Within the Push to ‘Save Eating places,’ LA’s Meals Vehicles Are Typically Ignored
Los Angeles doesn’t think about restaurants the way many other American cities think about restaurants. Street food culture in LA, whether it be in the form of underground Instagram projects, street vendors or mobile food trucks, has always influenced the food here. Angelenos don’t need a dining room (or roof) to enjoy a good meal. However, much of the current conversation about “saving restaurants” during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic – on this website and almost everywhere on the internet – seems to revolve only around physical restaurants with seating.
After a summer where street vendors weren’t given initial access to the mayor’s acclaimed al-fresco program and a fall wondering when LA County’s diners can eat indoors again (or if they should) , it’s time to focus on another important question:
What is happening with food trucks right now?
More than a decade after the late Aughts’ first food truck boom, trucks are less a fad than a stepping stone for avid entrepreneurs to start a new career. But now the pandemic has gotten that process off course. So who, if any, is doing it, and what is the future for those trucks that are making it through lockdowns, curfews, and an international public health crisis?
As it turns out, there is no single answer. To be honest, some truck owners are doing better than they could have imagined. They rely on new systems and an always outdoors and always innovative mobile mentality to make the quarantine an advantage. Others face major problems and once lost valuable parking space as businesses and office parks unexpectedly close and the vital flow of pedestrian traffic becomes an almost imperceptible trickle.
BJ Yandall by Fiyahnesian Clay Larsen
“People have no idea how hard it is for me to go on like this, be financially stable,” says Anthony Suggs of Antidote Eats, “and avoid the death of the police.” Suggs, a native of Black Long Beacher, feels his truck – and its story – have just gotten into the more topical cultural conversation, thanks in part to a life-changing article in the LA Times written about him earlier this summer. From staying in jail related to marijuana to surfing the couch while scraping together enough money for his truck, the ex-rapper’s journey reflected that tumultuous year in America to economic uncertainty and a legitimate fear of the police.
“My story, mixed with people in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, mixed with the coronavirus George Floyd, all of these African Americans are being murdered – I’m the epitome of that,” Suggs says. “I’m that African American just trying to do business.”
Antidote Eats is currently stopping at a number of stops a few times a week, including recently at LA Ale Works in Hawthorne for an outdoor Dodgers World Series game. Suggs works on the truck with his girlfriend and her mother, who is currently being treated for cancer. Together they try to get it to work, split the money where they can, and put just enough in the truck to make it to the next stop and cook the next meal. You don’t always see the return.
“I’ve been out here with this truck for eight months,” says Suggs, noting the ebb and flow of tides that come with being a seller on the street. The Times story ran for days and days, and events with actor Michael B. Jordan helped raise Antidote Eats’ profile, but that’s far from the daily norm. “I stopped in Hollywood, where people were supposed to come by all day, and made no money. Maybe $ 25, sit in the heat for four hours. “
Yet every day offers the tempting opportunity to earn a living wage. The truck’s Instagram page has up to 15,000 followers and occasional catering appearances help make up for the unsafe water. Suggs believes there is no other way but forward. “Just to have the truck open and know that I can benefit from it and that there is 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 everything. “
Kyle Lambert understands the need to exercise patience in a food truck. He started selling pizza slices from a commissioner’s kitchen on Fairfax under the name Bootleg Pizza before moving to a pre-pandemic food truck. Now he says his business model has “completely changed”, away from walk-up customers and exclusively towards pre-orders. It’s a complicated system that the truck isn’t actually built for.
“It started because nobody was on the street,” says Lambert as he preps for an evening of orders while parked outside Glendale Tap, “and because we had to practice social distancing. We couldn’t have everyone show up at the same time. “The move to pre-sell whole cakes has upset some customers who can’t secure slots fast enough, or who see the rig and think it’s possible to just take a bite and go. “I fully understand your frustration,” says Lambert. “I probably wouldn’t care either.”
At the moment there is little alternative, considering that the bars and breweries that Bootleg used to frequent frequently were mostly dormant and viewed as particularly dangerous gathering points for the spread of the coronavirus. Leaving them behind means little guaranteed nightly sales for a truck like Bootleg, at least without resorting to the pre-order system. “Who knows when they’ll be back,” says Lambert. And then there’s the truck itself, which can be finicky.
“It sucks as hell,” says Lambert flatly on a truck. With the advent of delivery-only restaurants, some young entrepreneurs are finding that the commissioner’s kitchen space is very high. Lambert and his small crew try to hold on to themselves as much as possible, although too much current from the rig’s aging electrical system will cause long-term wear and tear. “There are just constant problems. Then again, every food truck is. “
It’s been up and down for Omayra Dakis and her Triple Threat Truck as well. The Puerto Rican rolling restaurant made Dakis appear on Guy Fieri’s television show Guy’s Grocery Games, but the daily business of parking, cooking, and selling groceries is still one Challenge. “We had a very busy summer [in 2019]“Says Dakis, but this year’s sales are down at least 20 percent. “Our salvation was our pre-order system. Until two months ago we basically didn’t get any walk-ups. “
Much like Bootleg, the Triple Threat Truck has been forced to move from its natural retail environment – the sidewalk – to digital pre-ordering, which can help with planning and inventory, but at the cost of visibility. In return, Dikas and her team have increased their presence on social media and brought customers in touch with new menu items like the mofongleta, a wild burrito mix of three types of meat that uses smashed and fried plantains as a wrap. “It was crucial,” says Dakis. “We are constantly posting and updating our followers to keep their attention.”
Food from the Triple Threat Truck Wonho Frank Lee
Social media has also helped the truck attract new fans from afar, especially when it publicly opposed the use of all Goya products after the company’s founder praised President Trump. New fans from Murrieta to Bakersfield followed on Instagram and asked when they could try their mofongo or loaded fries.
Dakis found that these new one-time stops way out of LA are surprisingly good for the truck as these customers love to sample the new food and know they can order ahead of time. Back in the days, most LA-based trucks were just making the long trip to the Inland Empire as part of a festival or evening collection of food trucks, and customers had to wait in long lines and hope the menu wasn’t sold out, before they made it forward. “Now there is this relationship” with their customers, says Dakis. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that Puerto Rican truck is in town, let’s hit it.’ We are so grateful that we can bring you this consolation. “
The idea now is to expand, even with declining sales, in order to enlarge the base of regionally loyal customers. “There are constant inquiries for us in other areas,” says Dakis. “So we ask, is this the time for growth? We wanted to move into a store, but that’s gone now with everything that’s going on. So what do we do Do we get a new truck or do we wait and see? “
Perhaps the only person who doesn’t emphasize the present moment is BJ Yandall, the infinitely lucky owner of longtime Hawaiian-Mexican pop-up Fiyahnesian, which operates in the southern LA County’s docks. “I am really blessed,” says Yandall. “Business has been insane since my food truck.” At first, Yandall and his young family, who all star prominently on Fiyahnesian’s colorful Instagram page, weren’t sure whether to switch from their home garage cooking setup to take on the fees and insecurity of a food truck. But with the pandemic deepening and the crowd of local residents gathering at their home, occasionally drawing the wrath of neighbors, Yandall made the decision to go mobile in June. His business exploded almost overnight.
The Triple Threat Truck Wonho Frank Lee
That first night, August 8, a two-hour queue wound its way through the parking lot of the Carson Christian Center, says Yandall. There were many familiar faces from the family’s close Pacific island community, and even more first-time visitors. “Some of the rappers who like my food wouldn’t come if it was in my garage,” says Yandall. “They’d only send their bodyguards and things because they’re all Samoans.” He laughs. “I know everyone, man.”
It is this continued community that not only keeps Fiyahnesian afloat, but sails it too. Yandall and the crew recently completed a round of small private events in San Diego County, parking three to four days a week in Carson for the evening service. There are plans to add staff and extend them to longer hours, including lunch, to spread the permanent lines a bit.
For now, Yandall is simply saying that he is lucky enough to be one of the few trucks that can get it going with all this uncertainty. To be honest, he admitted that the family had planned to open a restaurant section just before things went sideways. Now the truck has expanded its range and still lets it interact with its community and continue to feed its family. “Thank God, man,” he says. “I’m just so blessed.”
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