Saturday, May 22, 2010

Inside L.A.'s food truck phenomenon

Inside L.A.'s food truck phenomenon
Jason Cochran
May 12th 2010

A new style of eating is sweeping America: gourmet food trucks. From Miami to Austin to San Francisco, upmarket lunch trucks are speeding light years ahead of old-fashioned ice cream carts and mobile burrito vendors, and they're serving up inexpensive gourmet meals made from locally sourced ingredients.

Nowhere is the new food truck style more evolved than in Los Angeles. WalletPop's Jason Cochran spent the afternoon on Wilshire Boulevard, hopping its food wagons to learn the secret ingredient to their money-making success.

The key to their success is that they don't have to pay rent on buildings or manage large staffs. All they have to do is find a patch of curb before lunch, and to accomplish that, many of them hire friends to hold spots in their cars until the the big wheels arrive for the lunch rush. When the parking ticket enforcement arrives to ticket them for overstaying their parking spot, they simply swallow the fee as the price of doing business each day.

After all, it's cheaper than a lease on a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, so the prices of meals can be lower, too.

Food trucking is no longer a business for upstarts, either. Restaurant stalwarts are seeing the economic sense in producing mobile versions of their most popular The Wall Street Journal reports that one $75-a-meal Austin restaurant, Hudson's on the Bend, made up for declining lunch trade with the proceeds from its own food truck. In Los Angeles, a 69-year-old landmark delicatessen, Canter's, launched a food truck in March.

Eating food out of a vehicle may sound wasteful on the surface, but to hear customers tell it, the trucks perform a service. At one of the spots WalletPop checked out, outside offices of Comcast and the E! cable channel, workers poured out in a steady stream to browse the eight trucks that arrived that day. They said they were relieved not to have to drive elsewhere to find a selection of decent food. With fuel prices, parking, and traffic such prevalent problems in the city, it's economical to have the food find them, and not the other way around.

It's a culinary twist made possible by technology and the collision of cultures. Some food trucks pick a new neighborhood for each day of the week, rotating the food choices for office workers. To help customers know how to find them or when to expect them in their own areas, they maintain Facebook and Twitter accounts. By mid-morning, they've told the city where they can be tracked down.

Mobile kitchens of previous generations might have called hot dogs or burritos their most expensive dish. Now, as Americans expect higher-quality ingredients and more sophisticated fusion dishes, you can find lunch trucks serving white truffle fries and kimchee tacos.

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