Food Truck Entrepreneurs Start a Revolution on Wheels

On a somewhat chilly Thursday evening, a group of young college students have driven 10 miles because of a tweet. Their destination: a bar in Costa Mesa.

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On a somewhat chilly Thursday evening, a group of young college students have driven 10 miles because of a tweet. Their destination: a bar in Costa Mesa. Or, to be more specific, a food truck parked outside a bar in Costa Mesa. Their goal: the nachos served by Taco Dawg, an up-and-coming food truck that specializes in a unique mix of hot dogs and tacos with a few distinct sides like fried mac 'n' cheese.

A first-time patron, also alerted by Taco Dawg's Twitter feed, drove up from Laguna Beach. Another regular customer lives in the neighborhood, and a potential Taco Dawg fan wandered out from the bar, attempting to determine if this truck was more than just a "roach coach." And, indeed, it is.
Like many new gourmet food trucks on the scene in Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, and Austin, Texas, and other towns, this one's got foodie cred: The menu was developed by classically trained chef Todd Mosher and includes tacos with homemade salsas and hot dogs with custom baked buns. Customer favorites veer toward fusion items like the Texan, a taco that includes bacon, tex-mex sauce and crispy fried onions, and the Taco Dawg, a hot dog topped with taco staples like taco meat, sour cream and pico de gallo.

CEO James Foxall serves as the front man and marketer for Santa Ana, California-based Taco Dawg, which started just a few months ago. He jovially asks the college students to "Yelp" about their meal and hands out free branded T-shirts. "We're trying to create a destination," says Foxall. "The old model of lunch trucks is you just [park somewhere], then find business around the area. What my partners and I, and I'm sure a lot of [the other food truck operators], are trying to do with Twitter and everything is create magnets."

The Truck Trend
One name stands out among the many food trucks that have come on the scene over the past year: Kogi Korean BBQ, the Korean-Mexican fusion truck that took Los Angeles by storm in just a few short months. Launched in November 2008 by former Le Bernardin chef Roy Choy, Mark Manguera, and Caroline Shin-Manguera, Kogi lured hundreds of foodies outside nightclubs and bars with the power of Twitter, tweeting their locations. Since that time, Kogi has grown to four trucks and a brick-and-mortar location.

"The new wave of gourmet food trucks has struck a chord with consumers for three reasons," says Lisa Jennings, the West Coast bureau chief of Nation's Restaurant News. "They tend to offer good food at a low price point; the use of social media to communicate location gives people the feeling they're part of a movement or club; and people are intrigued by the cowboy entrepreneur hitting the road to sell food."

Joshua Henderson, who owns Skillet, a mobile street food business housed in two Airstream trailers in Seattle, agrees that there's a "coolness" to the trend. "It's about the kind of cult-like following and being 'in the know' -- part of something that's viral," says Henderson, who began his company in 2007, before the wave broke.

However, quality is far more important to Henderson than any viral marketing or trends. He changes his menu every few weeks because it's based on seasonal ingredients. "What people consider high-end food doesn't really need to be," says Henderson. "People should have access to good ingredients in well-executed food at a reasonable price."

Moving Forward
While the trend of food trucks is just getting started in some cities, with chefs and entrepreneurs gaining awareness among local foodies and navigating local laws to get licensed and find locations, many existing food truck operators have their sights set on a future in a brick-and-mortar location.

"Many of the food truck operators I talked to hoped to open a restaurant, but they couldn't get a loan in this economic climate," says Jennings. "Some are highly trained chefs who are victims of layoffs. Launching a truck is a more affordable way to test the waters with a food concept. It remains to be seen, however, whether truck operators will be able to successfully transfer their audience to a brick-and-mortar location."

Kogi has set up shop in the kitchen of the Alibi Room, a Culver City, California, bar, and rumor has it they're also going to open a standalone Kogi location.

Meanwhile, Henderson is bottling his bacon jam, a condiment sought after by his patrons, to sell in gourmet food stores. "The growth strategy this year is to open a Skillet diner and get our condiment out around the country," says Henderson, who parks his trailers during lunch service, but also caters many events. "We want to be a company that has somewhat of a national presence but is just physically present in the Seattle region."

Foxhall, whose truck is parked in office parks and high schools during the day and near bars at night, says he and his partners also have bigger plans. "We want to go to brick-and-mortar. We want to go to concerts and events," says Foxhall. "The truck is definitely [a stepping stone]. It's a tool to get our name and our food out there, and eventually get a following."

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