|LOS ANGELES — Eight food trucks are already serving lunch on a business street in Santa Monica, Calif., on a recent Tuesday. Yet when India Jones Chow Truck cruises to the curb, a line forms quickly. Jason Shepley waits for his korma-dal-rice combo. “I just love this food; I am a regular,” he tells India-West.
Dosa Truck is parked, along with two others, on the UCLA campus. Students and staff amble over to grab a dosa or samosas and walk away with their lunches. Among them is Ryan Caron, who says his favorite sweet-potato dosa is unique.
Sumant Pardal and Leena Deneroff, owners of the two businesses, respectively, serve Indian fare from their trucks at locations around Los Angeles to as many as 100 to 300 customers daily. The line, Pardal says, is sometimes 50-70 people deep.
The two are among a handful of “gourmet” mobile Indian eateries in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas that are part of the food truck phenomenon that has gripped metropolitan areas across the country in the last two years. Los Angeles, where their following is tremendous, has nearly 3,000 including 200-300 “gourmet trucks.” These are a new generation of food trucks that serve ethnic and off-beat fare; the rest are traditional “taco trucks” serving burgers and Mexican food.
A cursory Google search reveals that Indian food trucks flourish in Texas, New York, North Carolina and other states.
Gourmet trucks proliferated after Kogi’s Korean Barbecue Truck became a sensation in Los Angeles. It raised the bar of street food with its Latin-Asian fusion tacos at a time when only traditional trucks roamed constructions sites and other blue-collar work areas.
Creative marketing has rendered gourmet trucks hip, an experience propelled by social media that, many say, is not to be bypassed.
Food trucks are mainstream in Los Angeles, Pardal told India-West, where once they were looked down upon. “People shoot pics of themselves eating at a food truck with their iPhones and post them on Facebook,” added Kim Billingsley of No Tomatoes, the latest Indian food truck to hit Los Angeles. She and owner Neeraj Patel have been on the road just three weeks.
Delicious Idea in a Sour Economy
When Pardal, an experienced restaurateur who has previously owned 12 restaurants in Los Angeles, was dished out a raw deal in his last venture, he jumped into the food truck business. It seems well suited for a down economy, he says.
A culinary truck requires far less capital than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Trucks are mostly leased and single trucks are often 2-4 person operations.
Prices at the food trucks seem to wash down well with customers, too. They walk away with an entree for $4.50-$8.50 with an additional $1-$3 for a drink.
Easier economics allowed Rana and Akash Kapoor of Bay Area’s Curry Up Now to go from one to three trucks within a year. Their investment is substantially higher as they own their trucks and employ 15-20. Although the foodie couple, like others India-West talked with, are wannabe-restaurateurs, they are expanding their food truck business to Los Angeles, Oregon, Washington and Texas.
Deneroff, too, was thwarted by the financial demand of a restaurant. For the creative cook who, as a college student, worked at resort kitchens on the East Coast, the food truck was a happy compromise. Hers was the first Indian food truck in Los Angeles, she told India-West, when she started 18 months ago. She chose dosas because of a dearth of south Indian restaurants in the area. A Russian yoga practitioner steeped in Indian culture, she first tasted dosas years ago at an ashram in New York.
Patel hopes his food truck experience will prove valuable in starting a bar and restaurant in the future.
Gourmet trucks have lately grabbed a new clientele: the tech-savvy middle-class, corporate crowd and university students.
The Pennsylvania Avenue location in Santa Monica, a favorite with India Jones, is bang in the middle of MTV, Yahoo and City National Bank offices whose employees stroll down and take their pick from 5-10 different trucks. Offerings range from organic beef hot dogs, falafel, fish tacos, and sushi rolls, to ethnic and fusion cuisines. Curry Up Now regularly feeds San Francisco’s Financial District. Deneroff also targets yoga studios and alternate-lifestyle seekers.
Movie and TV studies in Hollywood invite them as well. Dosa Truck fed the “Outsourced” crew just last month. An excited Parvesh Cheena, who plays Gupta on NBC’s popular serial, tweeted, “It’s Dosa Truck Day…! It’s a fun day for lunch for OUTSOURCED!” and then posted a picture of him with the truck. India Jones has catered to TV serials “Law & Order” and “NCIS.”
Food trucks are mostly popular in cosmopolitan urban areas such as Silver Lake, Downtown, Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica in Southern California. Kapoor’s trucks go to San Francisco, Redwood City, Burlingame and Sunnyvale.
They park at different locations every day for lunch, their most important meal. On weekends, they cater to private parties or work public events that have a potential for large sales.
The competition has, however, gotten stiff in Los Angeles now, compelling some to change their strategy. Rather than jostle for street space, Deneroff prefers to go where invited — private parties, public events or large companies such as Trident and Hulu. “That has made all the difference,” she says, in keeping her business profitable.
In the smaller Bay Area market, Curry Up Now appears to enjoy a monopoly as the only Indian food truck so far among 12-15 gourmet trucks. “People come to us wherever we go,” Akash Kapoor told India-West. He estimates the region has about 500 food trucks. Customers like the convenience of having a variety of food right outside their workplace, and trucks owners say their mobility allows them to pick lucrative locations.
Taste and Twitter Combo
“Food trucks should not be like a restaurant offering 150 items; it has to be fun,” explains Pardal. “It is a glorified ‘thela,’ a roadside stall.”
Most menus feature street food that owners loved eating in India and traditional north Indian fare. Items are tweaked to appeal to their largely non-Indian client base, packaged niftily for easy handling, and given intriguing names.
The food is mostly prepared on the truck, assembled per order and served within a couple of minutes. The Kapoors, whose operation is larger, lease a storage facility and a prep kitchen.
Keeping the taste authentic, the Kapoors have “tacoized” their menu. Punjabi By Nature, for instance, is a saag panner and chicken tikka masala burrito, and Deconstructed Samosa is an inside-out pastry in three varieties – paneer, chicken, keema — topped with chana, pico and chutneys.
“Salad o’crepe,” is how Deneroff describes a dosa to a first-timer. The bestseller on her all-vegetarian menu is, of course, “Slumdog Dosa,” with cilantro-methi-sesame pesto spread on a dosa stuffed with paneer, spinach and potatoes. Her other dosas derive their names from Indian mythology, such as Shiva-Shakti, a half-and-half of sweet potato and masala dosa; and Brahma’s Boon, an onion-mushroom-cheese dosa.
India Jones offers six types of frankies, three types of stuffed parathas and three curries served over rice, including its most popular butter-chicken, all chef Pardal’s own creations.
No Tomatoes has kathi rolls, spicy chapli bun with cold slaw, and biryani. “The challenge is to get people to try it. Once they do, they are converted,” says Patel.
However, the success formula, Pardal emphasizes, is when a customer takes a bite of your food, and goes ‘wow.’
Clever use of social media is the backbone of this new phenomenon. Truckies post their daily locations and menu on their Web site, Facebook or Twitter pages, and have developed a large following. Between 4,000-6,000 track India Jones, Dosa Truck and Curry Up Now each on Twitter. Aggregate sites mobilecravings.com and roaming hunger.com list trucks around the country. Curry Up Now also takes orders from iPhones and Android phones.
There isn’t a significant increase in the number of these trucks but technology-driven marketing has raised their profile, says Terrance Powell of the Los Angeles County Environmental Heath Division, which regulates food trucks. The county will start assigning letter grades to food trucks, similar to restaurants, from January, he says.
The excitement of being in this trendy business is tempered by the hard work it demands. Kapoor juggles working the truck with running a debt management company, and Patel holds down his sales job at a telecom venture along with his new business.
“It’s not a deal where you can hire many employees and turn a profit,” Pardal told India-West. “Here, you have to be cook, owner and operator.”
Maintaining the right temperature on the truck for fermenting dal is just one of the myriad challenges Deneroff faces. For Kapoor, coordinating between his storage, prep kitchen and three trucks is akin to wizardry. Recently, he had to round up rental generators within two hours to replace the ones that broke down on his trucks.
“The whole work of putting food in front of people from a truck is very hard,” he says, adding, “This is the hardest I have ever worked in my life,” a sentiment the others whole-heartedly echo.