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Newsletter: Are L.A. food trucks in danger of going extinct?

The Kogi food truck during lunch time in Burbank.
The Kogi food truck during lunch time in Burbank.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, I’ve interviewed food truck owners about the challenges of running a mobile kitchen.

I’ve listened to stories about working punishing hours in extremely hot, cramped spaces; coping with equipment breakdowns; and the headache of navigating a convoluted permitting process that varies widely depending on where you do business.

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This week I talked to Ram Mann of Swami’s Sandwiches, a 5-year-old food truck that he operates with wife Christy. His truck sells gourmet sandwiches in various spots around Santa Monica, Burbank and West Hollywood.

Mann has been spearheading an effort to bring more awareness to the challenges that food truck owners face in Los Angeles.

He recently held an informational meeting at Angel City Brewery in downtown L.A., where around 40 food truck operators gathered to discuss issues facing the community.

Much of the conversation centered around a topic that affects many L.A. food truck operators: booking companies.

“Bookers” essentially control in-demand parking spots in areas with high visibility and foot traffic. They build promotional services into the fees they charge, such as hosting lunch-hour events outside office buildings.

When he first started working with bookers, Mann says he was charged around 10 percent of one day’s total sales for the opportunity to vend.

More booking companies are moving to a “flat-fee” system that Mann believes unfairly squeezes food trucks, which already have small profit margins.

“Very often these flat fees end up being 20 or 30 percent of sales,” he said.

Booking companies, largely unregulated, have gotten a reputation for other exploitative practices, said Mann.

One alleged practice is the inflation of sales numbers to justify charging high fees for certain spots.

Mann is not optimistic about the future of food trucks in Los Angeles, including his own. Booking fees aside, he believes food delivery apps also are cutting into trucks’ razor-thin margins.

“I’ve sort of found my niche, but I’m still making less money every year while working more,” he said.

“People in Los Angeles kind of see food trucks as uniquely our thing. Roy Choi and Kogi originated here. It’ll be a sad thing if food trucks become a thing of the past,” Mann said.

What do you think? Will food trucks survive in Los Angeles’ competitive dining world? Email me at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

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I’ll admit I didn’t see the Impossible Burger thing getting so big. What big food trends do you see coming this year?

— Emile S., email

This week, we learned that KFC is testing plant-based chicken nuggets. It’s safe to predict that we’ll be seeing more plant-based dishes at our local drive-thru windows in 2020.

Another prediction: more cannabis cafes. More mocktails, and a greater variety of low-ABV drinks like hard seltzer (just this week I was at a family-friendly pizzeria that sold several brands of alcohol-spiked sparkling waters).

This being a presidential election year, I suspect many of us will be eating more comfort foods like pasta and pie come fall. For those moments, I recommend bookmarking this story from Ben Mims and Genevieve Ko, a gentle reminder that, no matter what, you can always make course corrections.

Have a question for the critics?

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Ben Mims’ fried blood orange cake.
Ben Mims’ fried blood orange cake.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)


Newsletter
Eat your way across L.A.

Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more from critics Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
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