BY LAURIE LUCAS| The Press-Enterprise.com
Keith Kahn, president of an industrial food service provider, is hungry for change. So he has created a new niche in the Inland area. But he knows it’s a gamble, fraught with irony.
More than a year ago, his company, Complete Food Service Inc., launched an IE Gourmet Food Trucks division.
Ironic, because at the time, Riverside and San Bernardino counties were the only two counties in the state banning trucks from selling hot, freshly prepared food except for special occasions.
For decades, his company has been supplying refrigerated vending machine snacks — drinks, chips, sandwiches, ice cream, salads, pastries, burritos — to distribution centers within 40 minutes of its Jurupa Valley headquarters. Nothing is cooked onboard the vehicles. Packaged and labeled, the food is dispatched on designated routes to customers.
But now Kahn, 55, who lives in Redlands, is pinning hopes on his home county to eventually waive all restrictions. San Bernardino County relented a bit in July, allowing hot-food trucks to operate in unincorporated — typically under-populated — areas under permit at sanctioned events.
Kahn is optimistic that the county’s cities will follow suit and adopt their own ordinances along the same lines or allow trucks even more freedom in cruising the streets.
“We’re waiting, biding our time,” Kahn said. And meanwhile, “I’ve become a foodie.”
After researching, contacting and sampling fare from many of the 300 hot-food trucks based in Los Angeles and Orange counties (three in Riverside and San Bernardino counties), Kahn re-invented himself as a gourmet chow expert. “It’s fun, exciting,” he said, “a breath of fresh air.”
Kahn is eager to roll with and roll out some of these trendy novelties. He’s hooked on “food with a twist,” such as beer-battered avocado tacos, chicken pesto crepes and waffles smeared with Nutella.
To promote and market them, the food king happily has assumed the role of event coordinator. He charges a booking fee for the gourmet food vendors he lines up for fundraisers, festivals and other permitted special occasions in the Inland Empire.
It’s not just the smorgasbord of Greek, Vietnamese, Korean and Southern comfort delectables, but the sense of community generated around these coaches, he said.
Kahn is determined to prove to truck operators that there is, indeed, a market here for their unusual grub. His goal is to anchor them full time at his company’s commissary where they’d pay a service change. Also ironic is that the health department has approved his company’s kitchen for hot-food trucks in a county that won’t allow them free rein.
In just a short time, as the emissary for purveyors of everything from lobster corndogs to red velvet pancakes, Kahn has gained enough clout to book their operators for nearly a dozen events.
Most recently, he wooed 26 vendors to the Corona Gourmet Food Truck Festival at the Shops at Dos Lagos on Saturday, Aug. 25. He sought a variety of one-of-a-kind fare to guarantee exclusivity for each operator.
“Keith does his homework to do everything the right way,” said George Wu, co-owner of Waffles de Liege. “The Inland Empire is very receptive to food trucks. When you work with someone who cares as much as Keith, it makes it easy to work with him.”
Wu said the drive to The Shops at Dos Lagos was worth it: They sold 250 tickets at $4.50 a pop. Waffles de Liege works out of a commercial kitchen in Lynwood, but Wu said it would consider adding a second lorry and use Kahn’s commissary should the Inland area embrace gourmet food trucks.
Kahn is confident that will happen in a few years.
But Kahn, who lobbied the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, knows he faces resistance from restaurateurs and some officials. Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster has said that in a time of recession, it may be tough to add staff and programs to regulate the trucks.
Scott Vanhorne, chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who had pushed for opening the county to the industry, said only Apple Valley and Upland have expressed interest.
Riverside County outlawed hot-food trucks in 1980. That was seven years before Kahn moved his private, family-owned business to its current location, a 40,000-square-foot building on 5 acres at 3815 Wabash Drive in the Mira Loma area of Jurupa Valley.
The county’s health and safety concerns stemmed from incidents of food poisoning, trucks dumping their wastewater into storm drains, and injuries among cooks in the moving vehicles.
“The technology wasn’t strong enough to handle the area’s extremely hot climate and large acreage, so the food never passed inspection,” Kahn said. “Eventually, I thought the ban would be lifted.”
Even so, he said that until 2008, business flourished. But with the collapse of the housing, construction, travel trailer and support industries that Kahn used to service, “It’s been quite a struggle these past three years,” he lamented. “It a double whammy to the food service industry and as with all mobile caterers, we’ve suffered.”