When Foodie Met Truckie: The Story of Food Trucks in LA
It’s been eight years since Kogi hit the roads and changed the game in LA, and food-truck culture here has gone from being a hot trend to passe to... ??? To get the answers to those question marks, we hit up the founder of Roaming Hunger -- THE go-to app for food truck everything -- to walk us through the history of where LA food trucks have been and where they’re going... which he thinks is essentially the history of a long term relationship. How? Keep reading:
It was 2008 -- the beginning of a new era, where ‘tweeting’ became a reference to people talking in short rants online, rather than just the short rants of birds. Having just launched Korean-Mexican fusion truck Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles, then-unknown chef Roy Choi and team took the bul-gogi by the horns and saw an opportunity to leverage this new form of communication to let people know where the Kogi truck was going to be serving: posting multiple times per day, even per hour about their location and specials.
The novelty and popularity of Kogi stemmed from the cuisine -- at that point, putting traditional Korean flavors like short ribs inside tacos or kimchi inside quesadillas was unheard of. In no time, Choi’s fusion concept developed a cult following among LA foodies. Angelenos were dying to find out where the now-famous food truck would be parked next. People began following Kogi’s Twitter account because it was the only way to find out where to eat the food. Even though loncheros had been feeding hungry Angelenos for years (and years) (and years) Kogi BBQ and Twitter finally catapulted food trucks into the limelight, much like the Ed Sullivan Show did for The Beatles’ US debut. The mobile vending technology wasn’t new, but the Internet technology was -- and that’s how the food truck craze took off.
Before We Met
Let's rewind a bit: food truck concepts were by no means new at this point. Long before Roy Choi’s team hit the streets of Los Angeles, chefs were utilizing mobile infrastructure to feed hungry customers (and we’re not even talking taco trucks -- think way, way, way back to chuck wagons). The process makes sense in terms of opportunities for sales -- put the kitchen on wheels and head to where the people are already hanging out.
Apparently, though, Los Angeles was where the people were. The city has had a long-standing relationship with food trucks, partly in thanks to the local entertainment industry’s demand for on-site catering. By bringing the food to the cast and crew directly, food trucks eliminated the need to interrupt movie and TV shoot schedules for meal breaks. Food trucks have filled the craft services niche ever since. And construction crews with little to no time for lunch preferred mobile food vendors as well. That’s a big range of people -- and when all kinds of Angelenos, from construction workers to movie producers, were taking advantage of the food trucks for their time-saving affordances, that meant high-quality food trucks were hitting the streets long before anyone thought to slap colorful vinyl graphics on them. The idea behind fast, cheap, and delicious street food was not new in any sense -- it had just begun to evolve.
Precursors to Kogi already included some of LA’s best food: trucks like the beloved, seafood-centric Mariscos Jalisco, has been serving their crispy shrimp tacos to the masses for well over ten years. El Chato and Taco Zone were cult classics for the LA late night crowd -- catering to partygoers and those just getting off of work simultaneously. Before any truck called Abbot Kinney home, La Isla Bonita handled taco business for west-siders looking for tacos and ceviche. Los Angeles was no stranger to hordes of authentic, delicious, and cheap options from food trucks. These trucks were popular with local communities -- and still very much are. But they were popular offline.
So what changed? The Kogi truck and other trailblazers bridged the gap between function and form by utilizing social media to engage an entirely new audience and foster a community that would embrace this gourmet four-wheeled food culture and a whole new idea of what types of foods you could find on a food truck in LA.
The dawn of gourmet food trucks meant huge growth for lunch options in LA. Entrepreneurs and talented chefs initially priced out of opening brick-and-mortar restaurants started up food trucks, which required considerably less cash money to invest -- only a few thousand dollars sometimes on the low end (these days it’s closer to $100k due to competition) -- and a restaurant is far more expensive to open than a food truck. Securing the location, signing the lease, and building out the space takes time and money. As many who tried and failed learned (RIP Frysmith, Lomo Arigato, and the Dim Sum Truck), starting a food truck business is no simple task, but there is considerably less planning and overhead involved when compared to opening a restaurant. This new wave of food truckers started hitting new areas like Miracle Mile and Abbot Kinney, where young LA locals work and hang out. Restaurant concepts that were too limited to be lucrative in a brick-and-mortar setting became successful food truck concepts -- which meant dessert, grilled cheese, and fusion trucks galore.
Food trucks in 2009 and 2010 were successful because people were drawn to the idea of a restaurant-on-wheels experience. Novelty was a key factor and people began tracking food trucks down left and right, following their favorites on Twitter (and then, Roaming Hunger!) to discover each truck’s whereabouts. Foodies were investing considerable time and energy into finding and subsequently eating at a food truck, and sometimes diners would drive for several hours to a location and even more hours waiting in line thereafter. The hunt for food trucks had competitive undertones, people often bragging about the number and types of trucks they had visited, like edible Pokémon cards. A few folks even coordinated food festivals solely in celebration of mobile food vending. The honeymoon phase of food trucks was in full swing, with each truck enjoying the relationship to its maximum.
Like any dining trend, the market became saturated with new food trucks very quickly. Right away, every truck was a hit -- from the Grilled Cheese Truck to the Flying Pig truck. Food truck lots that were once well-kept neighborhood secrets transformed into massive gatherings, of both people and trucks. Walking down Wilshire or Abbot Kinney on a Friday night was beautiful chaos, with trucks lining the block on either side. The flood of new food truck business led to the creation of more and more lots, on designated days and nights, across the city. The additional lot space for the influx of mobile food vendors allowed the industry to grow, pushing the food truck further and further into the cultural zeitgeist. Food truck-based chefs like Roy Choi expanded their reach beyond the streets and a new type of ‘celebrity chef’ emerged. After Choi launched his brand platform, initiated by the Kogi BBQ truck, he created a restaurant empire (POT, A-Frame, Chego, and the upcoming Locol). The industry came to be attractive for those with new business ambitions and with previously established food companies looking to branch out into new territory, and thereby generated difficulty for ‘the little guy’ to succeed just for the sake of being a food truck.
It wasn’t just Kogi that blew up: Coolhaus (an ice cream truck concept featuring flavors for the curious palate) became wildly popular and won the hearts and mouths of LA with crazy flavor combos and a super-cool brand. Like Kogi, Coolhaus has since expanded nationally with more trucks in more cities as well as with ice cream pints sold in grocery stores. Although many food truck owners faced impending business failure (a few notables that come to mind: Glowfish, Lee’s Philly, The Sweets Truck, and yep, even Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoTruck), the total number of trucks continued to grow as demand for the trucks continued to increase and more and more restaurateurs launched food truck businesses.
By 2013, collaboration rather than competition became the key for smaller trucks to stay afloat. Hot spots for food trucks still existed but the instance of a truck pulling up to a random curbside and tweeting out the location (a la Chef: the Movie) started becoming more and more rare. The uniqueness that a lone food truck on a bustling city street once offered had worn off -- it just wasn’t convenient. As LA residents adjusted to the normalization of food trucks as a united front instead of as segregated entities, more and more they realized food trucks could just as easily come to them. In a somewhat ironic twist, food trucks now serve the same purpose as they did initially: to bring people food when and where there is limited availability.
And while a bunch of trucks didn’t make it through to the other side, enough did to make the industry successful. It was on the backs of those failed ventures that the current industry was able to thrive and persevere, albeit in a slightly different form. For the record just because a particular food truck didn’t make it, it doesn't necessarily mean that person or chef failed (again, see Ludo Lefebvre for a shining example). The food truck ignition might be turned off for many of these food entrepreneurs but their engine is still running.
For example, Grill 'Em All is crushing it at their restaurant in Alhambra but their food truck rolls no longer. Buttermilk Truck’s pancakes are still available -- but only as a mix you buy online. Rosa’s Bella Cucina is done but Rosa Graziano was competing on The Next Food Network Star last season, and The Lime Truck, Komodo, and many others still handle business curbside -- AND you can hit TLT or Komodo Restaurants for a delicious meal any time. These are success stories of people who started with a truck and graduated. A food truck can be like a major league farm team -- you can start with a truck and move up or out into a larger business. But some, like Cousins Maine Lobster are trying to make you eat delicious lobster in buttery bread every meal possible across the US with their fleet of 12 food trucks.
The evolution of food trucks from traveling to the people to a competitive street-side craze and back again means there are many variations on what food trucks in LA now do best. Food truck service takes three forms. Commonly, a food truck will institute a schedule, frequent similar locations, or stick to the same route almost every week. A truck may stray from that normal routine for a second form of service, parking in a dedicated food truck lot. In essence, lots accrue large groups of people that need to be fed and that will buy their meals from the truck.
The third, and recently the largest element of how people are looking at food trucks moving into 2016 is for event catering. These trucks are going to houses, offices, weddings, bar mitzvahs, golf tournaments, anywhere foodies just want a hot meal. Food trucks are great at providing delicious, hot meals prepared on-site to event attendees. No other form of food delivery makes the food where you eat it. And when you look back to think about what people used to eat at events, concerts, and festivals it only provokes one emotion: regret and sadness.
Modern food trucks revolutionized dining -- hungry patrons no longer have to look for a great spot to eat no matter if you’re in the middle of the desert at a music festival or at Frank’s 32nd birthday party or even at your company’s employee appreciation day. You may not like anyone there, but at least with a food truck you know you’re going to be eatin’ good. With more and more companies giving out things like paid lunch at work, food trucks have their work cut out for them -- bringing their delicious fare to the same hungry Angelenos.
Now, food trucks are poised to meet the needs of the on-demand world in which we live. The demand is present, meaning food trucks are continuously starting and failing. By the time you’ve finished this article, the number of gourmet food trucks operating in Los Angeles will be different than when you started reading (just kidding) (maybe) (probably not). Despite what reality shows tell you, success is no longer determined by who gets the best parking spot; the food truck with the most sales may not actually be on the street at all. Relying on good, old-fashioned foot traffic is a dated strategy. Profit-savvy trucks are filling their calendars up with private parties, food truck lots, and big events, a chain reaction of guaranteed business followed by brand exposure and potential referrals.
Ultimately, food quality will make or break a food truck, regardless of where the owner chooses to operate -- street service included. A unique menu and quality ingredients are the winning combination. Good food wins. If you don’t agree, go eat a fried chicken sandwich from the Free Range Truck on Fairfax or any taco from Guerrilla Tacos in Culver City. No, I’ll hold... Told you.
The future of food trucks really depends on the entrepreneurs, the chefs, and the dreamers. Food trucks are not just about the food, they are about the experience. The industry depends on people who think to themselves (probably in the shower), “Hey, you know what? Screw my restaurant job,” or, “I really don’t like accounting, and I’m hitting the road. I know that I have this awesome food idea, and I want to bring it to the people.” The people who can do that, and who have great food? They end up doing pretty well. They can even expand into launching their own restaurants, into putting their products into grocery stores, or even just launching more food trucks around the country.
But like any business, there is not one recipe for success. The best part of this is that as food trucks push into 2016 and the culinary dreamers bring these new, exciting foods to LA streets and events, the eaters of Los Angeles get to sample all of the flavors and dishes never before available to us. And guess what LA? When you’re out and about going to parties and concerts and bars and doing the things you love to do, thanks to the food trucks you will never have to settle for a cold popcorn, a stale hot dog, or an over-nuked burrito ever again. Success or fail, each and every food truck who ever roamed the streets has paved the way for the people of Los Angeles to have access to amazing food at an affordable price, anytime and anywhere.
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Ross Resnick is the founder of Roaming Hunger, the go-to app for booking and locating food trucks across the country. When he’s not face deep in chilaquiles, you can find him and his posse posting about food trucks online at @roaminghunger (fb/twitter/IG)