The New Meals On Wheels

By: Brittany Hersh

Drive through Los Angeles at lunch hour and you will see them. Colorful trucks with clever names such as Flying Pig, Shrimp Pimp and Me So Hungry dot the busy streets.

The gourmet food truck trend is sweeping through Los Angeles and other major cities in the United States with fervor.

This new wave of traveling restaurants differs from the typical taco truck found on the local street corner or construction site. Professional chefs started many of the trucks, taking their business skills and love of food to the streets. These mobile restaurants offer gourmet cuisine at reasonable prices. Patrons can choose from Korean-Mexican tacos and Vietnamese sandwiches to southern BBQ and red velvet cookies.

Food trucks are starting to get national attention. Last summer, Food Network had a show entitled “The Great Food Truck Race” hosted by celebrity chef Tyler Florence Four of the seven trucks featured were from Los Angeles: Nana Queens, Crepes Bonaparte, Nom Nom and Grill ‘Em All.

Although Crepes Bonaparte owners Christian and Danielle Murcia have operated a catering business since 2008, the couple had just launched their street truck a month prior to the start of the show. While trying to work out the kinks, the owners found themselves driving across the country.

“We had done our research in how to operate in Orange County and Los Angeles so it was challenging and different to operate our business in cities we had never been to,” Danielle said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Since appearing on the Food Network, the business has seen an increase in customers. Their most popular savory crepe is the Caprese, which combines chicken, mozzarella, tomato and pesto. As for the desert crepe, many patrons prefer the strawberry, banana and Nutella filling of the HazelBerryAna.

The couple hopes to launch a second truck within the year and eventually open a brick and mortar restaurant.

In 2008, Kogi BBQ owners Mark Manguera, Caroline Shin-Manguera and Chef Roy Choi came to the Morris Appel with an idea for a Korean BBQ truck. Appel, also known as the “Godfather of mobile catering,” had been in the food truck industry for 40 years. After helping Kogi BBQ launch their truck, he partnered with his friend Josh Hiller and started Road Stoves.

Road Stoves provides an array of services for a food truck entrepreneur, such as fully equipped trucks with GPS maps, permits, insurance, truck storage and maintenance, food and marketing. Including Kogi BBQ, the company works with 25 trucks.

According to Hiller, Road Stoves gets hundreds of truck inquiries a day but only a few make the cut.

“We pride ourselves on being the best,” Hiller said. “We want good citizens and people that respect the city and other business owners.”

One characteristic that defines these new food trucks is their use of social media. Trucks will Tweet or post on their Facebook page their location for that day. Many of them also have websites that feature a weekly schedule and menu.

However, following multiple Twitter pages can get tedious. Websites like TruxMap and Cluster Truck compile a list of currently open food trucks and their locations in one convenient place. Road Stoves recently launched an application for the iPhone and Android, which uses GPS tracking to find truck locations.

Hiller believes the rise in social media combined with the downturn economy is the reason for the food truck trend. Food trucks offer good food at affordable prices.

“The movement is really about creative concepts, creative timing and creative locations,” Hiller said. “This is a generation hungry for a different social media experience.”

One of the most popular trucks in the Los Angeles area is The Grilled Cheese Truck. Started by Chefs Dave Danhi and Michele Grant, the truck’s popularity has grown significantly since its inception a little over a year ago.

Social media has given the truck a large fan base with 27,423 followers on Twitter and 18,004 friends on Facebook.

“Without social media, we wouldn’t be the company we are for sure,” Grant said. “It’s about the community and it gives us a chance to know other grilled cheese fanatics.”

Grant believes the growth in food trucks may be due to the difficult economic times. With less money to spend, people can still get gourmet food. Eating at a food truck is also a different and fun dining experience.

“There is something wonderful about street food and its adventure,” Grant said. “Americans have gotten more adventurous and have been exposed to different types of food.”

According to Grant, Danhi entered the 2009 Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles with his now famous Cheesy Mac and Rib. The dish combines sharp cheddar, macaroni and cheese, barbeque pork and caramelized onions. While his sandwich did not win the competition, the mass of grilled cheese lovers sparked the idea for a food truck.

Currently, the company has two trucks and hopes to serve both lunch and dinner at least four times a week. Everyone from college students and business people to grandparents and families, even tourists, frequent the truck.

“Grilled cheese is a common denominator among people across the United States,” Grant said. “We have fans all over the world.”

With the popularity of the truck, the wait could be anywhere from five minutes to over an hour. In order to move people through faster, a person can only purchase up to five grilled cheese sandwiches at one time. If a person wants more than that number, they will have to get back in line. This policy also ensures there will be enough grilled cheese to go around. The chefs try to get the customers their sandwiches within ten minutes.

Another obstacle to overcome is the impression that food trucks are dirty. The Grilled Cheese Truck makes sure their operating at a clean standard.

“There is a stereotype and that is why we are so vigilant in cleaning and handling food,” Grant said.

According to Hiller, food trucks in Los Angeles County will soon be receiving letter grades like restaurants for cleanliness. Grant is looking forward to the letter grade because it will showcase all the crews’ hard work in keeping the truck sanitary.

The gourmet food truck trend is spreading throughout the United States and shows no intentions of slowing down. That’s good news for your stomach, bad news for your wallet.

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