Have Food Trucks Gone Too Far?

Many of us can’t begin to imagine how we ever lived without uttering the words “Kogi truck.” Even the name Kogi has sparked a new “kulture” of social network followings, Twitter feeds and constant lookouts for the Kogi logo we have all come to know and love. Sure, I admit the short rib tacos and Kogi kimchee quesadillas are to die for, but the new and popular Kogi kulture seems to have propelled the food truck scene into a competitive gourmet war zone and hardly anyone is worrying about the casualties.

Trucks like these didn’t always dominate our lunches. In years past, no one was rushing out the door to be first in line. However, since the rise of Kogi, vending options have become the new, hip way to eat your food. Instead of going to a “brick and mortar” restaurant that you know will always be there, you’re now frantically chasing a truck down the street for a fast food fix. It’s a completely different lifestyle, and the phenomenon of these roach coaches comes from the exclusivity of their customers — if you’re not in the know, then you don’t get to eat.

Even our own UC Irvine campus holds a weekly “’Eater stop” event for food trucks, and you can bet there is at least one driving through Orange County every day. There hasn’t been a food fad this huge since the fro-yo boom of 2007, but Kogi’s success has paved the way for current and aspiring restaurant owners to follow suit, including the handful of wannabes that think they can make an easy buck. When you consider what it takes to start a food business, the bills for launching a food truck are considerably lower than launching a restaurant. John Bowler, owner and pit master of Barbie’s Q, estimates that it cost him about $40,000 to start his barbeque truck instead of the $200,000 he would have needed to open up a restaurant.

This is a good thing right? With the new mobile option, hopeful food lovers can invest their money into a business without pouring out their entire life savings. More trucks mean more options, and more options mean customers can shop for food like kids in a candy store.

Actually, the rise of the food truck trend has unleashed a variety of negative consequences. Though truck leasing companies like A La Carte and Roadstoves are benefiting from the popularity, the limited amount of street space combined with the high number of taste options are saturating cities like Los Angeles with gourmet battles. Josh Hiller of Roadstoves, a food truck outfitter that aided in Kogi’s success, thinks the Los Angeles food truck scene is getting out of hand. Hiller says, “We tried to be very specific about the trucks we launched; we were looking for good business models and good food,” but now they receive hundreds of calls and end up rejecting 95 percent of them. Many aspiring truck owners weren’t looking for options to start a good food business — they saw others’ success and wanted to use the food truck culture as a money making machine.

The whole situation doesn’t bode well for veteran vendors who have roamed the streets for years. According to Eric Tjahyadi, who co-founded the Komodo fusion truck with his brother Erwin, food trucks used to make a profit pretty quickly. Now vendors can expect to wait a long time before getting any revenue, which many owners rely on as their main source of income. Moreover, the spots they have come to occupy for over a decade are swarming with new competitors who have also come to snag their longtime customers.

Truck owners are not going down without a fight, which means the beginning of what some are calling the “food truck war.” In larger cities like Los Angeles and New York, not only have space constraints caused street spots and truck permits to be sold on the black market (some going as high as $15,000 for a $200 permit), but the food truck war now welcomes violence and petty tricks to win the battle. It is not uncommon for new food trucks to receive hostilities from other vendors. Even though no one owns the streets, it doesn’t stop vendors from threatening their competition or even slashing the tires of newcomers’ trucks.

In addition to collecting customers from other vendors, the booming food truck industry is using the desire for exclusive food to grab customers from brick-and-mortar restaurants. Many established restaurants that have worked hard to survive in the food business are now being threatened by the success of their mobile competitors — and there’s nothing they can do about it. After all, there’s no law against capitalism.

It doesn’t seem as if the boom is dying off yet, but like all trends, the food truck nation will surely meet its inevitable demise. Sure, eating at an expensively delicious food truck can make you feel hip and cool, but this food doesn’t come without a price. Instead of standing back and allowing the boom to occur, cities like Los Angeles — which is the front-runner for the food truck frenzy — should be cracking down on the crime and upholding stronger regulations for all owners. It may not sound like the greatest option, especially for vendors that have been around for years, but it’s time that the rules catch up to a growing industry. Food trucks aren’t just simple roach coaches anymore — they’re gourmet meals on wheels and now people from middle to upper classes are chomping down on high-end hot dogs for lunch. Nevertheless, if you’re ever on campus and buy from a visiting food truck, chances are they’ve already been to the streets of food hell and back.

Hilda Tam is a fourth-year studio art major. She can be reached at tamh@uci.edu.