Califonia Bountiful

Mobile foodie nation

Feb./Mar. 2012 California Bountiful magazine

Upscale food trucks satisfy hunger for fresh choices.

Will it be TomKat's spicy Thai egg noodles topped with broccoli, red bell peppers, garlic, ground pork, basil and a sweet soy sauce or the Señor Sisig taco made with double-marinated chicken and topped with a tangy cilantro cream sauce?

For connoisseurs of the mobile dining experience, one of the biggest challenges is simply choosing which dish to try. The array of choices is also one of the best aspects of a mobile food truck market for friends Jen Fuh and Sachiko Hakuta, who meet every Tuesday for lunch at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. About 50 trucks alternate in serving the plaza, with a half-dozen available on any given day.

"We try to sample something new every time," Hakuta said. "And it's good when we both get different things to taste."

The concept of a mobile kitchen isn't new. Back in 1866, cattleman Charles Goodnight created a solution for cooking meals during cattle drives. He converted an old Army wagon into a chuck wagon—a virtual kitchen on wheels. Later versions of mobile food trucks or carts could be found on the city streets of New York selling hot dogs, pretzels and ice cream. Until a few years ago, the idea of modern chuck wagons generated the image of silver-sided "taco trucks" pulling up to construction sites.

Gil Payumo, co-owner of Señor Sisig, serves a customer at a mobile food truck market at San Francisco's UN Plaza.

While it can be difficult to pinpoint the origins of the current food truck craze, the trend appears to have cropped up first in culturally diverse cities on the East and West coasts such as New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, influencing the fusion of flavors offered by mobile vendors. The explosive growth also makes it difficult to determine how many food trucks are currently in operation in California or around the country.

One of the biggest contributors to the rapid rise of mobile dining has been the exponential growth in social media. Instead of honking to alert hungry patrons of their presence, mobile vendors use tools such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate with customers, letting them know when and where they will be and any specials they are planning.

"Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are invaluable tools to small businesses like us, who have little to no budget for marketing," said TomKat owner Thomas Thong. "They help us interact with our guests in real time."

Mobile food chefs enjoy creating culinary fusions of flavor. Tom Green drizzles an Indian curry sauce over a rice dish.

Lauren Smith, co-owner of Doc's of the Bay, said Twitter is the most important social media platform for her. "We use it to tell patrons and other trucks where we'll be and also to give and receive feedback. It's fun, easy and, best of all, free."

In addition to the lure of a smorgasbord of flavors, customers are increasingly drawn to mobile vendors who use California-grown food on their menus.

"People ask and sometimes make their decision on where to eat based on where the food comes from, and if it's organic," said Christina Galletti of Mama's Empanadas, who hit the road in 2011 and is already rated No. 2 on Zagat's listing for the Bay Area's best food trucks.

"If the food is fresher, it's going to taste better," said Ed Oh, who lives near the UN Plaza.

Some food truck owners partner with local farmers to provide the bulk of their produce. Smith said they are in talks with a new hydroponics business in Santa Cruz to supply their lettuce and tomatoes year-round.

"We are really passionate about local sourcing, but in the initial phase of a business, it's difficult to have your cake and eat it, too," Smith said. "Our goal is to be using exclusively local produce this year, and we will work hard to achieve that aim."

TomKat owner Thomas Thong says Facebook and Twitter are invaluable marketing tools for mobile food vendors.

TomKat is another new truck serving Asian street food with Peruvian, Chinese, Filipino and Thai influences. Thong said he buys as many of his fresh vegetables locally as possible, such as spinach, mustard greens, cabbage and tomatoes.

In addition to the fresh aspect of using local or California-grown produce in their dishes, Thong cites another benefit: "It's good for our local economy."

Going it alone can be difficult, so many mobile trucks are part of a larger network—such as Off the Grid in the San Francisco Bay Area—and participate in weekly markets with set times and locations.

Since launching in mid-2010, Off the Grid has grown from 10 to about 100 mobile vendors at weekly events. The for-profit company was established by entrepreneur Matthew Cohen to help expedite the permit process for mobile vendors and use social media to draw enthusiastic and adventurous crowds.

Several websites including Roaming Hunger and Mobi Munch help customers find and track their favorite trucks in cities across the country. Interactive city maps available online or on a smartphone pinpoint where the trucks are parked and when—which can be especially helpful in cities where mobile food trucks face restrictions on where and how long they can park.

Christina Galletti and Lilia Hernandez offer Italian-inspired empanadas.

According to Cohen, a majority of mobile truck vendors are interested in starting a restaurant but may lack the funding to do so. A truck is an intermediate step to get their culinary dreams in gear. Other vendors say they have no intention to grow any larger.

And then there are established restaurants or catering businesses that hop on the mobile bandwagon, including Kasa, an Indian restaurant in the Castro district of San Francisco. After three years of success in a storefront, they hit the road, allowing diners a new way to order their kati rolls, lamb curry, cumin-spiced potatoes and other dishes.

"We branched out with the Kasa Indian Truck to take our 'Indian food from scratch' to the larger community," said Anamika Khanna, co-owner of Kasa Indian Eatery. "Our street food kati rolls are perfect served from a truck."

The popularity of gourmet meals on wheels has been highlighted by reality television shows such as "The Great Food Truck Race," but not everyone is excited to see them roll into town. Many restaurant owners say the trend is cutting into their profits.

"The challenge for policy makers is to create a space that allows mobile vendors and brick-and-mortar (restaurants) to compete fairly," said Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. "That likely means regulating the duration—hours and days—and density—number of mobile food trucks—in areas where brick-and-mortar restaurants currently exist.

"Food trucks are an important component of California's evolving culinary scene,"  Black said. "Finding that healthy balance (between mobile and non-mobile vendors) will enhance food choices and the restaurant scene generally."

Wheels of time

Invention of the chuck wagon is attributed to Texas rancher Charles Goodnight in 1866. Chuck was a slang term for food at the time and the wagons were designed to carry cooking equipment. This image was taken of ranchers in Clark County, Kansas, 1898.

Lunch carts park in the financial district near Wall Street in New York City. Some of the carts during this time were pulled by mules or horses to their destination; others were small enough to be pushed by hand.

By the time this photo was taken in Los Angeles, mobile food vendors had taken to motorized vehicles. This image, taken by a Los Angeles Times staff photographer, appeared Aug. 7 with the caption: "The fruit vendor never lacks for customers."

A pretzel vendor parked at the corner of Broadway and Beaver Street, New York City, provides a quick bite for Wall Street workers on their lunch break. Courtesy H.A. Dunne Archive.

Food truck markets, like this one at the UN Plaza in San Francisco, offer diners culinary choices from Asian fusion stir-fries and juicy burgers to Indian curry and bacon popcorn.

Trina Wood

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