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Behind the Scenes with a Food Trucker: How to Pick a Lucrative Parking Spot, Not Piss Off Other Vendors
"There's more to planning a lucrative food truck route than just parking somewhere and crossing your fingers that people will show up."
Sure, there are always the technical and mechanical surprises that must be dealt with when driving a rickety, 25-year-old, converted taco truck around town. And then there are the recipe-testing and food prep issues. But the biggest challenge for this Los Angeles food trucker, and probably many others, has perhaps been finding and maintaining a lucrative truck route.
If you've been watching The Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network, you may have noticed that a large part of food trucking success lies in where a food truck is parked. Park your rig in an area with lots of foot traffic and visibility, and you are sure to make a decent profit—so it seems.
But keep in mind that there are only seven trucks featured on this show, and these trucks have (so far) only traveled to cities where there is little other competition.
But in Los Angeles county alone, there are well over 100 "nouveau" food trucks (and that's not even counting the thousands of old-school taco trucks and loncheros across the Southland). And while Los Angeles is a huge metropolis, its vastness doesn't make it any easier to find and maintain a lucrative parking spot/truck stop. And despite the few trucks that may go out of business every couple of months, the number of new trucks continues to grow.
Add to the fray all of the different city laws, namely where you can and can't park a food truck (I won't bore you with the details). It's safe to say that it's competitive as all hell out here in Los Angeles. It's survival of the tastiest here in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.
Yes eaters, there's more to planning a lucrative food truck route than just parking somewhere and crossing your fingers that people will show up.
Where Oh Where to Park?
The logistics of finding a parking spot in Los Angeles can be frustrating, to say the least. Finding a busy place during lunch hour and parking there seems simple enough but there are many questions to consider before claiming an empty slab of concrete for your truck.
Questions vendors should ask themselves:
- Are there other restaurants in the area?
- Can you assume that the people in this area will want try your food for the first time? This question can be especially relevant for ethnic and specialty food purveyors like The Manila Machine.
- Are there any cops around that may shoo you away even though you are following the letter of the law?
- Are there other food trucks in the area that may not welcome your presence?
Oh, and did I mention that it is sometimes necessary to send a "staging car" ahead of your truck in order to snag prime real estate before another truck can claim it? It's true. If you know there are going to be multiple trucks at one location, it's in your best interest to send a car HOURS before lunch or dinner in order to secure what you hope to be a lucrative location.
I told you, it's competitive out here.
And once you've done the proper research and reconnaissance on a possible truck stop, you set up shop and hope for the best. And the best is a mass of hungry people that will wipe all the food out of your truck and ask that you park in the same location again soon.
But a successful stop may be fleeting...
There Are No Secrets on Twitter
Although the use of Twitter provides food truckers a way to reach a large part of our clientele, Twitter also acts as a bulletin board for competing trucks. This is not always a good thing. For example, food truckers may keep an eye on the weekly schedules and tweets of other trucks in order to find new, more lucrative parking locations.
In fact, using Twitter to announce where your truck will be is not unlike a mushroom wrangler going into town square with a bullhorn, then revealing the location of his secret 'shroom stash to all within earshot. Pretty soon, competing mushroom wranglers will want in on the once-secret stash of sorrels or woodears or what have you, and then the magic is lost.
And so it goes, finding a good parking location with lots of foot traffic and hungry eaters will only remain magical for so long. Sooner or later, other trucks may show up to feed some of your potential customers.
An Unwritten Code
Although we've found that it's rare to keep a location all to yourself for very long, The Manila Machine has come to accept this part of the business as, well, part of the business. It happens.
But one of the good things (heck, probably the best thing) about parking with other food trucks nearby is that there is the unwritten food trucker code of "food trading." This code of "food trading" goes something like:
"When parked neareth other food truckers, thou shalt offer them thine own bounty!"
In other words, it isn't unusual for a food trucker to put together a tasting of his finest fare for the other truckers to sample and vice versa. Not only is trading food with other trucks a good way to make friends, it's also a great way to get fed during a busy lunch rush.
But not everyone is always so friendly.
After only a few months in business, Team Manila Machine has experienced some less-than-civil situations with other vendors.
On one occasion in particular, I was pulling The Manila Machine over to a curb in front of a business for the first time. It just so happened that there was a vendor serving hot dogs from a cart on the sidewalk a few feet away. I didn't notice this vendor until I started to pull my truck to the curb, otherwise I would've kept driving. Next thing I know, the seemingly mild-mannered hot dog vendor began screaming eff-bombs and mother effing-bombs at me, brandishing her spatula in a manner I construed as "You better not park here, or I'll slit your throat with this hot dog flipper."
Long story short, I moved away but ended up parking directly across the street from the hot dog vendor—which she was perfectly fine with.
Lesson learned: personal space boundaries vary from vendor to vendor.
Every Day We Hustlin'
The Manila Machine has only been in operation for a few months now, so our experience is obviously very limited. We're still learning the ropes and growing from these daily experiences, so who are we to complain about parking? Heck, we might've even unknowingly ruffled some feathers of other truckers along the way, and if we have, please know we didn't mean it. We're just happy to be a part of this burgeoning mobile food culture and are happy to be sharing our food with those willing to try it.
Yes, it is very competitive as a Los Angeles food trucker. But at the end of the day, every food trucker in Los Angeles is simply hustling and trying to make an honest living.