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Forget Roach Coaches, Food Trucks Are Cool

There’s a food revolution playing out on the streets of Orange County.

Gourmet food trucks with upscale puddings, ice cream, French crepes, Korean barbecue and more are vying for customers, online buzz and a bit of street cred.

The gourmet food trucks here are a spillover from Los Angeles and are part of a national trend that has gotten the attention of foodies and even The Food Network.

The TV channel now is airing “The Great Food Truck Race” reality show in which gourmet food truck operators compete against one another in various cities and try to make the most money.

Winners get prizes and keep competing. Losers are sent home. The grand prize: $50,000.

“That just demonstrates it’s not just here or local. It’s something that’s interesting throughout the nation,” said Danielle Murcia, who runs Crepes Bonaparte in Fullerton along with her husband, Christian, and is taking part in the show.

Last month, Long Beach held a Street Food Fest with a slew of gourmet trucks. This weekend, the OC Foodie Fest is set for the Honda Center in Anaheim.

Several local trucks will take part, including: Barcelona on the Go, Calbi BBQ, Crepes Bonaparte, Dos Chinos, Kona Ice Beach Cities, Longboard’s Ice Cream, Louks To Go, Morsel’s Baking Co., OhForSweetsSake, Piaggio on Wheels, Seabirds Truck, Taco Dawg, The Lime Truck and Tropical Shave Ice.

In all, some 50 trucks are expected at the event.

Such events have been a hit in Los Angeles. That got Taco Dawg truck owner James Foxall thinking about an event here.

“I thought about how we can bring awareness down here,” he said. “L.A. had them, so I said let’s be the first to do one in Orange County.”

‘Perfect Storm’

You can thank the economy for the gourmet food truck boom.

“When times are hard, individuals who have entrepreneurial instinct and can’t find a job working for someone are more likely to find a way to start their own business,” said Nancy Sidhu, chief economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which also tracks OC’s economy.

It’s “the perfect storm” of people who don’t want to spend a lot of money to start a business and people who don’t want to spend a lot of money to get something from a business, Taco Dawg’s Foxall said.

Foxall, who previously was in the mortgage business until it crashed a few years ago, said he had been thinking about starting a food truck for a while.

While working at a nonprofit he started, Foxall said he noticed gourmet food trucks—particularly industry standard-bearer Kogi BBQ of Los Angeles—gaining popularity. After getting funding, he had a chef friend help him develop a menu and started doing taste tests.

Taco Dawg serves up tacos and hot dogs with various twists and kicks such as mandarin oranges, fontina cheese and chipotle sauce. He’s been running the business for about 10 months now.

For others, a truck is an alternative to opening a restaurant.

Crepes Bonaparte first was founded by Christian Murcia as a catering business. The company, which makes breakfast, savory and sweet crepes, started in 2008. The plan was to open a restaurant down the road.

“Ultimately, it wasn’t the right time for a restaurant with the state of the economy and (the high cost of a lease). At the same time, food trucks were taking off in L.A,” said Danielle Murcia, who recently left a job in advertising to join her husband.

After doing research and talking to other truck owners, Murcia and her husband went ahead with their plans.

Truck owners don’t have the big leases of a restaurant. They do pay to store their trucks somewhere, usually in an industrial area that’s nowhere near the cost of restaurant space. Truck operators pay the same food and labor costs as a restaurant, but on a smaller scale.

Costs for starting up a truck vary.

The biggest upfront expense is for the trucks, according to Danielle Murcia. Options include buying a used food truck, buying a used truck and retrofitting it, or buying a new truck and retrofitting that.

Murcia said she and her husband spent about $70,000 on theirs, which they bought new and had retrofitted to meet county health standards.

“Food trucks are much cheaper to run than a restaurant,” she said.

Operators keep their trucks at a commissary, a sort of truck stop where they park, clean out their trucks, restock supplies, replenish water tanks and so on.

Crepes Bonaparte stores its truck in Paramount. Taco Dawg stores its in Santa Ana.

Fans follow the trucks on Twitter and Facebook. Other customers come from good old-fashioned foot traffic.

When the trucks come, they add buzz to workplaces and draw more customers to certain areas, according to economist Sidhu.

“They didn’t exist a year or two ago,” said Richard Sanchez, director of the county’s environmental health services, which oversees permits for restaurants and other food businesses.

People can get a permit for three days to test out the market, Sanchez said. Getting a permit can take anywhere from a week to three weeks.

Food truck operators have to get their plans approved, just like a restaurant, build out the truck and have it inspected, said Janene Bankson, a supervising environmental health specialist who deals with food trucks.

Trucks are checked for hot and cold water, proper food temperature and washing and sanitizing practices, she said.

Operators also must have a food safety certification within 60 days of operation and verify they have a commissary to park and clean the truck at, Bankson said. They have to check with cities regarding their laws, she said.

Once you get a permit, there still can be surprise inspections.

The demand of the job is the hardest part, Crepes Bonaparte’s Danielle Murcia said.

“It’s grueling hours and long days,” she said. “That’s just part of owning your own business.”

And there are plenty of unforeseen costs, Taco Dawg’s Foxall said.

“Things break down and that’s tricky to deal with,” he said. “Also finding a consistent location or customer base” in OC can be tough.

Los Angeles, Foxall said, is denser and has more people on the street. The food cultures also are different, he said.

“The culture of Orange County is a little more skeptical of eating food off of a truck,” Foxall said. “We’ve had to break through such stigmas and find ways to get to the masses.”

Taco Dawg has won a contract with Newport Mesa high schools and junior highs, Foxall said. The company will provide meals for the schools’ lunch programs.

Another stigma: cheap food.

People don’t want to pay a ton for food from a truck, regardless if it’s gourmet, according to Foxall.

It’s anyone’s guess how long the trend will last.

“I think the trucks are here to stay,” Foxall said. “Will it taper off as more trucks come into the scene? Who knows? This younger generation is looking for new ways to eat, socialize and communicate with each other.”

Restaurant Reaction

Restaurant owners, such as David Bailey, one of the partners of Fullerton’s Matador Cantina, aren’t too concerned.

“People aren’t going to go to downtown Fullerton to have a nice meal at Matador and all of a sudden see a truck and go eat there and say ‘forget it’ about our restaurant,” he said.

Trucks probably are a good thing, he contends, with all of the bars in downtown Fullerton.

“It’s good to have food with the nightlife environment,” Bailey said. “Food trucks work well in that respect.”

Even so, Bailey said he wouldn’t want to see one parked right outside Matador’s door.

Gomez is a former Business Journal editor and freelance writer based in Long Beach.

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