When Boston City Councilor Mike Ross wanted to craft legislation to promote food trucks in Boston, he turned to Morris Appel and Josh Hiller, major players in the food truck business in Los Angeles, where mobile eateries have exploded over the last three years.
Ross, who became a food truck evangelist after he stumbled into the inaugural Boston Food Truck Festival at SoWa market last August, flew with Councilor Salvatore LaMattina to Los Angeles to ask Appel and Hiller for advice. And they wanted to see the state of food trucks there for themselves. Now that Boston’s own food truck initiative is off the ground, the two councilmen invited Hiller, 38, and Appel, 38, to Boston, where, in pouring rain last week, they had a tour.
Appel and Hiller played major roles in the opening of Kogi Korean BBQ, generally considered one of the first food trucks in Los Angeles. Kogi’s fusion cuisine of short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas suddenly became stunningly popular. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it “the taco vendor that has overtaken Los Angeles.’’ Newsweek called it “America’s first viral eatery.’’
Appel, whose family had owned and operated canteen trucks for generations, leased the first truck for Kogi cofounders Mark Manguera, Caroline Shin Manguera, and Roy Choi. Hiller, an entertainment lawyer, offered legal advice. When Kogi took off, Appel and Hiller started Roadstoves, a company that leases food trucks and helps entrepreneurs get started – providing essentially what they did for Kogi. Now they have over 200 trucks under their umbrella and have launched other well known trucks, such as Nom Nom, Grilled Cheese, Bad Ass Burgers, and Flying Pig.
The duo were impressed with Ross and LaMattina. “We get this a lot,’’ says Appel. “We get a lot of talkers. But they weren’t just talkers. We knew something good was going to happen when we had two pro-business City Council members.’’
The first destination is a tour of the trucks on the Greenway, but since it’s both windy and rainy, only a few are out. The group huddles around umbrellas outside Grilled Cheese Nation. Ross steps into the truck and pokes his head in the fridge while Appel admires the size of the truck. “They won’t let us have such a small chassis in LA,’’ he sighs, noting that smaller trucks are easier to park. “I want to make trucks this size.’’
The next stop is City Hall, to check out the trucks that won the coveted spot through the Boston Food Truck Challenge, which encouraged entrepreneurs to provide healthy and sustainable food. There, Hiller is a bit miffed to see bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwich) truck Bon Me, noting that his bahn mi truck, Nom Nom, was probably first. But once he starts chatting with Patrick Lynch, who co-owns Bon Me, the two strike up a congenial banter about the relative merits of Boston and Los Angeles.
“You guys have it good,’’ Hiller says. In LA, he says, “if you sold a lot, there’d be seven trucks here the next day.’’
Lynch counters, “It’s a lot easier to get started in LA. And you guys have a longer selling season.’’
Appel ambles up to them, “How are you doing in this location?’’
Lynch, looking up at the sky, “It’s very weather dependent.’’
Says Hiller, “In LA, nobody would be out in weather like this.’’
Back in the car, on the way to the Go Fish truck, parked outside the Christian Science Center’s children’s fountain, LaMattina and Morris complain about the clustering of food trucks at popular spots in Los Angeles.
“Remember when we went to Wilshire [Boulevard] and there were 12 to 14 trucks lined up?’’ asks Appel.
“I didn’t like that,’’ says LaMattina.
“It’s too saturated,’’ says Appel.
The topic is still on Appel’s mind while he enjoys a bowl of clam chowder.
“Two trucks is character. Twenty trucks,’’ he shakes his head. “You don’t want 20 food trucks putting P.F. Chang’s out of business,’’ gesturing to the restaurant across the street. “It’s just not fair.’’
Then it’s off to the last stop, the Dining Car, where LaMattina performs the balancing act of holding an umbrella, sipping jasmine tea, and eating a pulled pork sandwich at the same time.
When asked why he cares so much about food trucks, Ross says, “It is one thing that makes a city more interesting. It creates jobs. Easily 200 jobs in a down economy, and it doesn’t cost us a lot to regulate. I visited other cities to see where they’re finding success.’’
“This is great for us because we can take it back and say – done right, there are a lot of advantages to food trucks,’’ Appel adds.
Will Koji come to Boston?