All Things Digital's article The Food Truck Revolution: Now Armed With Point of Sale iPods suggests there are 3 million food trucks and 5 million food carts in the U.S.
Their source is an article on Entrepreneur's website.
During our food truck project we've heard a wide range of estimates on the number of food trucks in the U.S. - everything from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands.
But 3 million? Let's do a quick sanity check on this:
1. There are about 350 million Americans. 3 million food trucks would mean 1 food truck for about every 117 Americans. This means my town of Lafayette CA (population 25,000) should have 213 food trucks. We don't.
It also means San Francisco should have about 7,000 food trucks. This is a bit higher than the roughly 250 we think SF has.
2. The average food truck employs around 3-4 people (a conservative estimate) including the owner. 3 million food trucks would mean about 10 million Americans work in food trucks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, a bit more than 140 million Americans are currently employed. This would mean about 1 out of every 14 employed Americans works in a food truck. This seems unlikely to me.
3. According to the NPD Group there are about 600,000 restaurants in the U.S. The U.S. Census concurs. This would mean there are 5 food trucks for every brick and mortar restaurant. Sounds like a lot to me.
4. According to TruckInfo there are about 15 million trucks on the road in the U.S. This means 1 in 5 trucks on the road are food trucks.
5. If the average food truck is 15 feet long (another conservative estimate) and they all parked in a row they would stretch 45,000,000 feet. This is roughly 8500 miles, or about distance from New York City to Hong Kong.
You get the point.
It's almost always hard to find good numbers on new industries or new markets. Also, it's easy to find bad online statistics. For example, I have no idea if TruckInfo is a good or bad source of data - but it didn't stop me from quoting them.
So the lesson is don't believe everything you read about market sizes.
We don't know how many U.S. food trucks there are, but our guess is closer to 15,000 - 20,000 than 3 million.
As for 5 million food carts ....