Read about this year's Best of L.A. Food & Drink issue here.
According to a report published earlier this year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Los Angeles is one of the most food truck–friendly cities. But without good food, a strong marketing/social media strategy and profitable locations, the ability to draw in repeat customers can be a challenge.
L.A. Weekly spoke to current and former food truck operators about how the mobile restaurant business is evolving.
CVT Soft Serve may have strong branding and great-looking restored trucks but what keeps customers coming back is the ice cream.
“There's no substitution for quality food,” owner Joe Nicchi says. “This town is full of overpriced, gimmicky concepts with subpar food and it can be hard to sift through the smoke and mirrors.”
CVT recently launched a wholesale business. “We're now branding soft-serve ice cream machines to look like our trucks (called CVTeeny) and wholesaling our mix to restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, colleges, etc.,” he says.
While L.A. has had its “it moment” over the past 10 years in the food truck business, the industry has become more regulated and formal and therefore it's more expensive to operate a truck, notes celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre.
“It is a great way to launch a food concept without having huge expenses of a brick-and-mortar location. Startup time is faster. For a passionate person, I think it is a great opportunity, but there are pros and cons,” he acknowledges.
“You can bring your food to so many different areas and get much greater exposure, but you are also much more affected by uncontrollable outside factors, like weather.”
Lefebvre launched LudoTruck in 2010 but it's no longer in use. “The truck business is very tough,” admits the veteran Michelin-trained chef.
“Everything we did was done on the truck — deliveries, prep, cooking, serving, storage, cleaning. Sometimes we had a commissary kitchen, sometimes we didn't. It is expensive to maintain a commissary kitchen and a truck.”
Lefebvre considers himself fortunate that he had the Mobi Munch food truck rental team behind him.
“We learned a lot. When the opportunity came to open at Staples Center, it just made more sense. Being able to control all the elements of the process was a breath of fresh air. I have so much respect for full-time food truck operators.”
BBQ masters Phil Leggett and Chris Menard love what they do on their Burnt to a Crisp truck but have been discouraged about where the food truck business is heading. “Taxes, fees and regulations are tough here, and the competition grows weekly,” Leggett says.
The dynamic duo have constantly adapted to changing circumstances. They also point to Los Angeles' “decriminalizing” street vending as a problem for the food truck owners.
“Anyone can sell products on the street for cash, only at a lower price,” Menard says. “They do not pay taxes, are not inspected by the health department nor pay fees to the state. While we are very sympathetic to those who struggle to make ends meet, and respect entrepreneurs, it makes it very hard for small business owners who do things the right way, i.e., legally, to succeed.”
Recently Leggett and Menard saw friends who operate a hot dog truck. A few steps away was a man selling hot dogs with a metal tray and a propane tank for cash only, at a third the truck's price.
“As small business owners, we are disappointed by this,” Menard acknowledges.
Another issue is event organizers who take advantage of the trucks by charging high fees simply for the opportunity to vend. “Sometimes they ask for 20 percent of sales or $500 in fees. Once you factor in your operating costs, employees, food, etc., there is not much left,” Leggett says.
Steve Allison, co-founder of Street Food Cinema, an event that combines outdoor movie screenings with food truck lineups, responds: “I have heard of that happening. It depends on the volume of attendees and the producers' ability to forecast ticket sales. The industry standard is 10 percent of sales or a flat fee of around $175 to $250, tops. City parks require the producer to pay for each vendor/food truck on-site, as high as $250. So a lot of the time, for some events like ours, there is no money made at all from food sales, unlike a concert venue, where that is a significant revenue source. I think a lot of food trucks believe the event fee they pay producers is all profit, but nine times out of 10 … it's very nominal if any at all.”
Burnt to a Crisp's Menard also calls out people who take advantage of the newbie food trucks.
“The worst of them all are those who charge fees for public spots, at parking meters around the city, near businesses,” says a disgusted Menard. “When we first started, these 'bookers' were few and far between, but they have now become their own industry altogether and rule by force and intimidation.”
Regardless of the challenges, Menard and Leggett remain hopeful. “We respect every single truck that is on the road operating, and have learned that hard work and persistence pays off. It is better to be kind and respectful than to be angry and mean, which many truck owners can be, because it is so tough,” Menard says.
Owner of Swami's Sandwiches for three years, Ram Mann is equally dismayed by the food truck bookers' actions.
“They set up spots and charge food trucks to attend. A 10 percent fee was always standard and fair, until bookers started squeezing the trucks for more money. Now if we don't pay the ever-increasing fees or we choose to speak up about them, they blackball us from events and locations we have invested years in building,” he says.
Food trucks have to pay these large fees in advance, Mann says, with no chance of a refund, incurring 100 percent of the risk. “If it rains and no one shows, or a company gets food catered, we take the loss every time.”
Some of these organizers illegally charge trucks to park in city metered spots, a violation of code 80.73.3, Mann says. “This crime has been reported to multiple levels of law enforcement, who simply refuse to do anything about it.”
Mann has started advocating on behalf of his fellow trucks, as the future of the industry is “debilitating and oppressive.”
Food trucks are changing the way aspiring restaurateurs look at how they can enter the food industry today, according to Eric Tjahyadi and executive chef Erwin Tjahyadi, who are also founders/partners of Bone Kettle and Komodo restaurants.
“It creates a democracy as an entrepreneur, as the low threshold of cost opens the door to a diverse experience,” Eric says. “But the process of natural selection makes it very competitive. As a result, food truck owners are now forced to be much more creative and quality-driven, since there are so many interim food markets to compete with.”
Ten years ago, when the brothers started out, things were not nearly as heavily regulated as they are today. “We had a tremendous volume of business from the start, and were also able to make mistakes,” Erwin says. “It was a bit of a free-for-all back at that time.”
Last year, the Tjahyadis stopped running their Komodo food truck due to economics. “Once we were more optimal and at a better financial place with our brick-and-mortar locations, the liability of a mobile vehicle was becoming much more of a risk to manage,” Eric notes.
No longer did they need to rely on the truck for revenue. “Gas prices had gone up, we were constantly worried about the safety of our staff, and it just did not make good business sense to continue to go in that direction at that time,” Erwin says.
With two Tortas Chingonas food trucks in East L.A. and Avocado Heights, Jessica Estrada loves the job but would like to see the food truck industry become more supportive.
“Everyone wants to compete instead of helping each other out. As business owners, we bring each other down,” she sighs wearily.
“There was this one food truck owner that came to us, really friendly, which is rare. One day, he visited when I wasn't around and offered my cook $500 for the recipes and a job with him,” she says. “You just don't do that.”
Social media is not to be undervalued, Estrada says. “It has a big impact in the foodie world. We get people from all over the place coming to us because they saw a picture of our food. It's truly amazing.”
Coolhaus is one of those rare overnight success stories, evolving from a food truck in 2008 to brick-and-mortar stores in Pasadena, Culver City, New York and Dallas, and distributing ice cream sandwiches and pints to more than 6,000 grocery stores nationwide.
Co-founder Natasha Case attributes their success to timing, quality and a strong work ethic: “The market is cleansing out companies and concepts that just don't survive the new economic landscape.”
Case thinks the industry is more about strategy and marketing than ever before. “A food truck business is a fantastic way to launch a concept, test it out, build a grassroots following — but it's best served as an element of a bigger-picture brand,” she says. To that end, Coolhaus will be launching plant-based pints and sandwiches next spring and a new novelty line in 2020. “It's always possible to pivot and evolve,” she says.
For Jennifer Johnson, one of the owners of Billionaire Burgers for the past two years, the food truck was her “saving grace.”
“We were continuously being shut down doing street pop-ups. Now having to add the cost of truck rent and propane into the equation, it took us some time to figure out how to make a profit,” she says.
Finding lucrative locations also is a challenge, she says. “They just don't have enough walk-up traffic. Also, paying fees to participate in events where the profit isn't guaranteed is difficult. You'll have spent $200 to $500 to participate to only break even. Unfortunately, these things are trial and error.”
The days where the profit isn't high are tough to get through but Johnson knew she has to be consistent.
“When we first started, we'd work 12- to 13-hour days just to make $300. We'd take half and reup on product and use the other half to clean and gas the truck. So many days we could've given up and gone back to corporate life, where the money was guaranteed, but we never gave up.”
Caroline D'Amore's dad was a food truck pioneer when he got his first one in 1989. “We never did the street sales, we just specialized in events catering,” she says.
Over the years, D'Amore has realized that in order to be successful, you have to really stand out. “The fact that we are a food truck with the same Bakers Pride brick ovens that are in our restaurant really blows the other pizza trucks away.”
Taking the vehicle out each time should be looked at as your market and consumer research, she says. “It's free advertising; it helps get our name out there more. We always gain customers that will like our food and then check out the restaurant at a later time. ”
D'Amore hopes branded products might be a good way to bring ancillary income in. “Our new Pizza Girl Italian sauce line, for example, is coming out for the holidays and will be sold on the truck.”
David Ficklen, vice president of operations at Pink Taco, is committed to their food truck making a difference in the world.
“It's not just about business and selling great tacos — we also have the ability to be part of the community and help people.”
During the Skirball fire and the wildfires in Ventura, Pink Taco sent out trucks multiple times to feed the first responders, National Guard and people evacuated from their homes.
“It was important and we had the ability to help,” Ficklen says. “For me, that was a life lesson that we might have missed if we didn't have a food truck.”