The Food Truck Economy

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Jami Johnson, Vintage Son Photo


In planning the inaugural LA Street Food Fest, founders Shawna Dawson and Sonja Rasula knew that the event would draw a huge crowd. It showcased the best in Los Angeles's ever-growing assortment of street food, from the classic lonchero taco trucks that have long roamed city neighborhoods to fried chicken from Top Chef Masters competitor Ludovic Lefebvre to a bevy of the newest tweeting trucks. But the pair had anticipated they'd draw around 5,000 to the downtown event, not the estimated 20,000 fans who waited up to two hours for red velvet pancakes, mini banh mi, and lamb roti roll-ups.

"It was an eye-opener. Oh my gosh. Wow," says Dawson, the former marketing director for Yelp LA. "People wanted to come to check this out."

So popular was the first event that Dawson and Rasula, who had initially intended to make it an annual happening, decided to hold a second incarnation this July 24 at the storied Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where the chefs will abandon their trucks in favor of stationary stands. And to avoid some of the pitfalls of the last round, this time tickets will be limited and sold only in advance, as an all-inclusive pass to sample the goods of the 60 participating vendors. Among those in attendance will be repeat performers like the Flying Pig, with its tamarind duck taco, and the rich, pressed sandwiches of the Grilled Cheese Truck, along with new faces such as Tamales Elena, a lunch truck that serves up hearty handmade masa tamales in the Watts neighborhood. Top city chefs like Fred Eric will also be on hand, providing their spins on street-inspired food.

"People are looking at L.A. as a hotbed of the street food movement," says Rasula, citing the al fresco friendly weather, the tradition of lonchero trucks, and the blend of cultures that make for particularly creative fusion flavors.

But while Dawson and Rasula say that their mission is to highlight the diversity and quality of L.A.'s street eats, their message also focuses on the economics of the trend.

Unlike dish- or ingredient-focused food trends, the street food phenomenon is more about form than content.

"The food truck movement, yes, of course is about the food," says Rasula, who also runs Unique LA, an annual art and design show featuring local independent designers. "But taking a second look, it's about the fact that small business owners have thought outside the box and realized that there's an opportunity."

Unlike dish- or ingredient-focused food trends, the street food phenomenon is more about form than content, making it comparable to general business movements such as the surge in new media or online shopping, Rasula says. "The truck model is fantastic," she notes. "The mobility of it all, going to where people are and not waiting for you to come to them." It's a framework she believes other non-food businesses would be wise to explore.

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Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others. More

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others.

In her former life as a documentary producer, she reported on issues such as the New Orleans school system, America's health insurance crisis, and the U.S. Secret Service for organizations like PBS NewsHour, ABC News, and the National Geographic Channel. Learn more at www.katiesallierobbins.com.

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