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.