Before she opened the popular Coolhaus ice cream truck, co-owner Natasha Case was a Disney Imagineer. Her architectural training and design skills were handy not only in engineering the structural integrity of the ice cream sandwiches, but in concocting what she describes as the purposefully stripped-down, “ghetto fabulous” silver-painted vehicle as well. “It’s an Angeleno thing in so many ways,” she says of the way food trucks broadcast their wares via design. “L.A. reads graphically. The freeways become runways with these trucks.”
It’s been only 30 months since chef Roy Choi famously launched Kogi, his Korean BBQ taco truck. Since then more than 200 local mobile vendors like Case have joined him, slinging everything from politically correct grass-fed beef sliders to the curry-filled South African mini bread bowls known as bunny chow.
In the process, what began as a culinary novelty and bloomed into a Twitter fad has already settled with remarkable rapidity into the newest full-blown cliché of life in L.A. — this decade’s contribution to the international shorthand of freeways, smog, gangs and paparazzi.
What’s been lost amidst all of the gluttonous hype and counterhype, however, has been the fact that the indigenous aspect of the movement isn’t just the fusion-fixated menus (sushi burritos, bánh mì–inspired meatballs). It’s how crucial the context of the city’s design traditions — from billboards and murals to hot rods and lowriders — has been in defining the sensibility of the food truck scene by informing the physical appearance of the trucks themselves. Brightly colored, strikingly patterned, aggressively logoed and sometimes gaudily accessorized by largely amateur designers, they’ve become icons of the cityscape, a fleet of optimistic small-business chariots, each attempting to make a microbranded go of it, the still-sluggish economy be damned.
“This strange regional brew — thematic architecture like Randy’s Donuts, the pervasive presence of billboards, the passion for customization in the Latino lowrider world — it’s a strong roadside culture that these trucks are pulling from,” says LACMA contemporary art curator Rita Gonzalez.
Yego Moravia, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York who co-designed L.A.’s Keith Haring–inspired “Ride or Fry” Dante Fried Chicken truck, concurs. “It’s no surprise,” he says, “that this vernacular form really first emerged in a place known for its street artwork, whether in terms of graffiti or murals or even supergraphics” — large outdoor ads on the sides of buildings.
The shared appearance of the trucks — many are loud and often cartoony, infatuated with puns and their own mom-and-pop populist origins — has already influenced the overarching look found in copycat food-truck hotbeds from San Diego and Seattle to Austin and Atlanta.
“That subculture exportability itself, like surf style or drive-ins before it, is perhaps the most Southern Californian thing of all,” says graphic design historian Jim Heimann, editor of Los Angeles, Portrait of a City.
For all of its influence, Kogi and its initial successors didn’t prompt the graphic efflorescence that followed. Those first vehicles sought to emulate the authenticity of their taco truck forebears, the trucks that populated East L.A. for years before the current craze. Thus, they almost always retained the unadorned white paint job while adding only a quiet identifying emblem.
Within a year, though, the full-body vinyl wrap came into vogue, allowing for greater design variation. “The wrap is what it’s all about these days,” says Ross Resnick, proprietor of Roaminghunger.com, a national food truck aggregation site based in L.A. “The newer trucks have to come into the market at a higher graphic level. It’s much different than it was when the old-schoolers like Kogi first arrived.”
In fact, the wraps have grown so popular that some of the city’s long-standing bare-bones taco trucks have lately begun ponying up the $3,500 or more required to order a custom covering so as to be appropriately dressed for the new party. “They’re putting on wraps, parking on the Westside for the first time and charging more for the same old stuff,” says Josh Hiller, co-owner of Road Stoves, which rents out the vehicles for more than 30 of the new breed of operations, Kogi included.
That’s not all when it comes to sparkle. “Just look at all of the loncheros at night east of Western,” Resnick says. “How many of them have added LED signs” — the black screens with the scrolling letters — “in the past year? They’re upping their game.”
Contrary to popular belief, most of the new wave of food truck owners — who often are first-time hospitality entrepreneurs — didn’t go mobile because it’s trendy, rebellious, romantic and a path paved with certain gold. They chose the itinerant route simply because it’s a far cheaper starter commitment, in terms of time and money, to rent a truck than to open a retail storefront.
That may help explain why so many of the trucks bear, for better or worse, the markings of amateur art: The proprietors typically can’t afford, or aren’t savvy enough to seek out, professional design assistance. Hence the preponderance of, say, hideously colossal photo renderings of flagship menu items (see: Shrimp Pimp). Or politically questionable sombrero-and-handlebar-mustache illustrated mascots (Macho Nacho).
Still, for every jaw-dropping gaucherie, there are plenty of truck owners who have threaded the aesthetic needle successfully. Take ice cream purveyor Lake Street Creamery. Pasadena couple Beth Colla and Tim Ferguson had their truck hand-painted the sonic blue of a ’60s Stratocaster, purchased a custom burgundy awning and lettered their logo in a sweetly (but not cheekily) nostalgic font.
“We wanted it to be retro-modern — retro without being too arch, too Mel’s Diner,” Ferguson says. “The design had to promise quality. This isn’t just soft-serve.” Indeed, the look of the truck shrewdly acts as a visual dog whistle to draw the precise sort of higher-brow clientele that might be interested in purchasing artisanal spiced-chocolate ice cream for $4 per scoop.
Whether or not the operators admit it (and they are hesitant to broach the subject), or even necessarily fully realize it (many don’t), class is a key element to many of their trucks’ notably gentrified designs. As Frances Anderton, the host of KCRW’s design and architecture program, DnA, puts it: “For many of the customers in the wealthier areas of town, the experience might be at least in part about getting a sort of frisson of a perceived association with this culture that originated out of East L.A.”
Aesthetic decisions also, on occasion, are keenly calibrated with the intent of neutralizing perceived stigmas. For instance, in the kitchen, the Indian truck Naan Stop doesn’t hold back in deploying cumin, turmeric and other complex flavors. But, explains co-owner Neal Idnani, it certainly seeks what he likes to call “approachability” in its exterior design. “We were looking for something clean-cut and modern,” he says of the graphic presentation, which is dominated by a sleekly conceived silhouetted elephant parading in ceremonial dress.
“It’s authentic cuisine purposefully presented without the same old Indian restaurant setting that a lot of people find unappealing: darkly lit and ornately decorated.”
Generally, though, restraint isn’t the modus operandi. Flashiness is. Author Alan Hess, an authority on midcentury design, explains: “The phenomenon is very much reminiscent of the whimsy of the Googie coffee shops,” referring to the architectural style marked by space-age, Jetsons-like structures.
Veteran branding consultant April Greiman, whose clients include SCI-Arc and Madame Tussauds, also sees brashness as the running theme. “They’re for the most part gonzo and festive and fantastical and mind-boggling,” she says.
It’s important to remember that, despite all the talk of Twitter this and GPS that, most trucks lure first-time customers the old-fashioned way: by piquing the interest of passersby. Chris Bughi, responsible for the arresting look of the Pita Pusher truck, says, “Especially when these trucks get together, lined up in a row, yours really has to pop.”
“But it’s getting hard, at this point,” says Lowell Bernstein, co-owner of Takosher. “Dogtown Dogs took turquoise, Baby’s Badass Burgers has got hot pink. Bright yellow and orange belongs to the Grilled Cheese Truck. So many are already taken. What’s left? Zebra stripes, at this point!” Takosher, for the record, opted for an Israeli flag’s duo of white and blue.
Two graphic modes that show up frequently are cuteness and nostalgia. Chris Berdine, a consultant who has worked on billboards and storefronts for American Apparel, notes many trucks that serve Asian food seem awfully reminiscent of Weebles, those egg-shaped figurines produced by Hasbro in the ’70s, or the gestures of Superflat, the movement founded by influential Japanese artist Takashi Murakami that incorporates the anime aesthetic.
Resnick suggests, “It’s that desire to feel approachable as something you don’t have any familiarity with that’s coming off the street. Cute sells. It feels ‘huggable.’ ”
Nostalgia pays for the same reason. “It gets people’s guards down,” says Moravia, from the School of Visual Arts, of the scads of trucks, particularly the ice cream species like Lake Street, Big Swirl and King Kone, which all seem to traffic in the same latter-day Good Humor ethos.
Matt Roth is co-owner of the Pattywagon, which in fact looks just like a vintage police van from the ’30s. “People respond to this sort of nod to the past,” he says. “It definitely brings people to your window.”
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Lately the 2-D wraps have given way to 3-D protrusions. Exhibit A: Hawaiian shaved ice truck A Rockin Ice, which launched just a few weeks ago, has affixed surfboards, tiki torches, bamboo and thatched roofing to its frame. “They’re starting to get more mutant,” says architect Barbara Bestor, who has kept an observant eye on the trucks since the phenomenon began.
Meanwhile, José O’Malley’s, which already features an outlining of green LED lights, a flat-screen TV and a karaoke setup, has taken to occasionally turning on a mini movie-premiere klieg light that sits above its Winnebago’s top. “What’s been said to me over and over again when people see the truck,” says co-owner Mary O’Malley, “is that ‘the party’s here now!’ This sort of puts an extra exclamation point on it.”
Even as some of the most successful trucks evolve into retail storefronts, they have retained reminders of their peripatetic heritage. Recently Komodo took a Pico-Robertson address, making sure to decorate one wall with a blown-up, black-and-white glamour shot of the original truck. Dante Fried Chicken soon will open an outpost in Hollywood, where Moravia expects to place a truck inside the space, while Coolhaus’ Case plans to “re-contextualize” the idea of the truck by incorporating a vehicle’s body parts into the façade of its Culver City brick-and-mortar spot, set to launch this summer.
“At this point,” says Case, “the truck itself, its shape and its look, is so connected to the brand that there would be no reason to even try to separate them.”