Food truck makers revived by gourmet trend

Southern California, long the epicenter for customizing cars and motorcycles, is now also the go-to place for made-to-order food trucks.

The food truck craze has revived one of the region's classic postwar businesses — catering trucks — breathing new life into the companies that sprang up decades ago to make the vehicles that frequent construction sites, factories and movie shoots.

Hopeful gourmet truck entrepreneurs come from all over the country to get retired vehicles transformed into gleaming, rolling emporiums that dish out everything from comfort food to exotic fare.

"We're crazy busy," said Elma Eaton, chief executive of California Cart Builder, a company in Lake Elsinore that's on track to make 100 food trucks and catering trailers this year. That's up from three years ago, when it made only about five trailers and no trucks at all.

"At first it was mostly mom-and-pops," she said of the revival. "Then they started being ordered by universities, industrial food services and franchise restaurants."

Americans are expected to spend $630 million on food this year from mobile vendors, both traditional and gourmet, according to the National Restaurant Assn. That's up from $608 million in 2010.

Still, that's considerably off the pre-recession peak of $915 million in 2005, when standard lunch trucks raked in cash as they roamed construction sites and parked outside bustling factories. The gourmet food truck craze is credited with helping to bring the business back.

About eight food truck companies do the bulk of the local customizing work, according to Matt Geller, spokesman for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Assn.

The gourmet food trucks brought Wyss Catering Truck Manufacturing Inc. — founded in the 1950s — back to profitability after several difficult years, owner Mike Wyss said.

"My whole business has changed, from the so-called roach coach catering trucks that we used to make to the gourmet trucks," said Wyss, whose business is based in Santa Fe Springs. "If it wasn't for that I would have gone home a long time ago."

Orders have slowed from Los Angeles County, the epicenter of the food truck boom. With 180 gourmet trucks on the road, plus an additional 3,800 supplying the regular catering fare of tacos and sandwiches, the market for trucks may be saturated, Geller said.

But calls are coming in to local customizers from the surrounding counties, and from other parts of the country where the food truck boom is ramping up. Austin, Texas, for example, has issued permits for 250 mobile food facilities since Jan. 1, Geller said.

Still, some would-be mobile restaurateurs believe they have ideas for trucks that will stand out in L.A. County.

Alissa Grenis, 28, was roaming around the hangar-like workshop of Armenco Catering Truck & Hot Dog Cart Manufacturing Co. in Sun Valley, where several vehicles were in various states of completion.

She left her job as a cocktail waitress at Pala Casino near Temecula to pursue her dream of opening an organic restaurant on wheels, and is tapping what she calls a "my father loan" to get started.

"It will be called Bite Me — Food With Attitude," said Grenis, who hopes to ply the streets of Santa Monica and West L.A. selling her wares.

But first, a major decision: Should she buy a truck and have a company such as Armenco customize it, or should she lease one that's already equipped? Grenis is leaning toward buying so she can get exactly what she wants, although that might be tough with her $75,000 budget.

Fully equipped, new trucks can run to $100,000 and much more. Customizers begin with a basic commercial truck, manufactured by companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Freightliner Trucks, to which they add sinks, counters, appliances and other equipment needed for a mobile kitchen. They also cut out serving windows and make other modifications to turn the truck into a plain or fancy catering vehicle.

The truck alone will cost $20,000 used, or up to $75,000 if Grenis opts to buy a new one. Armenco's workshop is packed with several used vehicles awaiting customizing, including a former newspaper delivery truck that still bears the name of the Chicago Sun-Times. It is parked next to one that was once used to deliver furniture.

As for gear: A 60-inch Vulcan grill, de rigueur in the fanciest food vans, costs $4,800 installed. A large fryer runs $12,000 and a steam table is $1,200. It generally takes eight to 12 weeks to convert and outfit a gourmet truck and perhaps months more to obtain the necessary permits, said Arthur Djahani, the son of Armenco's founder. That family business started out making hot dog carts and grew to specialize in catering vehicles for movie shoots.

Customizing a truck can be so expensive that many would-be mobile chefs decide to go the leasing route. These older vehicles commonly sport deep-fryers, sandwich grills, refrigerators and other appliances used to make and sell tacos, sandwiches and coffee back in the day. They are often fully permitted, and all an entrepreneur has to do is lease one and hire a sign company to wrap it in fancy graphics.

One of the region's most famous truck operators — Kogi BBQ — started out this way, with a leased vehicle from Los Angeles-based A La Carte Catering.

Founded in 1952 to bring coffee and sandwiches to workers at industrial job sites, A La Carte leased out 180 trucks at its peak in the 1970s, owner Herman Appel said. The company provided a place to park overnight, cleaning services and a commissary where operators could buy food and other supplies.

By the time the gourmet craze came along, the company was down to about 60 trucks, he said.

Now a new division, RoadStoves, is run by Appel's son Morris to handle gourmet trucks. Chef-owners pay the company about $4,000 per month for a lease that includes cleaning, permits, inspections and a place to park.

Under health codes, all catering trucks — even ones that are owned outright by their operators — must be parked overnight in commissaries, where they can be cleaned and inspected.

On a recent morning, the RoadStoves lot near downtown Los Angeles brimmed with activity, as trucks lined up at the exits to make their daily rounds.

Some of the old white taco trucks headed out along routes planned by Herman Appel to visit industrial spots and construction sites. But the brightly wrapped gourmet trucks were going out on their own — some to fairs, some to try their luck with office workers in the Miracle Mile area, using Twitter to let customers know where they were going and when they would be there.

On the lot, Sheldon Katz was preparing food for his truck, No Reservations Catering, to sell at a farmers market and art walk in Santa Clarita. He poured a pomegranate juice marinade over lamb for a hot wrap that would also include rice, squash and hummus.

Katz estimated that in addition to his monthly lease from RoadStoves, he had sunk $25,000 into his truck. Among the expenses: $4,000 to wrap the truck in graphics; $3,200 for pans and containers; and another $3,200 for Web design and menus. The exterior design to cover the bland white exterior is seen as key.

"It's basically a big decal," said Ramy Baramily, whose Culver City company SignQuest specializes in affixing high-end graphics to motor vehicles. SignQuest makes its huge printouts on 54-inch vinyl panels, then smoothes them onto the vehicles.

The company is decorating as many as eight food trucks per month, up from just one per month five years ago, Baramily said. It has added new printers and brought on more workers.

Grenis wants to adorn her Bite Me truck with a graphic that shows an image of fuchsia-and-black lips biting into a sandwich.

"Besides the food," said Grenis, who sported purple sunglasses and blunt-cut hair, "I really need to get attention to myself."

She wants an 18- to 20-foot truck in which she can do all the cooking, in addition to selling and serving. After looking at costs, she and her father have decided that if they buy a truck, it probably will have to be a used one.

Whatever it is, it will be a mobile version of her ultimate goal.

"It's my dream to have a restaurant," Grenis said, "but this is much more feasible."

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

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