven by his desire to create memorable experiences for customers. The name "Emmett's Paddy Wagon" holds a whimsical connection to his Irish roots. Inspired by the historical police vans in Ireland known as "paddy wagons." 

McIlvenny says opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, especially after the pandemic, seemed too risky after hearing about staffing struggles from other restaurant owners.

“I'm gonna hold off right now,” he says about opening a permanent location. “I can just enjoy having a food truck and keeping it open every year until I decide if I want to open up a restaurant."

The menu for Emmett’s Paddy Wagon.
Creating welcoming spaces

Another advantage culinary entrepreneurs might find from operating a food truck– the customer interaction. In a typical restaurant setting, most interactions occur with the wait staff, but mobile food service encourages a personalized and intimate setting for owners to directly connect with their customers. 

Getting to interact with the person behind their food truck could also be a perk for customers.

Nick Palmer, the owner of Nick's Dog Cart, emphasizes the importance of using the food truck scene to create spaces accepting of people from all walks of life. 

Sporting the motto “Be Cool to Each Other,” Nick's Dog Cart goes beyond serving amazing food—it cultivates an atmosphere of kindness and camaraderie. 

Nick Palmer, the owner of Nick's Dog Cart, hands a customer their food.“No matter where they were from, everybody wants to feel loved,” says Palmer. “And I think I try to do that with food and just try to be a good person, making people feel seen, heard, and valued.”

His food truck journey was inspired by a memorable encounter with a charismatic hotdog vendor during a Chicago field trip in the sixth grade. Palmer launched his own traditional dog cart in 2019 serving all beef dogs with topping options from the classic ketchup and mustard to the fully loaded Chicago Dog. 

With the love and support of the Wabash community, Nick’s has expanded to also include NDC’s Weiner Wagon, a full-sized food truck.  

Palmers says he loves participating in community events, spreading joy to kids, and supporting philanthropic causes like the Sawyer Strong Fundraiser, which is all made possible through his food truck.

Customers pick up their order from JB's "Cuisine Machine."Diverse meal options

One of the most notable draws of food trucks is the diversity of meal options. When there’s a line of different food trucks at an event, it’s not hard to find a tasty treat that fits the tastes of each individual in attendance.

It can be more enticing for people to visit events like the Farmers Market, where the menu is expansive because of the variety of mobile eateries in attendance. Not only is the variety of food alluring to customers, but food trucks can make it easier for culinary entrepreneurs to branch out into different types of cuisine that aren’t available to customers otherwise. 

Tim's Thai 2 Go at First Fridays in Wabash.
In 2021, veteran Jenni Nelson and her husband Tim opened Tim’s Thai 2 Go. Tim’s passion for food, Jenni’s Thai heritage, and an opening in the market sparked the food truck of their dreams.

TT2G’s offers an authentic menu that draws inspiration from Jenni’s mother, who played a significant role in Tim’s culinary education. Cooking from the heart, TT2G’s cuisine strives to bring the freshest ingredients, often sourced from the local farmer’s market, and the perfect balance of flavors

“We were kind of worried about how Wabash would accept Thai cuisine because a lot of people don’t know what it is,” says Tim. “So we feel extremely fortunate that Wabash just supported us and continue to support us the way that they do.”

Because of their one-of-a-kind food offerings in Wabash and the overwhelming support of the community, Tim's Thai 2 Go has carved its place in the vibrant food scene, leaving a lasting impression. 

Increased tourism & economic growth
For Goodness Shakes at First Fridays in Wabash.
With the variety of food options available, there isn’t a lot of overlap when it comes to the food truck scene in Wabash, and even if there is, the culinary entrepreneurs don’t seem to mind. In fact, some of them will tell you there’s a sense of camaraderie and collaboration enabling stand-alone restaurants and small businesses to thrive together

“We've found that in our area, having food trucks or mobile bars actually increases tourism and attracts people here. Which also increases foot traffic for other restaurants, businesses, and shops in the area,” says Katie Jones, of Gebhart Holdings, the parent company of Market Street Grill. 

The Franklin Mobile Bar, an extension of the Market Street Grill, was born out of the desire to provide a unique and exceptional bar experience for both locals and visitors. They serve drinks out of a modified 1946 Chevy Truck, which has been a huge hit since its debut in October of 2022 at the Wabash Cannonball Chilli Cookoff.

Having MSG as its base gives The Franklin an edge, with access to experienced servers and bartenders who bring their expertise and top-level cocktail-making skills to the mobile bar.

In addition to its many specialty beverages, The Franklin prioritizes sourcing drinks from local wineries and breweries such as Sun King and Two EEs Winery

The Beverage Buggy in Wabash.The food truck culture in Wabash has become a dynamic force, enriching the community’s gastronomic environment, and cultivating an atmosphere in which friendship thrives over competition. It’s easy to see how food trucks became so popular.

As Wabash continues to embrace its vibrant food truck culture, residents and visitors alike can look forward to a thriving culinary landscape that embodies the spirit of creativity, diversity, and camaraderie.

Wabash is the focus of our Partner City series underwritten by Visit Wabash County. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.
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Read more articles by Desaray Bradley.

Desaray is expecting to graduate from Purdue University Fort Wayne in the spring of 2021 with a bachelor's degree in Communication: Media and Culture and a minor in Public Relations. She enjoys traveling, photography, and short story writing in her free time.