Mike N Willies

Back in July, the Washington Post ran an article about vendors using food trucks as a stepping stone to opening a restaurant.

It sounds like common sense, but a food truck allows vendors to test concepts and different dishes to see what people want, and can help them build a name and even more importantly -a following.

In New York City, we have seen brick-and-mortar openings from Calexico Carne Asada, Hallo Berlin, Souvlaki GR, Schnitzel & Things, Mexicue, Dessert Truck, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, Rickshaw Dumplings, Bian Dang, Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Cupcake Stop, and we heard about Kimchi Taco Truck opening a place soon in Brooklyn.  (Excuse me if I missed someone.)

It’s not as common, but Taim Mobile opened a food truck after their restaurant was already open, as did Red Hook Lobster Pound and Luke’s Lobster.

In New Jersey, we told you about Lucinda’s Creperie and Krave Korean BBQ sharing space in Jersey City later this month, The Taco Truck opened a restaurant in Hoboken, as did the QBA Cuban Kitchen in Morristown.

Now the L.A. Times has something in a similar vein, using the brothers who run the Komodo Truck as an example, and listed a whole bunch of L.A. food trucks who opened restaurants including Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ who opened A-Frame and Chego, the Flying Pig Cafe in Little Tokyo, Frysmith in Hollywood, the Gastronomico in Los Feliz, White Rabbit Fusion Cafe in Canoga Park, which has a menu inspired by Filipino cuisine; and the soon-to-open Fukuburger in Hollywood.  They didn’t mention Coolhaus, who is in the process of opening a store in Culver City.

Click through for the L.A. Times analysis of this issue, and some of our comments as well.

From the L.A. Times:

A truck costs far less to operate than a brick-and-mortar establishment, and if it gets good reviews and builds a following, you might be able to open a restaurant.

The cost of a used truck can be as little as about $20,000, but opening a small restaurant can easily cost $400,000, while larger eateries can run into the millions, said Tom Miner, a principal with research firm Technomic Inc.

Operating a truck is also relatively cheap. The owner couldn’t fit many workers into the vehicle even if he or she wanted to. Advertising, in the form of social media and word of mouth, is often free. And even without a wait staff, a truck can serve a steady stream of customers who seemingly don’t mind long waits in line if the truck is popular.

One of Joe Kim’s primary aims in starting his Flying Pig truck was to test the menu before taking on the expense of a restaurant. He had planned to keep the rolling operation open only about six months when it started in 2009. But the vehicle drew devoted followers, and its popularity even helped persuade potential landlords to sweeten property deals. Kim decided to keep the truck running, and opened Flying Pig Cafe in July.

“Our Plan A was the restaurant,” Kim said. “But in this economy, it would have been very difficult to get a crowd at the restaurant without having the truck first.”

There are obvious pluses to having a restaurant, high on the list being the additional room for inventory, and cooking doesn’t have to be done in a severely cramped kitchen or a rented space shared with others.

But the comparatively high cost of running a sit-down restaurant makes it a far riskier venture. In California, 83% of restaurant owners said their food costs alone were higher in July than a year earlier, according to the National Restaurant Assn. Last year, 9,450 restaurants in the U.S. closed, more than 90% of them independent operations, according to research company NPD Group.

Bricks-and-mortar eateries also attract a different kind of customer than do trucks, said Michael Dimaguila, owner of the White Rabbit truck and restaurant. Instead of young people on a budget who don’t mind long waits at a truck, restaurants tend to draw families willing to pay more for sit-down convenience. But they can also be more finicky.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Kim said. “Even if there’s a long wait and service falls at the truck, people still give you faith. In a restaurant, there’s very little room for mistakes.”

On the other hand, the business landscape is getting tougher for trucks. Popularity has brought competition, even from big fast-food chains that now have their own rolling operations on city streets. Trucks are no longer a novelty.

“With the future of the food truck, who knows if it’s a fad or not,” Dimaguila said. “The department of health is really getting strict on the trucks. And while a lot of new trucks are starting up every week, more are closing down too.”

For the Tjahyadi brothers, the key is diversification. They don’t plan on stopping with their first restaurant, which they opened in a former El Pollo Loco. It now takes in about $3,000 a day.

But the Tjahyadis haven’t forgotten where they came from: The restaurant is festooned with pictures of their first truck. They see the restaurant as a steppingstone to what they hope will be an eventual food empire, with fine dining establishments, a chain of small take-out spots and products such as lemonade and chili sauce sold in grocery stores.

“Even if the food truck thing died out, we’ll still be a force to be reckoned with,” Eric Tjahyadi said. “We don’t want to be only in the food truck business. We want to be in the food business.” [LA Times]

While there are many people using food trucks as stepping stones to opening restaurants, not everybody agrees.  There are plenty of people with food trucks and carts who have no desire to open a restaurant.

I spoke with Stan Tankuesly a few days ago, who has the Eat Here Now Now Eat Here cart that was a finalist in the Vendy Awards Rookie of the Year category this year.  Stan has been involved in a bunch of downtown restaurants over the years including the Cottonwood Cafe, Tortilla Flats, Gulf Coast and Brothers BBQ.

Stan said to me  “I don’t know why anyone would want to open a restaurant these days.  Being tied down to one location is not the way to go anymore.”  Stan loves the freedom of a cart, and is considering getting a food truck, even with all the parking and police problems food trucks in New York have to deal with.