In Our Push to Save Restaurants, Where Do Food Trucks Stand?
by Farley Elliot
Los Angeles doesn’t think about restaurants the way that many other American cities think about restaurants. LA’s street food culture, whether that comes in the form of underground Instagram projects, sidewalk vendors, or mobile food trucks, has always influenced eating here. Angelenos don’t need a dining room (or a roof) to enjoy a great meal. Yet much of the current conversation about “saving restaurants” during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic — on this site, and just about everywhere else online — seems to hover around physical, sit-down restaurants only.
So after a summer in which street vendors weren’t granted initial access to the mayor’s highly touted Al Fresco program and a fall spent wondering when diners can once again eat a meal indoors in LA County (or if they even should), it’s time to focus on another important question:
What’s happening with food trucks, right now?
More than a decade on from the initial food truck boom of the late aughts, trucks have become less of a fad and more of a stepping stone for eager entrepreneurs to kickstart a new career. But now the pandemic has thrown that process off course. So who is making it, if anyone, and what does the future hold for those trucks sticking it out through lockdowns, curfews, and an international public health crisis?
As it turns out, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some truck owners, frankly, are doing better than they could have imagined, relying on new systems and an always-outdoors, always-innovating mobile mentality to turn the quarantine into an advantage. Others are struggling mightily, losing once-precious parking spots as businesses and office parks close unexpectedly and the vital flow of foot traffic becomes an almost imperceptible trickle.
“People have no idea how hard it is for me to keep this up, to be financially stable,” says Anthony Suggs of Antidote Eats, “and to dodge death from the police.” Suggs, a Black Long Beach native, feels that his truck — and his story — have been thrust into the greater current cultural conversation right now, in part thanks to a life-changing LA Times piece written about him earlier this summer. From a marijuana-related stint in prison to couch-surfing while scraping together enough cash for his truck, the former rapper’s own journey has mirrored this tumultuous year in America, down to the economic uncertainty and a justified fear of the police.
“My story, mixed with people in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, mixed with the coronavirus, George Floyd, all of these African Americans being murdered — I’m the epitome of that,” says Suggs. “I’m that African American just trying to do business.”
Right now, Antidote Eats pulls up a few times a week at various stops, including recently at LA Ale Works in Hawthorne for an outdoor screening of a Dodgers World Series game. Suggs works the truck with his girlfriend and her mother, who is currently being treated for cancer. Together they’re trying to make it work, splitting the money where they can and putting just enough into the truck to make it to the next stop, to cook the next meal. They don’t always see the return.
“I’ve been out here with this truck for eight months,” says Suggs, noting the ebbs and flows that come with life as a vendor on the streets. The Times story brought two-hour lines for days afterwards, and events with actor Michael B. Jordan have helped to boost the Antidote Eats’ profile, but that’s far from the daily norm. “I’ve pulled up in Hollywood, where there’s supposed to be people going by all day, and made no money. Maybe $25, sitting in the heat for four hours.”
Still, every day presents the tantalizing possibility of making a living wage. The truck’s Instagram page is up to nearly 15,000 followers, and occasional catering gigs are helping to even out the unsure waters. Suggs feels there’s no other path but forward. “Just to have the truck open, and to know that I can profit with it, and there’s so much potential in it, it’s like ... you’re numb to the problems,” he says. “If I lose everything, so be it. I’ve already lost it all before.”
Kyle Lambert understands the need to practice patience inside a food truck. He started out selling pizza slices from a commissary kitchen on Fairfax under the name Bootleg Pizza before moving into a pre-pandemic food truck. Now he says his business model has “completely shifted,” moving away from walk-up customers and exclusively toward preorders. It’s a complicated system, one the truck isn’t really built for.
“It started because nobody was on the street,” Lambert says as he prepares for an evening of orders while parked outside of Glendale Tap, “and because we needed to practice social distancing. We couldn’t have everyone showing up at the same time.” The move to selling whole pies in advance has rankled some customers who can’t secure slots fast enough, or who see the rig and think it’s possible to just grab a bite and go. “I completely understand their frustration,” Lambert says. “I probably wouldn’t deal with it either.”
There isn’t much of an alternative right now, considering the bars and breweries that Bootleg used to frequent have largely gone dormant, deemed especially dangerous gathering points for passing the coronavirus around. Leaving them behind means little in the way of guaranteed nightly sales for a truck like Bootleg, at least without resorting to the preorder system. “Who knows when they’re going to come back,” says Lambert. And then there is the truck itself, which can be finicky.
“It fucking sucks” doing everything on a truck, Lambert says flatly. With the rise of delivery-only restaurants, some young entrepreneurs are finding that commissary kitchen space is at a crowded premium. Lambert and his small crew try to stick to themselves as much as possible, though pushing too much power through the rig’s aging electrical system is causing long-term wear and tear. “There’s just constant problems. Then again, that’s every food truck.”
It’s been an up-and-down ride for Omayra Dakis and her Triple Threat Truck, too. The Puerto Rican rolling restaurant helped Dakis land an appearance on Guy Fieri’s television show Guy’s Grocery Games, but the day-to-day business of parking, cooking, and selling food still presents its challenges. “We had a really busy summer [in 2019],” Dakis says, but this year’s sales are off by at least 20 percent. “Our saving grace has been our preorder system. Up until two months ago, we were getting basically no more walk ups.”
Much like Bootleg, the Triple Threat Truck was forced to transition away from its natural selling environment — the sidewalk — to digital preorders, which can help with planning and inventory, but comes at the cost of visibility. So in exchange, Dikas and her team have amped up their social media presence, keeping customers engaged with new menu items like the mofongleta, a wild three-meat burrito concoction that used smashed and fried plantains as a wrap. “It’s been pivotal,” Dakis says. “We’re constantly posting and updating our followers to keep their attention.”
Social media has also helped the truck pull in new fans from further away, particularly when she publicly came out against using all Goya products after the company’s founder praised President Trump. New fans from Murrieta to Bakersfield started following along via Instagram, asking when they could sample her mofongo or loaded fries.
Dakis has found that these new one-off stops well outside of LA proper do surprisingly well for the truck, because those customers enjoy trying the new food and knowing they can order in advance. In the before times, most LA-based trucks would only make the long haul out to, say, the Inland Empire as part of a festival or evening collection of food trucks, and customers would be forced to wait in long lines and hope the menu wasn’t sold out before they made it to the front. “Now there’s that kinship” with her customers, Dakis says. “It’s like ‘Oh, that Puerto Rican truck is in town, let’s go hit them up.’ We’re so thankful to be able to bring that comfort to them.”
The thought now, even with slumped sales, is to expand as a way to grow that base of regionally loyal customers. “There’s constantly requests for us in other areas,” Dakis says. “So we’re asking ourselves, is this the time for growth? We wanted to move into a brick and mortar, but that’s gone now with everything that’s going on. So what do we do? Do we get a new truck, or wait this out?”
Perhaps the only person not stressing the current moment is BJ Yandall, the endlessly happy owner of longtime Hawaiian-Mexican pop-up Fiyahnesian, which operates across the southern Harbor region of LA County. “I’m really blessed,” Yandall says. “Ever since my food truck, business has been insane.” Yandall and his young family, all of whom feature prominently on Fiyahnesian’s colorful Instagram page, were initially uncertain about moving from their at-home garage cooking setup to take on the fees and uncertainty of a food truck. But with the deepening of the pandemic and crowds of locals congregating at their home — occasionally drawing the ire of neighbors — Yandall made the decision in June to go mobile. Almost overnight, his business exploded.
That first night, on August 8, a two-hour line snaked through the Carson Christian Center parking lot, Yandall says. There were many familiar faces from the family’s close-knit Pacific Islander community and even more first-timers. “Some of the rappers who like my food, they wouldn’t come when it was in my garage,” says Yandall. “They would just send their bodyguards and stuff, because they’re all Samoan guys.” He laughs. “I know everybody, man.”
It’s that continued community that is keeping Fiyahnesian not just afloat, but sailing. Yandall and the crew recently completed a round of small private events in San Diego County, and they park three to four days a week for evening service in Carson. Plans are in place to add staff and expand into longer hours, including lunch, to help spread the enduring lines out a little bit.
For now, Yandall simply says he’s fortunate to be one of the few trucks making it work during all this uncertainty. Truth be told, he admits, the family had planned to open a restaurant space just before things went sideways. Now the truck has expanded his reach while still letting him interact with his community and continue to feed his family. “I thank God, man,” he says. “I’m just so blessed.”