The Food Truck Economy


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.

That mobility and the need for fans to track the trucks' locations online has also allowed the chefs to take innovative approaches to customer interaction in a way that traditional restaurants have been slower to do.

"Fans not only follow online," Rasula says, "but they give instantaneous feedback. They go online and say what they'd like to see, and sometimes there's maybe something [the chefs] haven't thought of." Several of the trucks participating in the Street Food Fest have added items to their menus based on customer requests.

Although they believe brick-and-mortar restaurants may ultimately adopt some strategies that have proven successful for the trucks, for now, Rasula and Dawson recognize that there is tension between traditional restaurants and their new mobile competition. And as staunch small business supporters, they empathize with both.

"I do understand the frustration of brick and mortar restaurants," Dawson says. "If I was a business owner and found a competitor now parking in front of my deli every day, that would be frustrating." But she stresses that much of this tension stems from truck owners who "are not the best businesspeople." Many vendors have worked hard to forge relationships with traditional restaurants and bars, making sure to clean up after their mobile restaurants, only going where they're invited, and keeping physical distance from freestanding businesses. "Like any other field," she says. "There will be a shakeout. The people who have the best food and the best practices will continue to grow and thrive."

Based on the number of applications she received from chefs hoping to participate in the second Street Food Fest, Dawson predicts that the movement is "just at the tip of the iceberg." Many of the July participants have hit the streets since the February festival and several trucks will make their debuts at the Rose Bowl.

With this continued surge, the festival's founders acknowledge that there is an emerging backlash. "As soon as something becomes a trend, it's going to become passé," Rasula says. "But food trucks have been around in Los Angeles forever."

And while she says the market will become oversaturated at some point, she stresses that the growth in the number of trucks is good for consumers and the city's economy.

"Right now in the U.S. economy, it's all about small businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups," she says, citing the Coolhaus ice cream truck and the Flying Pig truck, both of which have expanded to include multiple trucks. Flying Pig is also slated to launch a brick-and-mortar off-shoot by the end of the year. "A year ago they were a couple of small business owners with one truck. Now they have upward of 20 employees. They're hiring people," she says. "These are small businesses, growing at rapid speed and adding to the economy."