Recently, I was tasked with locating a few food trucks for an event. What I expected to be a relatively easy project ended up being near impossible. It got me wondering: What happened to all the food trucks?
Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
The easy response is: COVID. But a more thorough answer takes more time to explain.
A more accurate answer also must take into account the reason why food truck owners buy or lease a truck in the first place. Many of the recent wave of food truck operators don’t want to run a food truck forever. Instead, these trendy trucks are often used to get a food business started or to supplement an already successful business. When COVID hit, many businesses could not renew their truck leases, and for those who owned their rolling restaurants, vehicles were sold.
While some street food truck operators ultimately want (and some eventually transition into) a dedicated, brick-and-mortar space, last year’s pandemic forced them to make the leap to move forward or shut down.
As a business that generally serves its food outdoors, one would think mobile eats would have thrived since they were not under the same strict indoor regulations restaurants faced during lockdown. This was not the case for food trucks, which rely on commuter traffic and busy office complexes to fuel sales. Working from home was beneficial to cubicle-based employees, but detrimental to these fancy meals on wheels.
Why Are Food Trucks Popular?
In 2009, a new wave of food trucks became popular in Orange County and across Southern California. Wrapped in eye-catching designs, these vehicles boasted menus comparable to a trendy café. Pricing was under $10 (before being upsold a beverage).
Food Trucks, Before They Were Trendy
When talking about the latest trend in food trucks, we must acknowledge their predecessors, known in Southern California as “loncheras.” Sometimes nicknamed “roach coaches,” these are often nondescript vehicles which primarily sell authentic Mexican cuisine or classic deli fare.
A documentary titled “Backstreet to the American Dream,” discussing both old and new school food trucks, is being shown as an official selection during the Newport Beach Film Festival this weekend on Saturday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Starlight Triangle Cinemas in Costa Mesa.
A big draw for customers was the hunt. The roving feasts used Twitter and proximity to local businesses to communicate their presence on the fly. Trucks did not remain in one location for more than a few hours. Finding a great food truck was like discovering a treasure.
For the truck operators, they could lease or purchase a truck with a relatively low investment in comparison to opening a restaurant. They could get going quickly and test out recipes, sometimes changing their menus daily.
“The Great Food Truck Race,” which premiered on the Food Network in August 2010, helped seal the deal in the local and nationwide consciousness. Viewers could follow their favorite food trucks across the country, in what was billed as a cross between “Cannonball Run” and “Top Chef.” Several O.C.-based trucks (Crepes Bonaparte, Seabirds and the Lime Truck) competed for the top prize of $50,000 in the first few episodes, with the Lime Truck winning first place in 2011 and the all-stars competition in 2021.
And then there is the great equalizer of bringing tasty food to any neighborhood. Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi BBQ Taco Trucks, is widely considered one of pioneers of the recent food truck renaissance. Choi spent time growing up in Villa Park and graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in philosophy. For years, he has had a truck dedicated to Orange County neighborhoods.
In the first season of the food-centric Netflix show “Ugly Delicious,” Choi discusses the widespread appeal of why his truck’s staple, the taco, crosses cultural, social and economic boundaries. “Nobody hates tacos. It’s this portable vessel of love, in a way. So when we hand this taco out to people in the middle of the night, all those things that led up to that moment, whether you called us chink or a wetback or a beaner, all those things that separated us, all of a sudden washed away,” Choi said.
As food trucks became more popular, food truck festivals were a natural evolution. Multiple trucks in one location typically garnered larger crowds. I like finding a roundup of food trucks because, while finding the location of a single truck is exciting, whenever two or more are gathered, it means more options for everyone.
Most food truck operators rented or leased their rolling businesses, while a few went a step further and took full ownership of their own trucks. This made a difference in the long run when it was time to make some tough decisions.
Trucks as Gateway Restaurants
In 2014, Costa Mesa resident Rashad Moumneh began operating a Lebanese street food truck named Falasophy, specializing in falafels. He then added a residency inside Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market food hall in 2016, before moving to Falasophy’s permanent home at Irvine Spectrum in 2018 while maintaining a food truck presence at large-scale events and catering.
Moumneh explains the factors behind selling his truck last year. “On one hand, my truck was getting old and I needed a new one anyway. Also, the bread and butter of our industry had been rooted in large gatherings such as conventions, office gatherings, etc.,” he said.
During the pandemic, Moumneh quickly figured out those get-togethers were not coming back for the foreseeable future. He also had a secondary reason for letting go of his wheels: “I was also sick and tired of dealing with greedy promoters who monopolized such events and charged astronomical fees.” Although he sold the physical truck, the Falasophy brand continues as a catering and event business.
Most former truck owners Moumneh knows have sold their vehicles. And from what he’s been told, prices of both new and used ones have gone up significantly. “It’s pretty hard to get one right now,” he said.
Catering continues to be a source of income for Falasophy, although COVID has reduced the booking frequency. Adjusting to the slowdown provided an opportunity for Moumneh “that allowed me more time to focus on our restaurant operations, our menu development, our service, etc. … I feel we’ve made great improvements in those areas and we are a much better restaurant as a result.”
Running a food truck can be more labor-intensive than a traditional restaurant. Experiencing car trouble, losing power and maneuvering in a very narrow kitchen space is only tolerable for so long. Despite this, it is a great way to get a restaurant concept up and running for less money and risk than it takes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The mobility of the truck also allows owners to see how their fare sells in various neighborhoods before committing to a restaurant lease. For these reasons, many truck owners start their trucks as a stepping stone, with their sights set on occupying a dedicated space as an end goal.
Steve Kim, Irvine resident and co-founder of The Cut Handcrafted Burgers food truck, has both a storefront for The Cut and an additional (non-truck) concept called Cluck Kitchen which launched in Irvine during summer 2020. He sold his wheels earlier this year. “The COVID lockdown and restrictions lasted much longer than I thought they would,” Kim said. “Due to the nature and terms of the restrictions and regulations, the truck industry didn’t rebound or recover like the restaurant and delivery industries.”
In addition, Kim planned to also launch a ghost kitchen (a food concept only offering take-out with no dedicated dining space) during COVID. He ended up backing out of that deal because he didn’t get along with the partners.
And then there is critics’ favorite Taco Maria which began as a food truck. Owner Carlos Salgado’s endgame was always a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “Our goal has always been the same: to open a restaurant and give our fans a place to sit, eat, drink and be comfortable any night of the week,” Salgado said in a 2013 interview. Costa Mesa’s Taco Maria was awarded a Michelin star in 2019.
An Adobo Outlier
Adobo Express food truck opened back in February 2011 and it is still in operation. Owner and Orange County resident Marilou Brown had a straightforward plan: “To serve the simplest, most classic dish. Adobo in a bowl, with rice and a fried egg (silog-style).” Her consistent approach to this Filipino dish has made Adobo Express appealing to many cultures and is the reason her business has lasted over a decade.
Prior to starting her food truck, catering was always Brown’s side hustle. Her previous employment involved managing a fast food chain in Orange County for four years. She opted to start her own business after leaving the corporate setting, purchasing her own vehicle outright, as opposed to renting or leasing it. According to Brown, few food truck operators actually own their vehicles.
When the pandemic happened, Adobo Express, like many others, was hit hard. “Food trucks operate mostly at corporate buildings, events, festivals, etc. Without those, most of the food truck operators just walked away.” However, since she owns her truck and doesn’t have expensive lease payments hanging over her head, she was able to weather the storm.
So… Where Did They Go?
Explaining the disappearance of the recent wave of food trucks isn’t exactly sensical to customers. While the average diner may expect these to-go concepts to thrive in a pandemic, the fact is that many vehicles moved away from the mobile concept prior to COVID, and the remaining ones were mostly forced out of business due to a lack of in-office employees, reducing a once reliable customer base.
It may be relatively easy to get into and out of the food truck scene, but it’s difficult to sustain the roving lifestyle. Moumneh acknowledges that his experience was more positive than most. “I was lucky to be successful for the seven years I operated the food truck and was able to grow my brand,” he said.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.