On any given day, hungry San Diegans craving a quick, appetizing lunch that doesn’t involve a trip to the cafeteria or the nearest fast-food outlet can sign on to their Twitter and Facebook accounts and within seconds find a nearby food truck peddling upscale comfort food, ethnic cuisine, barbecue and even dessert.
Running the gamut from gourmet burgers and lobster grilled cheese to pierogi and New York-style pizzas, food trucks are serving up a new brand of on-the-go fare that is enriching some entrepreneurs while challenging the staying power of other wannabe restaurateurs.
Although still a nascent movement in San Diego County, mobile food operations have mushroomed from just a couple of trucks a little more than a year ago to about 40, with more on the way. Their presence is largely confined to the city of San Diego, focusing on locations with a heavy concentration of businesses to take advantage of the lunch trade.
Food trucks are hardly a new phenomenon in the culinary landscape, having been around for decades as the so-called “roach coaches” and taco trucks that roamed construction sites and other blue-collar workplaces. Their latest incarnation, which first blossomed in foodie havens like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, is now cropping up in cities across America as food-savvy consumers search for more convenient and innovative dining options.
The National Restaurant Association, which has identified food trucks as one of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry, recently found that an increasing number of consumers are much more likely to purchase a meal at a mobile eatery than they were just a year ago.
Nearly six out of 10 surveyed by the association during the summer said they would be likely to visit a food truck if their favorite restaurant offered one, up from 47 percent just one year ago.
“Because of their mobility, food trucks are here to stay,” said San Diego restaurant consultant Tom Kelley. “What is driving consumers is (their desire) to find something authentic and unique that has novelty, rather than places they already know exist in their neighborhoods. They are a great draw for suburban office parks and downtown locations.
“They have to work, though, on finding a peaceful coexistence with their brick-and-mortar fellow restaurateurs. We are already seeing organizations forming to advance the interests of mobile food outlets.”
In Los Angeles County, where there are an estimated 240 of the latest generation of food trucks, a membership association was formed early last year as an advocacy group to help vendors navigate the maze of county health and municipal code regulations governing the industry.
Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, said he has started talking to San Diego operators to gauge their interest in joining the group now that there is a critical mass of trucks.
“At a food truck, it’s a very communal, bazaar-type experience, and people are enjoying that,” said Geller. “With restaurants, the barrier to entry is very high, so people are coming up with really inventive cuisines without taking such a huge chance as they’d take on a restaurant.”
Still, the expenses associated with a mobile operation can be high. Some tricked-out food trucks, dressed with fanciful graphics and outfitted with high-end kitchen equipment, can run $100,000 and more. There are business license and health department permit fees and daily charges for storing the trucks overnight at commissaries.
And as the food truck marketplace becomes more congested and the competition keener, it can be difficult for some operators to remain financially solvent. Some early trucks have already suspended operation. In order to turn a healthy profit, many supplement their streetside operations with catering for events and private parties, and some have proved so successful they’ve launched a second truck.
Some restaurants, like the Jack in the Box chain and Cohn Restaurant Group, are also embracing the mania for curbside cookery, in part to generate extra catering revenue but also as a way to more widely market their operations.
“We’ve put about $270,000 into two food trucks, and you could have done a very small turnkey brick-and-mortar operation for less than that,” said Deborah Scott, a chef and partner in two of the Cohn restaurants. “But I don’t have any regrets. Diversity is good for the business, and it’s like a moving billboard that generates new business for us.”
Juan Miron, who was among the first to open one of the newer style trucks last year, acknowledges that the industry in San Diego is still in flux.
“It definitely will become a saturated market in the next year,” said Juan Miron, co-owner of the MIHO Gastrotruck, which will debut a second truck next month. “Right now, there are a lot of trucks that are struggling, trying to find solid lunch locations. A lot of trucks start off thinking this is a fun new business. You just create a website, come up with a menu, buy a truck and go out and sell your food and you’ll make money.
“You really have to have something that differentiates you from the other trucks, plus being very savvy with social media, so it’s a tough industry.”