Nostalgic vs. Exotic: What makes a food truck successful?


By Roaming Hunger:

We’ve all been there: you’re confronted with half a dozen trucks with yummy looking menus. You think to yourself: “the food could be mind-blowing from that crazy international fusion truck, but man, I’m really craving some comfort food right now.” Choices, choices. So we come to the million dollar question plaguing hungry folks and food truck menu designers alike: How gourmet do you go? 
Welcome to the Nostalgic vs. Exotic Throw Down. Roaming Hunger taps new Wicked Kitchen chef, Justin Campbell, to discuss the merits and risks associated with both strategies.

“Back in my small Florida hometown,” Justin reminisces, “there’s a little hole-in-the-wall place called the The Shake Shack. Now there are better restaurants, there are cheaper restaurants, but it’s such an institution that everybody just goes there. Grown men go fishing and then stop there afterwards for a strawberry shake.” Campbell continues, “Nostalgia can be a powerful economic force.”

But a food truck is not an institution. Typically, it’s a new truck serving a new community in an industry that is still showing exponential growth. So, how does a new truck build a sense of nostalgia into their brand to capitalize on this powerful economic force and to appeal to a broader audience? Justin thinks it’s predominantly through their menu.

“A grilled cheese truck is such a great example. It’s just such a universally enjoyed food and not just in the U.S. – almost every country has it’s own version of grilled cheese.”

Nostalgic vs Exotic

There’s a catch though: unlike grilled cheese, most comfort foods are not universal, they’re regional. The same truck that would evoke nostalgia in one area could be risky in a different part of the country. Or, alternatively, a truck might run the risk of being too safe for a particular market and face brutal competition from other trucks serving the same food. 

“Put your own spin on something classic,” suggests Campbell. Be willing to build a relationship with the diner by providing a gateway dish that’s familiar and delicious. “That way, they can have the safe choice this time and maybe next time they’ll try something riskier.” It’s about building trust.

Campbell just debuted a new dish for Wicked Kitchen, playfully called “The Banana Hammock,” that reflects this exotic vs. nostalgic argument. Chilean sea bass encrusted with ground homemade banana chips and then steamed in banana leaves. It’s a succulent packet of banana-y joy complimented by crispy fried rice with deep spice and dried fruit flavors. 

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“It’s a dish reflective of my Flori-bean roots,” Campbell explains, “recombining nostalgic flavors and preparations from my childhood to create something fresh for Angeleno eaters. I thought this style of savory, fruit heavy cooking would be everywhere in L.A., just like in Florida. The climate is similar and people are so health conscious, but it’s totally not here… like… at all.” 

So what’s the takeaway? Ultimately, people’s perception of food falls on a spectrum: nostalgic, regional comfort food on one side, and exotic innovation on the other. The most successful menus thoughtfully combine elements of both extremes to appeal to a wide audience while still offering something unique to keep foodies coming back.

By: Katriel Rotramel | Roaming Hunger


To find the Wicked Kitchen food truck in Los Angeles, visit or on social media:

Twitter: @wickedkitchn

Instagram: @wickedkitchn


About Roaming Hunger:

Roaming Hunger started in 2009 as a way to connect foodies to food trucks. The website and iPhone app provide real-time food truck locations for over 4,000 trucks across the U.S., Canada, UK and Australia. Need a fun way to feed your event? The site also helps people book a food truck for catering.