A food truck in Los Angeles. Picture from ilovefoodtrucks.com
¨Sure, a few cities around the country may be starting to see a backlash by brick-and-mortar restaurants against the myriad mobile kitchens that have proliferated in a brutal economy. Every dining dollar counts these days, and a party of six eating dumplings or duck confit from a come-and-go curbside truck cuts into the income a "real" restaurateur needs to pay for everything from linens to dishwashers to rent itself.
But many savvy entrepreneurs see the trend as a win-win situation. Wolfgang Wannabes can get a relatively low-budget start on the street and build a following, while established restaurateurs can collaborate to make extra income, whether by renting kitchen space at off-hours or actually doing the cooking for the fly-by-day vendors.
And if imitation is the most trustworthy form of flattery, this is an even busier two-way street. More and more restaurateurs are starting to take their food on the road, validating the whole concept, while curbside cooks are increasingly opening restaurants without giving up on their first ventures.
Matt Geller, a founder of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association that has mobilized since January in Los Angeles, says there is no way to quantify how the truck movement is affecting restaurants, although he sees the biggest impact in areas with few or no food choices where workers are now thrilled to be able to buy ambitious braised pork belly or just a simple burrito. Restaurants that offer "ambiance, a bar, great food" will never be affected, he says. (Location, location matters more than ever now that food is "movable and malleable," Geller adds.)
Food truck in L.A. From Latimes.com
Established restaurateurs may complain that food trucks have an unfair advantage because they don't pay rent, but Geller notes that they still have to pay for commissary space to clean and restock their "kitchens," they pay for licenses and food and staff, and they pay for rent on storage space and commissaries to do most of the prep work. And then there is the energy and the cost of social media: Because trucks are literally on the move, they need Twitter and Facebook to get the word out on where they are and when, plus what they are serving. Websites are so 2009.
On the plus side, Geller says, trucks develop something close to cults. "Restaurants have customers," he says. "Food trucks have followers." The difference lies in the devotion — the latter will follow their food wherever it is.
The food truck phenomenon has obviously exploded in the last year, partly inspired by Roy Choi of Los Angeles, whose Kogi trucks have served thousands and thousands with crossover Korean/Mexican cuisine, including kimchi quesadillas. And talk about a business model: He not only famously grossed $2 million his first year but was also just named Food & Wine magazine's best new chef of 2010, even though he doesn't have a stockpot to stew in like the nine other winners with free-standing restaurants and fixed expenses to cover.
No wonder vendors from Miami to Minneapolis and beyond are getting into the mobile act. Portland has become the Disneyland of food trucks, with areas set aside to create "food courts" that attract even bigger crowds. Seattle is edging toward allowing carts, and New York is nearly overrun. Now the Los Angeles area is beginning to emulate the Portland model, setting aside not just parking spaces for food trucks but clearing lots where four or more trucks can gather to draw bigger crowds for more income.¨
Excerpt from the article by Regina Schrambling.
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