When RJ Hospitality Group LLC’s deli-food truck hit the road in early October, pastrami on wheels joined the growing menu of mobile food offerings now being served up at office parks and numerous other venues around San Diego County.
The Carlsbad company’s truck, called New York on Rye, is now a regular on a lunch circuit frequented by office workers in La Jolla, Sorrento Valley and several other North County neighborhoods.
“Not everyone in San Diego can get to D.Z. Akins or Elijah’s or Milton’s on their lunch hour,” says Jay Margolin, who launched the deli truck with business partner and chef Rich Huarte. “If people have just one restaurant in their office building, it’s usually not a New York-style deli, and whether that restaurant is good or bad or indifferent, they’re going to get tired of that one place.”
Local street food is quickly moving beyond hot dog carts and taco stands, as trucks with a widening variety of gourmet fare make stops at places ranging from community celebrations and retail centers, to sporting events and even their own showcase festival during the latest horseracing season at Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Operated by several local and regional companies, the trucks have a pied piper effect on the foodies who flock to them after tracking their hours and locations in real time on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
On a recent Friday, the website San Diego Food Trucks (sdfoodtrucks.com) alerted aficionados to the whereabouts of 14 lunch trucks throughout the county, with names ranging from Crazy Wheel and Super Q, to Asian Persuasion, Ciao Cupcake and Mangia Mangia Mobile.
According to the Los Angeles-based research firm IBISWorld Inc., those trucks are feeding a street food vendor industry that is expected to rack up U.S. sales of $1.4 billion and profits of more than $328 million in 2011. The sector, now consisting of more than 3,000 businesses nationwide, has grown an average of 7.7 percent annually during the past five years, and is expected to grow 3.7 percent annually over the next five years.
Nima Samadi, an IBISWorld senior analyst who tracks the food industry, said the trucks are attractive to small-business operators because of their low startup costs relative to opening a traditional restaurant, and the efficient use of social media can make marketing inexpensive.
He said their mobility helps them find an audience, and the variety of ethnic and healthier fare — ranging from Italian, Mexican, Korean and Asian fusion, to vegetarian and vegan offerings — provide a cost-effective alternative to fast-food restaurants for time-strapped office workers on weekdays.
“Proximity to office parks helps because the trucks are coming into an area where there would not be a lot of established restaurants,” Samadi said. “The vendors have limited competition, and the customers get convenience, so it’s a win for both sides.”
Margolin said the New York on Rye truck is rented at a cost of about $2,000 per month. The business spent between $15,000 and $20,000 to design and construct the vehicle to the company’s needs, and an additional $10,000 to $12,000 on related equipment and supplies.
Margolin views the truck as a cost-efficient vehicle for brand-building, as the company looks to expand into catering services and eventually open its own local nonmobile deli restaurant. “We just got contacted by a local synagogue where someone saw our truck moving around town, and they want us to be at their Purim festival in March,” he said.
Large national and regional restaurant chains, such as In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box Inc., also have recently been using mobile kitchens for their marketing and community outreach.
Earlier this year, San Diego-based Jack in the Box took to the streets with the 34-foot-long Jack’s Munchie Mobile, its first-ever food truck, sporting custom refrigeration and freezer units, a fully-equipped food-prep area, a 47-inch flat-screen digital menu board and satellite radio to entertain visitors.
Jennifer Kennedy, the company’s associate marketing manager, said the truck travels to events throughout Southern California, spending most of its time in San Diego County, and has allowed Jack in the Box to test the waters in areas like special-event catering. In the long term, it might also be used to market-test new menu offerings and get quick and ongoing feedback from customers about its operations.
“It’s mostly being used so far as a branding tool,” Kennedy said. “We have already been using things like social media in our marketing, and this program with the truck is sort of the next layer of that.”