Really fast food
Social networks and diverse menus create instant success for a growing number of fast-food trucks
By Justin Chapman 07/22/2010
They’ve seen their share of controversy over the past few years, but mobile food trucks — many now offering fare that is affordable, convenient and delicious — only seem to be growing in presence and popularity across Los Angeles County.
One reason for this surge in the number of these types of mobile meal trucks cruising around is the deft marriage of instant communication — social networking tools like smart phones, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet — with instant accessibility to a product, in this case good, cheap food on wheels, or these days, really fast food.
Many of these trucks have also been expanding their menus, going from simple burritos and tacos to a tantalizing collection of sometimes exotic cuisines — Korean barbeque to Vietnamese sandwiches to Chinese dumplings.
While areas of LA County and other cities around the country have cracked down in recent years on taco trucks in particular, about 30 fast-food trucks have applied for permits to operate in Pasadena, according to Ronald Victor, an inspector with the Pasadena Health Department’s Environmental Division. And that number is only growing, he said, with as many as 20 more mobile meal trucks applying for permits so far this year.
Victor believes there are two main reasons for the rising number of these trucks. One is the worsening economy. “A lot of people who want to go into the restaurant business realize that the overhead is less with a truck,” Victor said. “If you have a building, you have to pay utility bills and you have more staff, among other factors. That goes into the decision-making of the operator. A lot of people who are going to culinary school, once they do the research they figure the cost of running a truck is much smaller than your standard culinary restaurant.”
The other reason, Victor said, is Twitter and similar social networking sites, which have revolutionized advertising possibilities, giving these otherwise tiny businesses huge exposure across cyberspace.
Most trucks have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a Web site where they post menus and locations where their trucks will be parked and operating. Most of the trucks working in Pasadena also offer catering services for almost any event.
“The use of new online technology and smart phones has also played a large role in the proliferation of these trucks,” Victor said.
One such food truck company, Kogi, has a Web site, kogibbq.com, with a calendar letting its more than 50,000 followers know where its four trucks will be on any given day, be it Orange County or Eagle Rock. According to Kogi Chef Roy Choi, “Kogi has developed a menu that delivers high-end food at street-level prices.” With a Korean-Mexican combination menu and its use of online networking, it’s no wonder Kogi is one of the most popular food truck companies in LA County.
But while Pasadena residents seem to be enjoying food from the growing number of mobile food trucks, other communities around the county and across the country consider them a nuisance, with some creating restrictions aimed at limiting or ending their operations in places stretching from Palos Verdes Estates to Houston, Des Moines and North Carolina. Governing bodies in these places, according to a 2008 Time magazine report, passed laws specifying when, where and how these types of trucks can operate.
In one instance in Georgia, the magazine reported, an official called the growth of taco trucks there “gypsy-fication.” In another, officials in Jefferson Parish, La., banned those types of trucks completely. Before his case was thrown out of court, an attorney in Houston representing a vendor called that city’s recently enacted anti-taco truck laws “a classic case of discrimination, because 95 percent of the people who own them are Hispanic.”
UC Davis Law School Dean and Chicano Studies Professor Kevin Johnson told Time that restaurant owners who are often most opposed to these types of businesses tend to be longer-term residents and taco truck owners more recent arrivals. “This, in my mind, is another example of that tension between the established Mexican-American citizens and the immigrants,” he told the magazine.
In spring 2008, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed restrictions on food trucks operating in unincorporated areas. But those rules were later struck down by a Superior Court judge as unconstitutional. In some cases, it was the owners of Mexican restaurants who tried to get rid of the trucks, which are viewed as competing unfairly by having little overhead and being able to park anywhere for any length of time. In fact, one such county restriction made it illegal to park a taco truck in one spot for more than an hour, a crime once punishable by a $60 fine that would now be $1,000 or six months in jail or both.
In other places around the country, however, taco truck opposition has come to symbolize resistance to the growing number of immigrants moving into those communities.
“It’s hard for me to see how this whole taco truck controversy is separate and apart from the continuing clash of cultures in the US,” Johnson told Time.
To get into the business, most operators apply for a permit with the county. Once approved, trucks requesting to operate in Pasadena must undergo a second going-over during which city inspectors make sure the trucks have basic amenities, such as cold and hot water, a sizable sink to clean, rinse and sanitize utensils, and the proper equipment to handle hot and cold foods. Food trucks are also required to have a designated commissary where they can properly dispose of waste from holding tanks at the end of the day. While Pasadena does have one commissary, it is mainly used for a smaller type of food push cart, according to Victor. Therefore, Pasadena requires food truck operators to submit a letter from a commissary somewhere in LA County where they can park, clean up and dispose of waste.
While most food trucks operate all over the county, many make regular stops in Pasadena, giving summer diners many great selections to choose from. All have Web sites with calendars and locations, and most use Twitter and Facebook to inform their customers where they’re going to be. Some of these include Cool Haus Ice Cream Sandwiches (eatcoolhaus.com), The Grilled Cheese Truck (thegrilledcheesetruck.com) and Helen Pan’s Dumpling Station (dumplingstation.com), which serves a wide array of Taiwanese dumplings and other tasty, inexpensive meals. Pan said she has 1,200 followers on their Twitter account.
Pan’s Dumpling Station truck services Pasadena on a regular basis because the owners are also residents of the city. They operate in other communities, some as far away as Torrance, but they have great backing in Pasadena.
“We love serving our food in Pasadena,” said Pan. “The community has been really good to us.”
Editor Kevin Uhrich contributed to this report.