As you read this, more than 4,000 Mobile Food Preparation Vehicles, as they're officially called, are lumbering across Los Angeles bleeping their raucous horns. Purveyors of what one industry type terms "your fast-food cholesterol type of thing," most drivers are on the road by 4 in the morning in order to feed first-shift workers in the dawn's early light.
Before heading out, drivers begin their day by stocking up with meats, bread, pastries, condiments and ice purchased in one of more than 50 commissaries in Los Angeles County that function as both garage and convenience store. All vehicles, whether they're part of a fleet or owned by an independent operator, have self-contained kitchens, but the Department of Health requires all trucks to have a stationary address.
George Piper, co-owner of the Washington Caterers, a commissary for independents, has been in the business for 30 years. He explains that the "stores," as he calls them, enable the health department to keep tabs on the food. "Listen, if someone gets sick on wienerschnitzel , you need to be able to know where it came from."
Around 8 in the morning, when most drivers have already dished out scores of breakfast burritos, the co-owners of one Mobile Food Preparation Vehicle head for their Chevy V8 step van to prepare the fixings for eggplant and sun-dried tomato pesto sandwiches, citrus chicken pizza and blue cornmeal corn bread.
Just a minute. Sun-dried tomato pesto on a "roach coach"? "We never use that term in the vicinity of the vehicle," says co-owner Janet Smith, laughing. Her partner, Barbara Linton, chimes in: "Yup, we're the first gourmet hot truck around."
Welcome to the Four Wheel Cafe, the only upscale mobile restaurant that services the Westside five days a week. Welcome to the only food truck with a Sistine Chapel sibyl painted on one side. Welcome to the Janet and Barbara show. Think Candace Bergen and Melanie Mayron (or Betty and Veronica) on the road.
A little more than a year ago, Smith was calling all around town trying to find a taco truck willing to stop at the underground dance club she and a group of friends had started. No one would come to Bootius Maximus. Smith had just left her job as executive director of IFP/West, an independent filmmaker's organization, and was en route to Jamaica and a month-long vacation to think about whether she really wanted to produce films. The world of food kept coming into her head. "I knew I loved giving pizza parties and I knew I didn't want to work alone. And I knew that my friends in the food industry were always so tired."
Cut to a Fourth of July party where Smith met Linton, a food professional with 10 years catering experience. They quickly envisioned a line of products and pizza kits and a company called So Good Foods. By August they'd planned the Four Wheel Cafe. "Besides being great with a tool chest, Janet has a talent for making things grow," Linton says.
Linton began her apprenticeship in the restaurant world "waiting on all my parents' friends at La Scala Boutique." Then she started Tote Cuisine, which served "fresh, clean gourmet meals" to film and video crews. She went on to do food styling for commercials and wanted to get back into making meals that people actually ate.
Once the idea of a movable feast took hold, they did considerable research on markets, regulations--and trucks. "We've seen some large fuses in our day," Linton says. They sampled meals from a number of mariscos trucks as well as "a certain taco truck with a good reputation parked on South Vermont." Smith made the rounds with a driver and cook on an established route. And the Department of Health's senior environmental health officer, Mary Giannini, laid out the laws and the pitfalls. "It's a real hard business, very competitive, with very long hours and numerous regulations," Giannini said. "The MFPV has to be built to state specifications, the temperature controls and the general sanitation have to be absolutely right. You don't just get into a truck and go. I give these women a lot of credit; they really did their homework."
The sine qua non of the hot-food catering business is territoriality. "If a truck misses a critical stop even once," says Kenneth Marks, senior inspector of the Department of Health's Vehicle Inspection Program, "they run the risk of losing the site. It's pure entrepreneurship: first come, first served." So Linton and Smith needed a route that didn't step on anyone's toes. Like all catering trucks they needed a captive audience--people who couldn't get out to eat--but in their case it was essential to find clusters of people who were interested in good food. "Creative" industries were targeted as their ace in the hole.
Deciding that the givens were, as Smith puts it, "manageable madness," So Good Foods hit the road in April, stopping at architecture and design offices, film and photography studios and advertising firms on the Westside. Still, the cafe needed more than a loud horn to signal its wares. "Catering trucks are invisible to most everyone who's even remotely interested in food," Linton says. Hence the "pop-Italian classico" fresco painting by Alan Sonneman gracing the sides of the truck. "The Face!" she recalls people yelling, "It's the Face!"
We followed the face--and Linton and Smith--around on their route one day and took notes.
11 a.m. Washington Caterers, the commissary.
Just about ready to go. Linton's been out shopping, as she does five days a week. She conducts the tour of the minuscule, shipshape kitchen. An industrial Garland range was added so that, unlike most trucks, they can bake on board. "We never use the fryer at all," she says. The specials today: Carrot-ginger soup (no dairy) and sesame noodles with peanut-cilantro dressing. The hand-colored signs--"Tropical Exotic Paradise Passion Iced Tea: Help Yourself" and "Dolphins are our friends. No Tuna is on our truck"--are up. Ready to blast off: Smith's the driver ("We know how to tighten the thermal coupler.") Linton's in the galley with sous-chef Alejandra Palacios.
11:45 a.m. First stop.
Open up the side, pull out the canisters. A number of regulars are already there. First man wants to know if they have the "kushkush" (he means couscous). Not today. "Our menu is definitely mind-expanding for people who walk up expecting tacos and cigarettes," Smith says. Students from Windward School are here to meet with Smith and discuss what they'd like to eat. (Four Wheel started on-campus deliveries to Windward and Crossroads schools this month.) Unlike many of the customers, they're not particularly concerned with the no-dairy, extra-virgin olive oil, home-dried tomato specialties. "We don't mind if it's healthy as long as it's filling and cheap," one 12th-grader says. The blonde butterscotch brownies are more their style. And, OK, maybe they'll try the fresh fruit sorbet.
12:20 p.m. Next stop.
The side panel creates a wide veranda of shade when pulled up. "Hi Paul." "Hi Doll." Linton greets many customers by name. One guy wants to have the pasta but says he has to eat and talk on the phone at the same time so he orders what he calls the "truly orgasmic" Kentucky butter cake instead. Someone comes out to pick up three pizzas ordered by phone the day before. "You can bring back the platter on Friday," Linton says. "Don't bother with it now." "Sure, we'll take checks," she says to a woman with an order for six colleagues.
Linton and Smith are mixing salads, schmoozing and making change with ease. Repeat customers are lining up for their daily dose of spankingly fresh, hand-made, low-cost food. "We have to remember we don't have linen table cloths," Smith says. (They have paper products, all biodegradable, by the way.) "We dream up the prices, cut them in half, cut them in half again," Linton adds.
1:15 p.m. Next stop.
Linton and Smith have the dance down all right. They snake through the narrow galley like a team. "It's been like getting married again," Smith says. By 1:30 p.m. the noodles are gone, the individual pizzas are flying fast through the truck window. "Feed people and make them smile," is Linton's unofficial motto and it works. Someone arrives with a Black Uhuru tape for them to listen to. Someone else brings a gift of tea-smoked chicken breast for them to taste.
With so many customers at their previous stop, they arrive late at Chiat-Day in Venice. "They know we're coming," Smith says. "And they wait." They do. The generous helpings, the chopsticks if you want them--their touch has a Mom-and-Mom feel. It's a much-needed service that seems more like villagers meeting on market day than it does commerce. There's the woman who always has the made-to-order chicken salad. There's the man who follows the truck just to hang out with other customers. Linton's running partner drops by to say hello. Smith's husband comes by for lunch. One chic vegetarian in black is there for her afternoon snack.
On the road again. Back to the commissary. Gearing up for their new 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. "homeward bound" stop near 20th Century Fox for commuters who need a little refueling. "We want to expand," Smith says, "not to a fleet, maybe to a trio, and we want to keep the quality. When we make business decisions we ask 'does it feel right?' If it doesn't feel really right we don't do it."
The van pulls into its parking space at the commissary. There's food preparation and truck tending to do. Work is endless in a movable restaurant. "It's really hard for small businesses not to get caught up in the minutiae," Smith says. "We're lucky we keep the big vision." Well, after all, what other Mobile Food Preparation Vehicle has a sibyl riding along with the truck?