When most of us think about innovation, we think about leading edge products, AI technology, or advances in science. Innovation, in its very nature is about brand-new, never-been-seen-before, world firsts. Right? Well, in many cases, yes. But, it doesn't have to be.

In fact, the definition of innovation is "something new or different introduced." Which is why we hear the phrase used so often when it comes to Apple or Samsung updates. We're not being offered a completely different device each time a new model smartphone comes out. Just a better camera, more sensitive touchscreen, or bigger memory. Basically, a different way of offering the same thing.

A case in point would be food. Eating is nothing new. Man's diet may have changed over the years, but the act of chewing and swallowing is the same. There are certain things fit for us to ingest, while others, we leave for the animals or machines. Until we get offered a pill that can pack in the suggested amount of daily calories in place of meals, we're not going to suddenly start living on air. Or Slimfast.

Just think about the thousands of different ways that food is prepared and packaged around the world. Each dish achieves the same end, but every recipe and combination of ingredients is an innovation in itself. Being a fan of Italian food, calzone is on my menu just about every week. Folded pizza is pretty ingenious after all!

But, innovation doesn't only occur in the way that food, products or services are offered. It can come about in distribution, market segmenting, or by incorporating local suppliers. I had an interesting talk with Prime Pinnacle CEO, Tracy Stein, the other day about exactly this. As a leading venture capital and private equity firm, Tracy is used to backing innovation where he believes it will turn a profit. And one area that has exploded over the last few years is the food truck industry.

He founded Prestige Food Trucks in 2012 and is himself astounded by the massive growth it has seen in just a few short years. "I never imagined in a million years that food trucks would have expanded into so many other markets, such as our education system," he confesses. Throughout our chat, he noted some interesting points about food industry innovation, which really apply to all disruptors. Case in point:

Diversifying industries

"The world is rife with cases in which innovation isn't about reinventing the wheel. It's simply packaging up your product or service in a different way and changing consumption patterns," Stein explains.

Just think about Kellogg's flagship cereal product, Special K. They ingeniously managed to shift more product when they retargeted the cereal to women and launched the Special K Challenge. Their strategy was to double the usage of occasions for breakfast cereal by encouraging consumers to eat a bowl at lunchtime as well.

Krista Faron, a senior analyst at Mintel, confirmed that by doing that, Kellog's was able to double consumption and expand into the diet and nutrition industry as well. "What I like about Special K is how they've really been able to leverage a cereal brand into a diet brand," she says.

So, what could rolling food servers do to expand from the outdoor festivals and concerts with which they were usually associated? With the typical types of fast food only eaten on occasion by a young crowd? Diversify the industries in which it sold, of course. "Food trucks are indeed cool," says Stein, "but they also have the potential to reach many industries and provide enhanced nutrition and financial profits as well."

Taking food trucks out of entertainment and truck stops and expanding into education, provided the perfect way of offering healthy meals to young people who love the relaxed atmosphere and can grab a bite between classes.

Appealing to different demographics

After studying the market, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that kids love the laidback setting that food trucks provide. Instead of sitting around tables, there's a informal vibe that encourages community. Children talk to each other instead of being shunned in the school canteen. They can listen to music and enjoy the novelty of the way their lunches are served, from brightly colored trucks in hand-held portions. "Now, schools everywhere are scrambling to attract or buy food trucks," Stein enthuses.

One of the first school districts in the country to start trying out food trucks for school lunches was Boulder Valley in 2014. With financing from Whole Foods Market, they were able to set up a brightly painted food truck for students that appealed to a young crowd. While setting the minds of parents and educators at rest that the offer was not about tacos, burgers, or fried food. Coming up with a way of appealing to different demographics and serving up school meals in a new way.

Kids were getting pretty burned out from being offered stodgy meals with unappealing vegetables and tasteless, chewy meat. They wanted something fresh and new that they could grab between classes. What was being provided in some cases, was little better than eating gruel, with Boulder Valley seeing an 85 percent rejection rate of their school lunches! Food trucks had the extra incentive of creating healthy meals that would appeal all round.

Stimulating the local economy

When you source from local providers you create a win-win situation all round. In the case of food trucks in the USA, helping out local farmers has been a big deal. The USDA's Farm to School program backs the latest food truck craze as an outlet for healthy, fresh, locally sourced produce. "Sometimes it's a tough sell," Stein confesses, "especially to kids who have grown up on junk food, but it's well worth the effort." They estimate that over 23 million children have accessed food supplied by the Farm to School program, and local farms sell around $400 million each year to this target.

At a price that works for everyone

According to Stein, the real innovation behind food trucks is "getting kids to willingly eat good food through a financially viable operation." Renovating a campus dining center can cost as much as $1 million or more. Colleges have found that food trucks present a perfect solution to save, and even earn money.

Your average food truck costs between $100,000 and $200,000. More and more campuses and universities are adopting this model for serving school meals, including the University of Massachusetts, with two trucks making more than $10,000 in sales each day.


Innovation takes on many forms and one of the most underrated is changing the way people look at things. Food trucks in schools have done exactly that. Presenting a cool alternative to stale cantines with fixed tables, and offering a sense of community and healthy meals. All while saving money, sourcing from local producers and appealing to various demographics. Now that's an extra incentive to go back to school if you were thinking about it!

Published on: May 17, 2017