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Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

Food Trucks Get Street Smarts and Do Strategic Planning

Ten years or so ago, San Diego food truck vendors could roam the city streets until they found a highly dense area they thought could make them a profit that day or night — whether that meant private property lots or shopping centers — and hang out till they pooped out.

But today, local food truck vendors are less blasé about their operations, according to experts and those involved in the industry, as the mobile business has gotten more organized — and way more professional — in recent years, mostly through very intentional scheduling efforts and, sometimes, a little help from external booking specialists.

Ornela Toombs, owner of West Coast Provisions, American Flavors and Taco Picasso food trucks, headquartered in El Cajon and founded in 2014, said she books corporate parties and private events as far as two months in advance.

Profit Generators

“My biggest thing is not necessarily how many times we go out, but, how profitable we will be if we go and where we go,” she said, adding that she mostly focuses on lunch hours in Sorrento Valley, the UC San Diego area and downtown. “I’m very particular about where our trucks go and focus on profitability. That’s the reason we don’t work with breweries — they can’t guarantee how much money we are going to make and how many people they will have. For me, just to go and not know what we will make is like shooting in the dark… I’ve kind of learned that from being in the business for a few years.”

Toombs said she works closely with a Los Angeles-based food truck booking company called Curbside Bites, which is a food truck booking service that specializes in recurring and one-time events and food truck catering coordination for over 250 food trucks throughout Southern California. She said her professional relationship with Curbside is why she is able to work her food trucks downtown every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“The whole operation is very organized,” she said, adding that Curbside closes down the whole block and food trucks pay a fee to participate. “They even bring porta potties and there are signs that prohibit cars from parking there, otherwise they will be towed.”

Professional Approach

Roaming Hunger is another Los Angeles-based food truck booking company that was founded in 2009 and works with over 17,000 food trucks in the United States and in Canada. Mircea Vlaicu, director of marketing at Roaming Hunger, said the goal of the company is to “basically professionalize what (food truck vendors) are already doing… Our mission is to help protect their business and help them become more professional.”

To do so, Vlaicu said the company offers three tiers of services, starting at around $100/month that include perks like the ability to have Roaming Hunger build a company website and help with digital marketing for the respective food truck business.

While Joshua George, co-owner of Smokin J’s BBQ, never worked with outside operators on the scheduling front, he said what helped his 2017-founded food truck business escalate as quickly as it did was that he solely focused on scheduling (up to three months in advanced, he said) while his brother, Jeremy George, handled the culinary side. This, he said is what helped his food truck build relationships and customer loyalty and led to the opening of Smokin J’s the restaurant in Poway just a few weeks back.

“Our experience with the food truck was never what I typically thought the experience would be — I thought I would pop up at bars or along the beach,” he said. “For us, we never did any of that. (Instead), we were highly successful… (working) high density places like apartment and office complexes. We quickly realized the advantage of bringing our restaurant to those premises. And so, our entire business was built off scheduling apartments and offices.”

George said, at its peak, Smokin J’s averaged 60 events a month between corporate lunches and dinners in apartment complexes around the county. For him, it made more sense to take this route because the permitting was easier and also working directly with building managers versus the city was simpler. He said it was much more effective to have a prearranged schedule with these locations because they didn’t have to draw people in somehow and then hope those same people would buy food from them nor depend on foot traffic or patrons from a nearby business.

“If you go to apartments, people live there,” he said. “If you go to office buildings, people work there.”

It was a no-brainer, he said.

Friday Night Date in P.B.

The same goes for The Union Food Truck, which launched in 2019 and serves as the mobile arm of San Diego-based Union Kitchen & Tap restaurants; According to Catie Davenport, corporate project manager, the mobile business has a pretty well-thought out rotating schedule, mostly working with local breweries, apartments, festivals and community events, as well as doing some contracted catering, she said. And, on Friday nights, The Union Food Truck is parked in Pacific Beach, said Davenport, specifically in front of sister restaurants PB AleHouse or Backyard Kitchen and Tap.

Davenport said focusing on these very specific avenues has fared well for the truck business.

“We participate in 15-20 events per month,” said Davenport. “We have generated more revenue since launching (the food truck).”

And, there are local groups in San Diego, like the Balboa Park Conservancy and certainly local breweries that are just as happy that food trucks are still very much active in the city.

Sue Varga, director of park activation for Balboa Park Conservancy, works with a rotation of 40 food trucks for the park’s “Food Truck Friday” event. Varga said she works with the City of San Diego and the Parks and Recreation Department in order to hire the food trucks. She also said, during the Balboa Park “Holiday Food Truck Festival”, which runs for about a week every December, the park sees between 60,000 and 70,000 people a day.

“We launched the program in April 2016 as a pilot program,” she said, “and it was an instant success. Now, depending on the event and time of year, I have anywhere from 15-17 trucks at one time.”

Getting More Sophisticated

Overall, Carl Winston, the director of the L Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University, said the local food truck industry is simply much more sophisticated about how it conducts business and where these days.

“Food trucks are making deals with office buildings and hotels instead,” he said. “You can go on websites where you can pick from a Belgium waffle truck and a coffee truck and book food trucks there for your next special event… (The food truck operation) seems to have gotten a lot smarter.”


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