Joe Kim outside his Flying Pig Cafe in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood.… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
The food truck revolution is moving indoors.
The owners of some of the most successful trucks are using the knowledge, fame and bankability gained from operating their mobile eateries to start sit-down restaurants.
"To grow a restaurant from the ground up is impossible," said Eric Tjahyadi, who with his brother Erwin and two other partners started the Komodo Truck with its Asian-influenced food two years ago.
That was in the middle of a recession, when it was tough to start any business, let alone one as notoriously vulnerable as a restaurant.
But the truck, which costs far less to operate than a bricks-and-mortar establishment, was a hit, racking up good reviews and, more important, devoted fans. In March, the Tjahyadi brothers opened their Komodo Cafe in the Pico-Robertson area.
"The food truck," Eric Tjahyadi said, "is an engine for validation."
Probably the most famous pioneer of the hip food truck movement is Roy Choi, whose Kogi BBQ operation has gotten international attention. But back when he and his partners started rolling in 2008, the prospect of starting a restaurant seemed like a distant dream.
"We had $1,500, no job, a career of self-doubt, and no one watching or caring what we did," Choi said. "There is no way we could have gone a traditional route with all the bells and whistles."
Choi has helped open two restaurants: A-Frame in Culver City and Chego in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Other restaurants that used food trucks as springboards include Flying Pig Cafe in Little Tokyo, based on a truck with a pork-centric menu; Frysmith in Hollywood, known for its French fry variations; the Gastronomico in Los Feliz, based on the Gastrobus truck; White Rabbit Fusion Cafe in Canoga Park, which has a menu inspired by Filipino cuisine; and the soon-to-open Fukuburger in Hollywood, based on a Las Vegas truck co-owned by Colin Fukunaga.
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."