California Firm Helps Make Food Truck Phenomenon

Rodney Eaton and his wife, Elma, say as the restaurant-on-wheels phenomenon has taken off, their Lake Elsinore business, California Cart Builder, is providing twice as many quotes to prospective customers as it did earlier this year.

Rodney Eaton and his wife, Elma, say as the restaurant-on-wheels phenomenon has taken off, their Lake Elsinore business, California Cart Builder, is providing twice as many quotes to prospective customers as it did earlier this year.

By TIFFANY RAY

Elma and Rod Eaton, founders of California Cart Builder, came by the business inadvertently. All they meant to do was sell hot dogs.

In 1999, the couple decided they wanted to start a side business for “vacation money,” so they hired a guy to build them a hot dog cart. Rod Eaton, then a pressman on a Los Angeles printing press, worked after hours to help build the cart to make sure it met their specifications.

After six months hawking dogs outside a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Norco, someone offered to buy the business.

The Eatons set up a second cart outside a swap meet in Cypress. Three months later, someone bought it. The third cart sold before they got it off the lot.

It occurred to the Eatons that perhaps there was a better business opportunity in manufacturing.

In 2000, Rod Eaton quit his job as a pressman and the couple started building carts full-time. A few years later, they graduated to trucks and trailers.

The Eatons gave up cart-building in 2007 after changes in state codes made it cost-prohibitive. Today, they complete about four trucks and trailers per month, Elma Eaton said.

Although their largest customer base is Southern California, they see little demand from the Inland area, where county codes restrict most types of mobile food vendors. Elma Eaton said restrictions here are the most stringent she’s seen in California.

California Cart vehicles run as large as 53 feet for a trailer and can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $500,000.

Elma Eaton said she sees a lot of cooking-school graduates looking to establish themselves, and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs wanting a business of their own. She also is seeing a growing number of corporate food chains ordering vehicles. The company’s recent clients have included Subway, Wahoo’s Fish Taco, California Pizza Kitchen and Fatburger, and they’ve shipped vehicles as far away as Australia, Iceland and Dubai.

Elma Eaton said the company is providing 500 quotes a month to prospective customers, double the number from earlier in the year, and “I think we’re still on the beginning curve.”

Angie Pappas, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, said social media sites such as Twitter have helped spur the growth of the trend by enabling truck operators to connect directly with consumers. The trend has lured well-known chefs along with huge media attention, including the Food Network and the Travel Channel, she said. A website, MobiMunch.com, offers lists of trucks by city.

“I think they’re probably here to stay,” Pappas said.

Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the association, said food trucks lower the barrier of entry into the restaurant industry and offer entrepreneurs as well as established businesses a way to build their brand. They are also a way to test new markets before committing to a brick-and-mortar presence.

Restaurants are always looking for ways to get closer to customers, whether it’s with drive-through windows, mall food courts or the freezer sections of grocery stores, Conway said. “What better way to get close to your customers than to pull up in front of their building?”

Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a food-industry research group, said concerns about zoning laws, food-safety regulations and parking will be a hindrance for a while because there are no universal rules. But operators are looking for ways to increase sales and take advantage of social media, and food trucks are less expensive than opening a restaurant. Paul said he expects franchising to begin at some point. “I think it’s on a growth path for some time to come.”