If you haven’t noticed the vast proliferation of food trucks popping up across the Kingdom in recent years, you’ve clearly not been paying attention. We’re here to remedy that with a food truck 101 featuring everything from the history of this phenomenon to current regulations to chats with operators and even how to start your own food truck business.
So, what is a food truck and where did they come from? Well, according to the New York Times Magazine, these mobile grub vendors can be traced back to one man in Rhode Island, USA. According to the magazine: “In 1872, a vendor named Walter Scott cut windows into a small, covered wagon and parked it in front of a local newspaper office in Providence, R.I. Sitting on a box inside, he sold sandwiches with pies and coffee to journalists and pressmen working late.”
There are, of course, other claims to the origin but, as magazine people, we’re quite happy to believe that the whole idea started with old Walter serving hungry journos working to deadline. Since then, most of us will have come across the modern successors in the form of ice cream vans or burger and hotdog stands at sporting events. But these had nothing on the huge range of offerings available now. The real modern food truck trend came about in Los Angeles in 2008 with the launch of the Kogi BBQ Truck.
The brainchild of Chef Roy Choi and entrepreneurs Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin. Unlike the greasy burger vans of the past, this was highquality, well-prepared food, at a reasonable price available in places where people wanted it to be. Of course, 2008 witnessed the global financial crash and the idea of launching a mobile food business, rather than a static restaurant, was attractive to investors. And without the overheads of rent and bills, the vendors were able to offer less expensive but really good and innovative food. A win-win situation.
Food Trucks in Bahrain
For a while, it seemed the region had fallen a little bit behind the curve, surprisingly since the GCC’s food and beverage sector is known for knowledgeable investors and thirst for new concepts. But, by the early 2010s the truckers had arrived in the UAE and it didn’t take long for Bahrain to follow the trend. The first Bahrain Food Festival was held in 2015 featuring mobile catering from many of the big-name hotels and a smattering of food trucks.
It was a huge success, which has become a muchanticipated annual event, and before long food trucks were popping up all over the island. We started to see them everywhere from Amwaj Islands and Al Estiqlal Highway to Avenue 27 in Saar/Janabiya, where one or two quickly turned into upwards of 17!
People became used to pulling over in their cars to grab their favourite snacks. But without regulation, unsurprisingly, this rapid proliferation started to cause problems both when the trucks were deployed in residential neighbourhoods and also when too many queueing customers became a traffic hazard! So, in 2017, the government took action to officially launch the island’s food truck sector specifying that the trucks should be Bahraini owned, registration with the Traffic Directorate was necessary and had to be approved by the Civil Defence Directorate and the location of the vehicles had to be agreed with local municipalities. Since then, the food trucks have continued to increase but there are fewer roadside truck stops with the vehicles being concentrated in designated spots such as the Food Truck District by the National Stadium which houses around 50 food trucks and attracted 160,000 visitors between its launch in October 2020 and February this year.
A slew of further regulations was announced in February including that, if operating in residential areas, they can only open from 6am to midnight, must be at least 20m from residential properties, quieter generators must be used to avoid neighbour disturbance and chairs and tables for customer use must be removed when the truck is closed. Written landowner permission is also required, though those operating on private land may extend their hours with approval. All the legislation and control seem counterintuitive to the original ethos of the food truck – the wandering cook, popping up where the market presented itself, serving yummy snacks and then moving on. But the Bahrain model seems to be working and the government says the food trucks, particularly in their new, more organised iteration, are actually attracting more visitors and tourists. Another win-win.
What? When? Where?
According to a report in the GDN, since 2017 the number of food trucks registered has grown by 186% to 401! So, from grabbing our attention at the roadsides, where have all they all gone. Well, of course, there’s the Food Truck District beside the National Stadium, which has around 50 trucks on site serving everything from shawarmas and burgers to desserts and coffee. And, despite efforts to relocate them last year, there are sill a significant number of operators on a side road next to Al Estiqlal Highway – a popular walking spot where the trucks have received a warm welcome.
Way down at the south of the island, if you visit Durrat Al Bahrain, you will find a small troupe of ever-changing truckers catering to the area’s usually visiting population. Earlier this year the Mall of Dilmunia planned a food truck festival alongside its dancing fountains and it’s possible this will become an annual event, around March. Al Dana Mall also put on a Food Truck Festival in October last year. It was a great success and we’re waiting to see if it will return.
And, of course, Bahrain Bay is home to the Bahrain International Food Festival which, these days, offers great opportunities for food truck operators. Several vendors have set up camp at the Calidus Centre in Riffa, among them The Forge, which was one of the first trucks on the island, parked for many years close to the Hamala Hills shopping complex. Yes, now you know where it’s gone.
Not surprisingly with the thriving nightlife scene, there is also a significant gathering of trucks in Juffair, and, across the island, Busaiteen Beach is another a favourite spot. Avenue 27 in Janabiya remains popular. Though many of the trucks have moved to more suitable locations, the favourites such as Sliders, Mr Kunafa are still there. Food trucks seem to mostly open in the evenings when you’ll find them decked in party lights with seats outside and, often, music playing gently. But, if you want to spot them during the day, many also attend private events, such as the Wagalag doggie gatherings and you’ll find loads descending on Bahrain International Circuit for the Formula 1 and other big races.
You fancy starting your own food truck. But how do you go about it? Well, there’s plenty of legal advice out there on the paperwork and permissions you’ll need. So, we’re going to offer some tips on the fun side of things.
● Firstly, decide what sort of food you want to sell. Try to come up with something that’s not already flooding the market – do we really need more burgers? No, we truly don’t. But, if you opened a dosa truck…well The 7 Dosa at Ansar Gallery seems to be the only one around, so, you might well be onto something.
● It’s always a good idea to go with something that’s easy and quick to produce but don’t shy away from something complicated if it’s your passion and you think you can handle it. Try holding mass tasting sessions for friends to make sure you can get the volume right before you consider taking your idea to market.
● Take a good look at the financing. What’s it going to cost to set up and run? how much do you need to sell to break even or make a profit? How long can you afford to run without making a profit?
● Scout out locations. Are you looking for late-night business or earlier in the evening? Is the spot you’re looking at already popular with other truckers? If yes, speak to them and find out what the passing footfall is like. If you want to head to one of the many festivals, make sure you check registration requirements in good time. Check the competition, avoid being near another truck selling a similar menu. And, most importantly, is there availability at the space you’ve set your heart on?
● Come up with a name. It really needs to be something catchy so people will remember you. Get your social media campaign prepped and ready to launch. Instagram is where you’ll find most food trucks these days and, trust us, just posting pics of great food is not enough. You need to be really engaging with your audience.
● Speaking of engaging with your audience, you need a great truck. It needs to be eye-catching, memorable and immediately yours. Daubing Bill’s Burgers on the side of your old van simply will not do. Check out Instagram and other online sources for inspiration and have a clear idea in your head of what you want your truck to look like. Then, unless you’re a jack of all trades, find a designer and an artist who can bring your vision to life.
● Finally, get rolling, park up and get serving. And don’t forget to tell us where you are so we can come and try your wares.
With a successful bar in Adliya, it’s easy to forget that Calexico’s concept started off from a food truck. We chatted to the guys there, who told us the story. “In the main restaurant’s case it was our owner’s desire to introduce something similar to Calexico NYC after he met the Calexico Brothers on a visit to New York about eight years ago. Back then, the Mexican Street Food scene was almost non-existent in Bahrain and he was excited to introduce the local market to this style of casual food and dining. Luckily the guys from Calexico NYC were open to the idea of a partnership and Calexico Bahrain was born. The rest is history! “Our food trucks are a bit of an homage to the fact that Calexico NYC started off as a food truck venture before gaining lots of recognition and winning numerous awards, which led to them opening their first actual restaurant. Food trucks and Mexican street food go hand in hand, and it made sense to do something that recreated the original vibe and identity of Calexico NYC. The food trucks also allow us to be more mobile and have a presence in areas that we wouldn’t be able to cater to directly from our main site in Adliya. “We pride ourselves on making everything from scratch daily and we feel this really comes through in the overall taste and flavours of our food. We hope you guys agree. Calexico currently has trucks in Adliya, Janabiya, next to El Mercado Mall, and Zayed Town, behind the Zayed Town petrol station.
THE LITTLE BLACK CARAVAN
Basma Alkhayer gave us the low down on her food truck. “I founded the first one of its kind caravan that serves speciality coffee and plant-based food in Bahrain. The Little Black Caravan saw the light of day in 2017 when we realised the lack of good coffee in the kingdom. We simply wanted to serve the most delicious cup of coffee the area had to offer. We also wanted to share our passion for plant-based food. I turned vegetarian in 2009 but fully plant-based in 2017 when my son was diagnosed with a severe allergy to dairy and eggs and, from day one, I knew that I never wanted to compromise on taste or flavour; joy and excitement had to sit at the heart of every meal. So, I learnt to cook plant-based food and document what I was creating. I quickly found a deep passion for the incredibly positive impact that natural, plant-based food was having on my family’s health. After some persuasion we decided to share our own recipes to prove that plant-based food is delicious and not tasteless and boring, as most people think. We are not only a food truck, but we are a sustainable one as well. We aim for zero waste. This is why we encourage bringing your own cup, Tupperware and cutlery through giving a discount to those that do. We also use completely plant-based packaging. The caravan is just the start, and we aim, one day, to open up our own café in the kingdom.
Ahmed Mahood, Co-founder of The Forge, told us: “The Forge’s food truck concept was initially inspired by the mobile businesses that were done in the region, especially in the UAE. Being already active in the F&B (food and beverage) field, we had decided to adopt the food truck concept which resulted in a success that led us to expand into a branch where we are able to serve a bigger customer base. We believe that food trucks have been on the rise due to the opportunities they opened up for small entrepreneurs to showcase their products and brands in the market, in an efficient and practical way.