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Food Trucks in Brazil: Democratisation of Premium Food or Premiumisation of Democratic Food?

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2014 was a remarkable year for food trucks in Brazil. During the year, this new format, already very famous outside the country – especially in the US – and which already had some pioneers operating in Sao Paulo, took to the streets of major urban areas across the country. The movement started with the popularisation of gastronomy fairs in major cities and is increasingly perceived as an alternative way to consume high-quality food at fairer prices than those offered by full-service restaurants.

Brazi-Street-FoodStreet stalls/kiosks is expected to grow by 19% in terms of current value sales in 2015 and by 6% in terms of transactions. Over the forecast period, the category is expected to rise at a CAGR of 7% at 2015 constant prices to 2020, performing better than full-service restaurants, with an expected 4% value CAGR at 2015 constant prices over the same period. Trucks’ positive performance is a result of curiosity among those who have not yet tried eating at them, the impact of the economic situation, a desire to spend less when eating out and the increasing presence of such trucks all around major cities.

Pioneers to invest in democratising premium food

As chefs working in famous restaurants started to endorse the campaign to bring high-quality food onto the streets at more affordable prices – such as Alex Atala, who serves his most famous dish prepared with chicken, galinhada, at street fairs and urban events – food trucks began to stand out as an interesting way to invest, reach many consumers and innovate, both in terms of truck design and brand image. One of the most famous trucks in the country is Massa na Caveira, specialising in artisanal pizza and constantly traveling to many states in the country, using intense social networking activity to engage its clients. Other important players that have invested in the food truck format include Rolando Massinha (artisanal pasta) and Buzina Food Truck (artisanal hamburgers). Both of them have shown a good performance over the years, as a result of their quality food, fair prices, constant presence and interaction with consumers on social networks, and focus on the “artisanal” concept of food. As a consequence of strong demand from consumers and with the support of iconic trucks, gastronomy street fairs first evolved into food truck festivals held in shopping centre car parks before, more recently, developing into fixed food parks. These places offer a complete structure, including music/DJs, toilets, parking, tables, chairs and heaters, which ties in with the high-quality street food concept on offer.

Recent changes in legislation in the country – particularly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – regulate the operation of food trucks. These new laws allow owners to park their trucks on public roads, with certain limits placed on food truck sizes, distances from fixed bars and restaurants, and offerings of tables and chairs. These limitations mean private spaces – such as food parks – are turned into more interesting options for truck owners. New spots continue to open all over the country and are turning into another way for food truck park owners to make a profit, as truck owners must pay a fixed fee to park their trucks and sell their food. The more relevant these spaces become, the more structured they are becoming in terms of comfort and security and the more opportunities that will come up for new food trucks.

Besides offering opportunities for those willing to enter the consumer foodservice market, food trucks are an original way to increase brand awareness. Many existing full-service restaurants are investing in this new format in order to reach more consumers, promote their brands and stimulate diners to visit their fixed restaurants. A good example of this is Madero Food Truck, from Madero Steakhouse, a major full-service restaurant in the country, which offers its most famous dish, Cheeseburger Madero. The truck format is present in cities where the fixed restaurant has not yet arrived, but it also serves to guarantee clients access to Madero dishes in cities where the restaurant is undergoing refurbishment or tends to be too crowded, as was the case in Santa Catarina state.

Successful ingredients used by food trucks

Specialisation and differentiation are key words when it comes to food trucks. These players usually offer only one type of product in a variety of flavours, generally prepared with premium and different ingredients. The greatest appeal is that they offer “high-quality food at affordable prices” – they democratise premium food by making it affordable to the masses, unlike food offered in fancy full-service restaurants. This high-quality concept is what differentiates such dishes from fast food options, usually considered junk food. While an individual artisanal pizza may cost up to R$50 (US$14) in a traditional restaurant, Massa na Caveira offers this type of pizza for up to half this price. Average unit prices for a full meal in a food truck do not tend to exceed R$30 (US$9), making it an interesting option for middle- and higher-income consumers willing to try an alternative experience when eating out.

Comparison with traditional street food sellers

However, food trucks are not as attractive in terms of price as traditional players in Brazil. The typical “carrocinha”, or “kombi”, as they are known, mainly offers hot dogs, hamburgers and other types of finger food, with prices no higher than R$15 (US$5), which guarantees its good performance, despite the boom in food trucks. The discrepancy in unit prices is an issue for many consumers who do not perceive any difference between both types of products. The lack of comfort when eating outside and the waiting time to get food distorts the added-value perception of the experience as a whole. Many consumers claim that street food is meant to be democratic, with low prices making it accessible to all. No need for premium ingredients, just fair and reasonable food.

It is undeniable that this new foodservice format is gaining more relevance in Brazil and expanding the street food culture outside major urban areas. Even though prices might be inhibitive for many, there is still a lot of potential among middle- and higher-income consumers willing to try a great experience and original food. Especially during tough economic times, food trucks are in line with consumers’ desire to spend less when eating out and the Brazilian disposition towards entrepreneurism.

Food trucks are covering a gap in the consumer foodservice market in Brazil by combining an already known and welcome street food format with a high-quality, original food type. The comparison with fancier full-service restaurants is inevitable due to food standards, but they are not the same thing. Food trucks usually offer a limited range of dishes, due to the lack of resources available inside them, while full-service restaurants tend to offer more menu options, from main dishes to desserts. Instead of intensifying competition with food trucks, many full-service restaurants have invested in this new format as a complementary tool to increase brand awareness and encourage consumers to go to the fixed outlet to try other menu options not available on food trucks.

Increasing competition should lead to greater professionalism and differentiation. Those that have performed better in terms of planning, quality and communication (especially via social networks) are expected not only to last, but also to win market share from other consumer foodservice players, mainly full-service restaurants. It is hard to affirm whether consumers will shift back to these latter restaurants once the economy stabilises, but what seems clear is that food trucks have already been incorporated into Brazilian culture as an alternative place to frequent when eating out. Thus far, it seems that the concept of “democratisation of premium food” has grabbed the attention of foodservice consumers.

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