When the food truck forefathers — tias and tios peddling warm antojitos; halal meat vendors nourishing the bellies of nocturnal drivers; the breakfast, hot dog, pretzel and nuts pushcart operators indulging tourists and on-the-go urbanites — set up shop each day, they aren't exactly sourcing gourmet ingredients like white truffles, fumikake and aged cheddar.
Same for the second wave of food truck options. Pioneered by Southern California's Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame, his Korean barbecue tacos feed young Angelinos with late-night munchies, and 9-to-5 lunch-goers on-the-cheap and on-the-go. The “godfather of food trucks” singlehandedly transformed California’s — and the US’s — mobile eating one short-rib taco at a time. His secret? Selling those same humble tacos from a food truck window using only Korean accoutrements. When the economic downturn inspired enterprising entrepreneurs, a smorgasbord (and Smorgasburg) of imitators with modified Airstream trailers ensued. Subsequent truck owners pimped everything from macaroni and cheese, turkey legs and acai bowls, to arepas, kosher burritos and lavender-flavored paletas. Simply put, foodie-driven opportunists saw a meal ticket in the meals-on-wheels concept.
And then came the Guerrilla Tacos truck. Angelino-proud with local graffiti art stretching across its exterior, the Guerrilla Tacos truck parks outside precious boutique third-wave coffee shops. It is commanded by Chef Wes Avila, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate with staging experience in France under Alain Ducasse.
"This model is appealing to young, entrepreneurial types with little money, a good graphic designer for a cool logo and time to dedicate to social media,” says Lara Rabinovitch, a producer on the film City of Gold, about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold. “It’s far less expensive than a brick and mortar restaurant. No overhead. It builds your name. You’re advertising as you drive around the city.”
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Culinary graduates and foodies with a charming, crave-worthy gimmick crave what food trucks offer — the opportunity to incubate a concept and test the market while still offering a fancy-pants menu. Third-wave food trucks skip the slow, painful process of working the ranks in Michelin-starred restaurants, scavenging money and looking for investors.
“Nouveau food trucks all have a brand that is clearly evoked through the truck itself, social media accounts and a short menu that doesn’t do substitutions,” says Rabinovitch. “They have loyal, growing followings and update their website and social accounts with where they will be and when.”
When it comes to the bottom line, food-truck growth potential appears limited.
“The most successful food truck owner, Roy Choi, is proof of how hard the food truck business model is," says Zach Brooks, the market manager of Smorgusburg LA. "He hasn’t focused on creating 100 Kogi trucks or spreading the Kogi brand around the country with more food trucks. He maxed out at three or four.”
Since the Kogi truck success, Choi's opened up several brick-and-mortar spots throughout California.
“Now he’s back in a truck with Locol, a fast food concept he has brick and mortar locations for already," says Brooks. "He’s using his truck to promote his brick-and-mortars after first doing it the opposite way.”
Meanwhile, Avila has taken his time moving Guerrilla Tacos from stand to truck, to his first brick-and-mortar slated to open 1 June.
“After a while as your following grows it does become insane to keep doing this," says Avila. "But I really wanted to find the right project."
What will Avila not miss about the truck? Accidents, late drivers, the constant need for fuel and propane, the challenges of traffic, parking tickets, flat tyres — you name it and Guerrilla Tacos has survived it.
“These third-wave dudes all have their concept, their logo, their marketing spiel and they get a truck and want to quickly get huge and make a buck,” says Avila. “Maybe one in twenty are successful, but the problem is they all want to be the next Kogi truck. They want to jump on a trend, milk it. I wanted to make the best version of a taco, and I did.”
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When Chef Ashley Abodeely and front-of-the-house manager, Brandon Latveneer left New York where they worked at the posh NoMad restaurant in the NoMad Hotel, they'd already spent six months prepping for the truck. They’ve been on the road for three months now.
“What better way to introduce our brand to the Los Angeles food scene than with a food truck?” said Latveneer. “When we open some people will know us from New York, some people will know us from the foodtruck and the partnerships and collaborations we’ve done out here.”
Food trucks have increased in popularity in cities across the globe, but are there any ways to make these grub-slinging vehicles friendlier on the environment? A few companies are looking into it, and they're looking beyond exhaust-spewing vans. First, there’s Wheelys, an electric and solar-powered tricycle that’s a mobile café in Sweden, that turns cyclists into baristas. Since launching in 2014, the company’s rolled out the service in over 70 countries worldwide, and is positioning itself to be a competitor to brick-and-mortar options like Starbucks. Meanwhile, Move Systems, a US-based company that aims to “bring the mobile food industry into the 21st Century,” makes food carts that are electric and come with modular kitchens, forgoing petrol-fuelled generators for solar panels. — Bryan Lufkin
For $4,000 a month, they hired an already customised 30-foot panel van from food-truck rental agency Mobi Munch. The only change Abodeely Latveneer made to the truck, which had been used by a smoked BBQ business, was subbing out a broiler oven for a soft-serve ice-cream machine.
"Our kitchen here is bigger than some basement [restaurant] kitchens in New York — cleaner too,” says Abodeely. “I’ve seen more sunshine in the past three months working in a food truck kitchen than I ever did in six years in our New York basement kitchen.”
Rather than customise the NoMad truck, they adapted the menu. With two fryers and a plancha they execute burgers, fries and room temperature salads. “For our bacon-wrapped dog we melt cheese using an oven, but we don’t have an oven,” says Abodeely. “Instead we developed this delicious Gruyere cheese sauce. When we can’t make something the way we make it in the restaurant, we make an even better version.”
Size matters, says Latveneer who is also the driver. “It’s bigger than most trucks,which is nice for everyone working inside, but we have to be careful when driving and parking. It uses a lot more energy and unlike most trucks, you can’t plug it into any outlet. We have a 50amp plug, which is like a washer/dryer plug."
The food truck business is hardcore. Parking, street signs, health codes are learned on the go.
On one occasion Team NoMad opted swallow a $75 parking ticket, the price for claiming a great spot on street-cleaning day.
Organisations like the Street Vendor Project work on making such bureaucracies easier to navigate. In New York City, there are only 4,000 permits (including hot dog vendors) and most have already been issued. There’s no room for new trucks, unless you partake in the black market.
“People who own permits rent them for ridiculous amounts of money,” says Zach Brooks. “A permit that costs a vendor $100, [but] rents for $10,000 to $20,000 a year. In LA, it’s easier to get a street-vending permit, but harder to get your truck permitted — not impossible. It’s technically not legal to park a food truck in most places, so you’re kind of at the whim of the cops based on the neighbourhood you’re in.”
None of this gives pause to Pico House, a Los Angeles-based truck created five months ago by chefs Chris Chi, Phil Moses, Gemma Matsuyama and Mavis J Sanders — and colourfully painted by artist Qudoe Lee.
“We’ll do it for as long as we need to, until we feel ready and the audience is there,” says Moses. “This is a much tighter space, but we're good as long as no one gains too much weight."
The Pico House truck has a flat top and four burners, refrigeration and a freezer. Their lunch service averages between 80 and 120 tickets.
“We’re up at 7am and get to bed at 2am if we’re lucky,” says Moses. “The biggest challenge is logistics. We go back and forth between the commissary and the truck. Sometimes you forget things at the commissary so you have to go back. That doesn’t happen in a restaurant, everything is right there if you forget something.”
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So what's the best way to keep up with the rising starts of the food truck world? Obsessively follow the social-media accounts of The Great Food Truck Race, a reality television programme on American TV channel Food Network. Follow the winners, and non-winners. This year’s favourite? Lei-Away Leidies serving Hawaiian food in Hawaii and Utah. The winner in 2015 was Pho Nomenal Dumplings of Raleigh, North Carolina.
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