SÃO PAULO — The green, white and red flag of Mexico adorns the side of one van, and the colors are emblazoned on the retractable awning of another truck. Sombreros and ponchos hang in the big window, as customers are handed their tacos and steaming hot burritos. All this, in a parking lot in the Brazilian city of São Paulo.

The van's owner is Reinaldo Zanon, a partner in the Mexican fast food franchise Los Cabrones. Attracted by the possibility of turning over good daily cash while significantly cutting costs, the entrepreneur decided to start a food truck, the fast and not-so-fast food concept that has now spread to Brazil after first feeding the urban masses in the U.S. and some European countries over the past few years.

Not that the food van itself is a novelty in the Brazilian city landscape. People have generally perceived them as more functional and more affordable than restaurants. And these days they offer more sophisticated options such as Turkish food, Italian vegetarian or gourmet hamburgers.

Zanon says "shopping malls charge really big rents" for space, which explains his decision to work from a van instead. Starting a food truck requires an initial investment of about $30,000, depending on the type of vehicle and equipment used inside. Because the overhhead is lower, the business model is more profitable for its scale.

"Traditional formats give you an 18% profit margin, whereas a food truck can give you 30%," Zanon says.

Another São Paulo businessman, Mauricio Schuartz, realized that people might like to see "honest" food being prepared before them, which led him to create the Butantan Food Park. It's basically an open-air food court that initially prompted resistance. "There is a certain reluctance to come out of the restaurant," he says.

The van's problem is one of space. To work here, chefs must discard much of their equipment and stick to the basics, though as Schuartz says, that can stimulate creativity. He has been playing with the idea of high-end cooking from vans for some time now. His earlier project was Chefs na Rua, which took some of Brazil's most prominent cuisine names onto the street to create affordable, everyday dishes.

"We saw in these events that there was a repressed demand for eating on the street, and we began to investigate these projects in other parts of the world," says Schuartz, who was determined to show that people would welcome high-quality, Brazilian street food.

Marketing 3.0

Food trucks are also becoming ideal selling and marketing vehicles for a range of products, foods and technology. Paulo Sorge, head of direct sales at Fiat in Brazil, says manufacturers have noted the potential here for boosting sales of Fiat vans. "We took part in the first edition of the reality show MasterChef with a food truck," he says. One of the models most used for food trucks, he says, is the Ducato Multi, aptly designed for functional adaptations and use as mobile kitchen.

Veggie truck in São Paulo — Photo: Butantan Food Park

Others joining the tasty bandwagon are those who would sell their products on the vans, like the Brazilian processed meat firm Seara. It has come up with its Social Food Truck concept, which offers dishes made with Seara ingredients. "The person pays for lunch with social money, which can be a stamp or content shared on networking sites," says Tannia Fukuda Bruno, marketing chief for JBS Foods, Seara's corporate owner.

She says the project is working, with "43,000 rations served and 4.4 million likes" accumulated with just one truck driving around São Paulo.

Brazil's Fox Life channel also began a food truck that has driven around São Paulo serving gourmet dishes. Carol Scholz, vice president of Fox International Channels in Brazil, says Fox has used this trend in São Paulo to advertise program ideas. Its truck visited clients, advertising agencies and cable operators to promote programs as Homens Gourmet and Brasil no prato.

Curiously, though it is upgrading itself today to gourmet class, the real boost behind food vans was the 2008 global financial crisis, when job losses, reduced lunch budgets and the need for personal and professional recycling converged. That was in the United States, and one wonders, is Brazil about to face the same situation?