Roadstoves: A Call for Civility Among Food Trucks

Benjamin Simpson Josh Hiller takes food trucks seriously. photo Benjamin Simpson

By L.J. Williamson |

Benjamin Simpson Josh Hiller takes food trucks seriously. photo Benjamin Simpson

The fryers, grills and steam tables are turned off, but the insides of the food trucks stored in the parking lot of Josh Hiller’s business are greenhouse-hot. Most have, on the ceiling, a small blue window that tilts open, but they clearly aren’t big enough to cool down an operating food truck. On a hot summer day in the Valley, the interiors of these mobile kitchens can climb to 130, 140 degrees.

That’s plenty hot, but perhaps not as heated as the relationship between Hiller and some of his competitors. More than anything, it’s a culture clash.

If, as Hiller says, Kogi is to food trucks as Jesus is to Christians, then Roadstoves is the manger.

Hiller and business partner Morris Appel run Roadstoves, a full-service operation catering to food trucks. Roadstoves provides parking for food trucks, a repair shop and a commissary. It also serves as strategic planner, logistics handler, outfitter and concept designer to many of L.A.’s best-regarded food trucks. That includes Kogi, of course, as well as the Grilled Cheese Truck, Cart for a Cause, Baby’s Badass Burgers and the Sweets Truck. The lot has room for about 90 trucks, and every slot is full.

Before the relatively recent renaissance of the mobile food business, humble roach coaches had roamed the town for decades.

The food has taken a big step up in recent years, but Hiller believes food truck etiquette has gotten worse.

Hiller is something of a zealot on this point, and he often finds himself swimming against the tide. For starters, he believes businesses like Roadstoves should provide more than a parking space. They also should help food truck operators understand the etiquette and history involved.

“It’s like the NBA,” Hiller explains. “You can go to a park and play because there’s a hoop and rim, but it’s not really what the NBA does. We created the marketing, the branding, we talk to everyone that comes in and we try to educate them about the streets. It’s really a more fully absorbed passion of ours, versus just, ‘Give us a couple bucks, go out and take a truck.'”

The educational part of Roadstoves’ mission is bolstered by more than 20 years of experience in sending catering trucks out on the streets of L.A.

“The other lot owners, they don’t care: ‘Do whatever you want, you’re paying our rent.’ That’s seeing half the picture.”

Hiller has no patience with truck owners who fail to look at the business holistically, or who fail to understand the proper role for mobile food.

“When the Brig started First Fridays, that’s what food trucks are for. But then when you had 30 trucks lining Abbot Kinney, you’re gonna have a lot of people with vested interests coming after you, and trucks are gonna start cannibalizing each other. Fighting the whole system just to make a hundred bucks? There’s no future in that.”

Hiller attributes these increasingly common conflicts to a lack of street smarts. Great food isn’t enough. Upstarts have to understand things like how to work with the city, the health department and the Department of Transportation.

“The other lot owners manage lots and rent trucks, but they don’t operate their own trucks, so they don’t really have relationships on the street. So there’s no respect about how it affects traffic, businesses.”

Hiller also has more than a few choice words for the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association and its head man, Matt Geller, whom Hiller blames in large part for facilitating a cavalier, even defiant attitude among some food truck owners.

“They wouldn’t necessarily be having the type of conflicts they’re having had it not been for his meddling, because what he did is really create this rallying cry of, ‘We can go anywhere, we can do anything, and anyone that tries to stop us is not within their legal right.’ Which is false.

“And even if you have the legal right to do that, you shouldn’t. You’re just being a dick. There’s business karma. If you’re gonna be a dick, it’s gonna come back to you.”

The rash of newer, upstart trucks that lack street smarts has sapped some of the excitement from the gourmet truck trend, as well as resulting in a watering down of quality, Hiller says.

“It was all the sorta hacks who just flooded here who have created the bad will. Kogi worked hard to maintain business relationships. If there was a problem here, they’d go somewhere else. They worked it out so they only went where they were wanted, and that’s not by accident. That’s the environment in which they were educated.”

Hiller also sees Roadstoves’ role as something of a gatekeeper, a finger in the dyke that threatens to deluge L.A. with a wave of mediocre vendors.

“Just about everyone who has a truck out there has come to us first, and we’ve said no for whatever reason — not a good concept, not good people, didn’t have the right mojo.

“After Kogi, we had 75 or 80 people come to us that wanted to do Korean-Mexican fusion, and we just said no. The point is to be creative, think of something new. If you’re the type of person who is just gonna see someone else making money and say, ‘That’s mine,’ well, no.”