What Can Food Trucks Teach Us About Creative Innovation?

I’m sitting here in Newberg with my notebook open, scribbling out ideas for a pedagogy course I’m going to teach. I’m at Bert’s Chuckwagon – an unassuming place with plastic, disposable table cloths and picnic table seating. But behind the casual atmosphere and the no-nonsense decor is a dedication to the craft of barbecue. The smoky, pulled pork sandwich is amazing as are the various barbecue sauces I’m mixing together with the seasoned tater tots.

Technically, this restaurant is less than a year old. However, it’s not exactly new. See, Bert’s Chuckwagon started out as a food truck and eventually became a physical location.

I’m not surprised that it started out as a food truck. Some of the best restaurants start out that way. For what it’s worth, I love food trucks. I love the quirky flavors you get. I love what happens when they break away from expectations, handing you something you never could have imagined before. I love the willingness to experiment. I love the creative risk-taking.

Which has me thinking about creative innovation. What could schools learn from a food truck mindset?

  1. Do a few things really well. Often food trucks have a smaller menu that they execute really well. In most cases, they aren’t focused on ambience or marketing or anything like that. This allows food trucks to focus on what matters most: the quality of the food. So, when schools think about innovation, one of things they might want to consider is whether or not they are excelling in the core thing that they’re supposed to do: help students grow into creative, critical thinkers.
  2. Ignore what doesn’t matter. This is the second part of that first idea. It’s the idea of knowing when “good enough” is just fine. In twelve years in the classroom, I watched certain leaders obsess over things that didn’t matter. I once did a walkthrough with people in the district. Our rubric asked us to look at things like word walls and anchor charts but there was nothing about the quality of the lesson. We were obsessing about things that simply didn’t matter and the result is that teachers felt stressed and overworked, trying to put 110% into tasks that really should have required about 27% at most. Or maybe 27.4%.
  3. Pivot. Because food trucks are smaller and they have less financial risk, they are able to stay lean. This allows them to change things up whenever they need to. The best food trucks learn the art of pivoting — where you keep one foot on the things you are doing really well and then move around, trying new things out and seeing if they work. Schools often fail to bring about creative change because they run around from program to new program, missing the first side of pivoting. Or, they overcommit to a specific program and try and stay the course too long.
  4. Experiment with new flavors. Food trucks tend to be quirky. They tend to try things that you might initially scoff at. Instead of trying to compete with current restaurants, they carve out a new niche by doing something different. I want to see this happen in schools. I want to see leaders unleash the creative potential in all of their teachers who will then unleash the creative potential in all of their students. I want to see schools become a bastion of wonder and curiosity.
  5. Perfect your craft. This is hard part about creative work. It takes time to develop. But that’s the interesting part of most great food trucks. The owner tends to be a person who is unabashedly geeky (even to the point of snobbery) about great cuisine. This devotion to craft is what makes movies great and books great. And so, if we think about teaching as a creative endeavor, we should have this same devotion to the craft. This starts by showing teachers true, professional respect for the experience and the expertise they have.
  6. Ship earlier. Part of why food trucks can experiment so well is that they are moving through the design cycle faster than a typical restaurant. They are able to test things out to a real audience and see if it works. Schools can easily get bogged down by meetings where they are planning about planning. But if they take this “ship earlier” approach, they can test things, modify them, and then create a new iteration faster.
  7. Think smaller. In many cases, they experience the micro-niche paradox, where creating something for a smaller audience actually turns out to be the very thing that allows them to reach a greater audience. I’m not entirely sure what this means for schools. However, I wonder what it would look like if schools said, “Instead of creating something that works for all students, we are going to create more stuff for smaller groups of students.” Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all approach, they could create systems and programs that meet the needs of a smaller group and allow students to opt-in.

I realize that food trucks aren’t anything like schools. Schools aren’t businesses and they have a captive audience and they don’t serve amazing brisket and pulled pork. However, I think there’s value in looking at odd places for creative inspiration.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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2 responses

  1. Nice comparison John. To continue this line of thinking, I wonder what Uber might teach us?

    1. That would be fascinating to look at from a pros and cons perspective.

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