3:29pm

Wed May 18, 2011
Around the Nation

Is The L.A. Food Truck Bubble Ready To Burst?

Originally published on Wed May 18, 2011 5:03 pm

The gourmet food truck craze that started in Los Angeles may be reaching its peak. These days, hundreds of gourmet food trucks are roving the Los Angeles streets, selling everything from Korean tacos to grilled cheese sandwiches, Indian street food to $12 hamburgers.

"It seems like every day, you see a new truck on Twitter," says Matt Chernus, who co-owns Grill 'em All. "It's getting to the point where you've got to wonder if this city can really hold this many trucks. Once you start seeing a copycat of every truck, you're going to see a downward spiral."

Chernus's heavy metal-themed meals-on-wheels came in first place in the reality TV show "The Great Food Truck Race" last year. He says there has been some infighting over territory and bragging rights between truck owners.

"I think everybody's cool at the end of the day, but of course there's always gonna be some smack talk going on between truck operators," Chernus says with a devilish smile. "I mean, I've definitely partaken in it."

'It's Kind Of Like Survivalism'

Some food bloggers and trend watchers are predicting the movement's demise. Some sites even make merciless fun of the hipster food armada. The backlash confounds chef Roy Choi.

"Why are they hating so much?" he says.

Choi's now-famous Kogi Korean taco trucks kicked off the new gourmet food truck movement just 2 1/2 years ago.

"You're the same ones that came wide-eyed like a doe and said, 'Wow, this is like so awesome,'" Choi says of the bloggers and journalists who have turned against the food trucks. "Now all of sudden, we ain't good enough for you? If push comes to shove, I rep the streets, you know? We never started these trucks claiming to be anything more than we were."

Kogi's cuisine earned a huge following, with fans tracking his trucks' moves online and inspiring entrepreneurs across the country. Choi and his partners now operate five trucks and opened three brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Now, it seems everyone is trying to get in on the winning formula, says Josh Hiller, co-owner of Road Stoves, which leases and promotes custom-equipped trucks to Kogi and a dozen others.

"We've had all the calls: 'We want to do Korean Mexican fusion, just like Kogi,'" says an exasperated Hiller. "You don't just knock someone off. But the cat's out of the bag, and people with trucks just want to make a buck. People sort of got in like the gold rush and a lot will fall by the wayside."

Now, corporate fast food chains like Jack in the Box and Domino's are getting in on the act, and some fear the underground spirit of the gourmet trucks is being co-opted.

"There's a lot of food trucks that are out there that we started with that have already gone out of business," says Eric Tjahyadi, co-owner of the French-Asian fusion truck and restaurant Komodo. "So now, it's kind of like survivalism. If you're gonna be a random hot dog truck vendor or whatever, you will be eaten alive by the competition. But creating a product that's compelling and unique helps."

A Secret Recipe

Long before the new wave of gourmet trucks, Raul Ortega started his old school taco truck in East Los Angeles: Mariscos Jalisco. Kogi's chef recommends it and some customers drive for two hours to eat the avocado shrimp tacos — a recipe from Ortega's home town, San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico.

Ortega and others in an association called the Loncheros Unidos are upset that some of the new food trucks seem to steal business from them and from established restaurants. Ortega also worries the attention may prompt more police crackdowns and city regulations.

"They don't understand this kind of business," Ortega says of many new food truck owners. "It takes a lot, a lot of work. A lot of patience, too."

Last year, Mariscos Jalisco competed against hipster trucks at the L.A. Street Food Fest. Ortega had to tow his broken-down taco truck to the Rose Bowl location, but he ended up winning "Best in Show" and the "People's Choice Award."

"I don't consider myself gourmet," Ortega says, "but we have something good. There's a secret recipe in there. A lot of people want it. Too bad."

Ortega sits back, amused. He's been around for more than a decade and says it will be interesting to see which of the newbies remain when the food truck bubble in Los Angeles finally bursts.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The gourmet food truck craze that started in Los Angeles may be peaking. Entrepreneurs are starting copycat trucks, and fast-food corporations are getting into the lunch game.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the food truck movement's bubble and its backlash.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In L.A. these days, there are hundreds of roving gourmet food trucks selling everything from Korean tacos to grilled cheese sandwiches, Indian street food to $12 hamburgers.

Mr. MATT CHERNUS (Co-Owner, Grill 'em All): So a Molly Hatchet, a Hannah Montana, no tomato and a water?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

DEL BARCO: Matt Chernus is co-owner of Grill 'em All, whose heavy metal-themed meals-on-wheels came in first place in the reality TV show "The Great Food Truck Race" last year.

Mr. CHERNUS: It seems like every day, you see a new truck on Twitter. It's getting to the point where, you know, you've got to wonder if this city can really hold this many trucks.

DEL BARCO: Chernus says there has been some infighting over territory and bragging rights.

Mr. CHERNUS: I think everybody's cool at the end of the day, but of course, there's always going to be some smack talk going on between truck operators. I mean, I've definitely partaken in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: These days, some food bloggers and trend watchers are predicting the movement's demise. Some sites even make merciless fun of the hipster food armada. The backlash confounds chef Roy Choi. His now-famous Kogi truck kicked off the new gourmet food truck movement just two and a half years ago.

Mr. ROY CHOI (Co-Owner, Kogi BBQ Truck): You are the same ones that came wide-eyed like a doe, you know, and said, wow, this is like so awesome. Now, all of a sudden, you know, we ain't good enough for you? (Bleep) If push comes to shove, I rep the streets, you know? We never started these trucks claiming to be anything more than we were.

DEL BARCO: Choi and his partners now operate five trucks and have opened three brick-and-mortar restaurants. Now, it seems everyone is trying to get in on the winning formula, says Josh Hiller, co-owner of Road Stoves. His company leases and promotes custom-equipped trucks to Kogi and a dozen others.

Mr. JOSH HILLER (Co-Owner, Road Stoves): We've had all the calls: We want to do Korean-Mexican fusion, just like Kogi. Well, that's - you don't just knock someone off. But the cat's out of the bag, and people with trucks just want to make a buck. You know, people sort of got in like the gold rush and a few will fall by the wayside - a lot will fall by the wayside.

DEL BARCO: Now, corporate fast-food chains like Jack in the Box and Domino's are getting in on the act. Eric Tjahyadi fears the underground spirit of the gourmet trucks is being co-opted. He co-owns the French-Asian fusion truck and restaurant Komodo.

Mr. ERIC TJAHYADI (Co-Owner, Komodo Restaurant): There's a lot of food trucks that are out there that we started with that has already gone out of business. So now, it's kind of like almost like survivalism, you know, like creating a product that's compelling and unique really helps.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Long before the new wave of gourmet trucks, Raul Ortega started his old-school taco truck in East L.A.: Mariscos Jalisco. Kogi's chef Choi recommends it, and some customers drive for two hours to eat the avocado shrimp tacos.

Mr. RAUL ORTEGA (Owner, Mariscos Jalisco): A recipe from our hometown in San Juan de los Lagos.

DEL BARCO: Ortega belongs to an association called the Loncheros Unidos. They're upset some of the new food trucks are stealing business from them and from restaurants. Ortega also worries the attention may prompt more police crackdowns and city regulations.

Mr. ORTEGA: They don't understand this kind of business. It takes a lot, a lot of work, a lot of patience too.

DEL BARCO: Last year, Mariscos Jalisco competed against hipster trucks at the L.A. Street Food Festival. Ortega had to tow his broken-down taco truck there but ended up winning Best in Show and the People's Choice Award.

Mr. ORTEGA: I don't consider myself a gourmet, but we have something good. There's a secret recipe in there. A lot of people want it - too bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Raul Ortega sits back, amused. He's been around for more than a decade and says it will be interesting to see which of the newbies remain when the food truck bubble in L.A. finally bursts.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program