Gourmet Food Truck Owners Band Together to Succeed. New Research Shows that Competition can be a Valuable Resource.

By Lynn Gosnell for Rice Business, Fall 2016.

Scott Sonenshein’s academic curiosity has led him to study banks, booksellers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, fashion, and most recently, the complex social identities coalescing around food truck ownership. The Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice Business, Sonenshein applies qualitative and generative methods to his research questions, heading into the field to collect data via interviews, careful observation and participation (think: hanging out). It’s a hands-on approach that marries the tools of social science and ethnographic methods to understand how businesses work. The data often points to counter-intuitive, but important, research questions.

In the case of his recent foray into Houston’s food truck scene, Sonenshein was curious, at first, about the special relationship between owner-chefs and their customers. But the data soon revealed extraordinarily collaborative relationships. His findings from the multiyear project teach us some surprising ways that competitors help each other out.

During a recent conversation in his McNair Hall office, Sonenshein talked about the evolving nature of qualitative field research, the precariousness of food truck life, and how he recently lost the 15 pounds he gained in the name of research.

Curiosity and coincidence

Several years ago, I was reading [a Houston magazine], and there was a review of a couple of local food trucks. I was curious. You don’t think of the restaurant review column as a place where you would see food trucks reviewed. I searched around a little and learned that they’re big business. Wow, I thought, here’s a nascent field that’s trying to establish legitimacy, and you’re seeing some of the early signs of that through getting reviews.

A couple weeks later, I was reading the Wall Street Journal, and there was this story about the University of Washington kicking food trucks off its campus. Their food services company decided that they wanted to get in on the business. They came back with their own food trucks that looked independent, but they were really owned by a large food services company. Why would this multi-billion dollar conglomerate be worried about mom-and-pop businesses?

How qualitative research works

What you do with this type of method is you start off with a question that motivates your research, but you let the data lead you to what’s most interesting. It’s called “grounded theory.” … Almost every time, I have what I think is a really interesting research question that turns out either not to be the most interesting question I should be asking or turns out not to be at all related to what I’m finding in the data. In general, these are multi-year projects that are very iterative.

Finding the right questions

A lot of my early interest was on the relationship between the food truck owner and the customer. Was there some type of special relationship or almost intimacy that forms when the same person who is cooking your food is also handing it to you in the window? But on my very first visit to a food truck, I realized what a terrible question to be asking.

If you’ve ever been to a food truck, you see that those windows are high up, and they have plexiglass on them. The mode of interaction is you reaching your hand up toward the window, so especially for a guy like me who’s not very tall — that question didn’t pan out! But what did turn out was [hearing about] the relationship with other food truckers. One said, “We’re really friendly. We get along, we hang out. This is very social.” That’s where the research started to morph into studying these dynamics between competition and collaboration.

Food truck life

[My informants] would elaborate on all the remarkable things they do to help each other out, like tweeting to raise awareness of each other, fixing each other’s trucks, running errands, volunteering, sharing parking spots at food truck venues, etc. (Parking spots are a big issue, because the market has exploded recently.) One person put it this way: “It’s a constant cycle of just helping each other out.”
The power of a shared identity

We found that these food truck operators share a strong social or collective identity that belies traditional notions of competition and the many competitive pressures of, to put it succinctly, food truck life. That sense of identity leads to lots of cooperation, banding trucks together to survive and make the market stronger and more welcoming. In the case of my research, it comes down to the collective identity: By forming a collective identity, you view the success of the group as your own success.

What about the exceptions?

Some people truly embody and embrace the collective and that’s what motivates all these helpful behaviors. There are others that don’t want to be part of the group — this is more the exception. The group imposes sanctions against these trucks, and they generally struggle.

Raising reputations one meal at a time

There are over 1,000 mobile food units in the Houston area. I was particularly interested in the gourmet segment of food trucks, which is experiencing rapid growth. You’ll find people using artisanal ingredients, more chef-driven-type menus, lots of creativity in terms of the product, premium ingredients and so on. Because food trucks already had an identity — namely, cheap, inexpensive, noncreative food — they struggled for customers at first. So, another question is, “How do [gourmet food trucks] band together to create a different identity?”

Focusing on Korean Mexican fusion and dessert trucks

People who know me tell me I focused on dessert trucks because I love dessert. That’s true – I do love dessert. But the reality is dessert trucks (along with Korean Mexican fusion) were one of the more concentrated segments of the market where there were people selling very similar products. So the idea to test the ideas in the paper is to locate those areas where you might not expect a theory to hold up. That’s why we oversampled on those.

The hard road of food truck life

Everyone has a profit motive; this is not simply just I want to do this because it’s cool. Some are doing quite well, some were not at the time of the study, and some went out of business.

Informants use the term “food truck life” to refer to the major challenges in operating a gourmet food truck. It’s a very hard industry of course — equipment breaks down, the weather turns bad, the city puts in place restrictive regulations. These are very resilient people who work incredibly long hours. As glamorous as it might seem on TV, my sense is that most of us would not last very long doing it.

What’s important from a research perspective?

It’s another way of characterizing a market. We don’t tend to talk about markets as being shaped by a collective identity, so it gives us a potent window into thinking about how relationships and markets might unfold a little differently when a large chunk of firms within that market share a collective identity and redirect competition away from price and towards group status. It’s also refreshing to see them help each other out, not necessarily for personal gain, but because they embrace and embody the collective. To me that’s a pretty powerful idea.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. It is based on research conducted by Scott Sonenshein, Kristen Nault and Otilia Obdaru. It originally appeared in Rice Business Wisdom.