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California

Charles C. Johnson
Keep on Truckin’
California’s mobile-food entrepreneurs struggle with fame and regulation.
18 September 2012

Little by little, often with the utmost reluctance, California’s cities are coming to terms with the food-truck craze that exploded in the Southland about three years ago and spread rapidly across the state and around the country. Earlier this month in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, nestled in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles, officials in Monrovia agreed to lift a two-year-old ban on trucks peddling meals in that city’s Old Town district. Under the terms of a settlement with the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association, which sued the city last year, food trucks will no longer be barred from Monrovia’s popular local restaurant strip. “I think it’s important to say that we never said food trucks could not come to our community,” Monrovia mayor Mary Ann Lutz told the Los Angeles Times. “We were just trying to find a way where they could cohesively exist in our community.”

Despite the good news in Monrovia, California’s food-truck fight won’t end anytime soon. The mobile-food trade group is pursuing similar litigation against West Hollywood, City of Industry, Arcadia, and South Pasadena. But in California cities north and south, the burgeoning mobile-food industry’s colorful trucks have become nearly ubiquitous in some neighborhoods. Drive down Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard any Friday night, and you’ll see them parked outside busy nightclubs and tattoo parlors, offering up a smorgasbord of gourmet cuisine, from Korean tacos and grilled brie-and-fig sandwiches to soy-chorizo French Fries and New England lobster rolls. The trucks draw hundreds of customers at a stop and have built an enormous following online—giving rise to worries about noise, traffic, and crowd control. Local restaurants complain about unfair competition from the trucks, which come and go freely and sometimes draw would-be diners from the brick-and-mortar establishments with similar but more expensive menu items. A 1984 state law explicitly bars cities from banning food trucks outright, so a number of municipalities (like Monrovia) have tried to protect restaurants from their mobile competitors in the name of “health and safety.”

Roy Choi dismisses these efforts as counterproductive. “You can’t write laws fast enough to keep up with the street culture,” says Choi, who as head chef and cofounder of Kogi BBQ is a pioneer of Southern California’s gourmet-truck business. Where Choi’s trucks go, people follow—especially on Twitter, where Kogi boasts more than 100,000 followers. Choi won a Bon Appétit award in 2009 for his Korean barbecue taco and “Best New Chef” from Food & Wine in 2010. With five food trucks covering Southern California, Choi says the reports that his trucks each gross $2 million annually aren’t far off. His margins, however, are “really tight,” he says. “I ain’t rich.”

Kogi’s success neatly encapsulates the food truck’s ascent from the working-class “roach coaches” of 20 or 30 years ago to gourmet destination today. It’s no surprise, with the Great Recession cutting into lunchtime budgets, that the trucks have become popular for their cheap yet imaginative fare. For proprietors, the catering trucks offer clear financial advantages. Ten years ago, a basic food truck might have cost a few thousand dollars. The new gourmet trucks, often custom-built and lavishly decorated, can cost $120,000 or more, but that’s still a bargain compared with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront capital required to open a restaurant. The National Restaurant Association estimates that food-truck revenues nationwide topped $630 million in 2011, up 3.6 percent from a year earlier and well outstripping the 2.5 percent growth predicted for the restaurant industry nationwide.

Entrepreneurs like Choi say they’re driven by their love of great food. “I’m like your grandmother,” he says. “All I care about is feeding you.” In the next breath, he explains why he’s a regulator’s nightmare: “You can’t control what happens on the streets, and I don’t ask for permission.” But government demands permission all the time, often capriciously. Vendors complain that even when they follow the rules, they’re routinely “raided” by police officers looking to force them off the streets. Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California mobile vendors’ group, contends that many truck owners are fined under long out-of-date or nonexistent regulations. “You can make regulations for food truck vending, but you have to make them in the interest of public safety,” Geller says. “How is the public more safe by forcing this giant truck to move?” he asks rhetorically, adding that the regulations have failed to stand up in court.

In 2008, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors made it a misdemeanor to park a food truck in the same location for more than an hour. Violators face fines of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Restaurant owners lobbied the city council for similarly stringent parking and zoning rules in 2010. But Los Angeles city officials seemed to take one impediment to food trucks’ growth—supposed uncleanliness—off the table last year when its health department began publicly grading food trucks as they do restaurants. Truck owners—particularly those offering the higher-end fare—welcomed the rule, though Geller says that some owners have faced inspectors two or three times a month and incurred fines for small infractions. Unsurprisingly, he finds other regulatory rationales lacking. “They say, ‘We have to protect our restaurants.’ But how do they do that? They make it harder and harder to get permits. They know that 85 percent of restaurants fail within three years.”

L.A. city councilman Tom LaBonge, a key mobile-food critic, argues that food trucks interfere with motorists and delivery vehicles. “Commerce going on there [streets where trucks park] between 9:00 and 3:00 takes way someone else’s opportunity to park there,” he said in an interview with KPCC radio. With fewer customers parking on key commercial blocks, LaBonge argues, the city has more difficulty persuading businesses to locate in the neighborhood. He wants to create food-truck zones that would operate only from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.—a proposal that effectively would end breakfast and dinnertime business.

Daniel Conway of the California Restaurant Association wouldn’t necessarily go that far. But he says any solution to the tension between trucks and brick-and-mortar establishments must center on what he calls “regulatory parity.” Restauranteurs have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to health inspections, he argues, because of their fixed locations. Conway discounts food-truck owners’ complaints about heightened scrutiny; the mobile vendors, he says, often get the benefit of preparation and can schedule their inspections with a phone call. He points out that food trucks aren’t part of the community in the same way restaurants are. “Restauranteurs say to food trucks, ‘You get to choose your location, you get to go where the customers [are],’” he explains. Restauranteurs will do whatever they can to make their nearest corner look good and to see to it “that crimes are being reported, that the local businesses are doing well. They support their local little league teams. If the club down the street closes, you can’t just get up and move.” And restaurants can’t avoid the local taxes in their communities. Conway approvingly notes that putting GPS-monitoring chips on food trucks, as Portland does and Chicago just voted to do, would make enforcement and tax collection easier.

For his part, Choi doubts that more burdensome rules have anything to do with protecting the public. He says he pays his taxes, but he admits that the food-truck business continues to suffer from negative perceptions. Choi keeps “cooking and booking it” around Southern California, but if regulators eventually make his business unprofitable, he’ll find a way to adapt. “Another subculture would form,” he says, just as skateboarding continues on the streets, even after the introduction of skate parks.

It’s a long haul, and setbacks are inevitable, but Choi finds the mobile-food business and its impact on “the landscape of America’s cities” exhilarating. “Eighty percent of your life you are eating bland, boring, horrible food,” he says. The new generation of food trucks can change that for people who don’t have the time or money to eat out much. “It’s only the beginning,” Choi adds. It will be a loss for everyone if shortsighted officials cut the journey short.

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