Is the invasion of mobile food trucks along the Miracle Mile driving restaurants out of business? The recent closure of two casual establishments has raised that question.
Recently, Toshi’s Fresh Asian, an independent Asian takeout, and Organic-to-Go, a fast-casual chain based in Seattle, both unceremoniously closed their doors on Wilshire Boulevard.
The restaurants had been familiar lunch stops on the 5700 block of Wilshire, an area thick with office buildings and eateries that serve their occupants.
However, the daily lunch scene in recent months has been visited by as many as eight food trucks that offer everything from barbecue to organic sandwiches to several kinds of Mexican and Korean food, often at low prices.
To be sure, the new wave of food trucks has pressured brick-and-mortar restaurants all over the city. But the situation has escalated into a food fight along the Miracle Mile, where restaurants have enlisted a city councilman to get involved on their side.
“We’ve always had trucks out there, but their numbers have increased. We are absolutely hurting,” said Dennis Rohde, owner of the Baja Fresh franchise next to Toshi’s. He estimates that business is off 20 percent, forcing him to cut back employee hours.
“When they’re directly across the street from your business, they catch people coming out of the offices. Many of them are interested in a quick lunch and the trucks can offer that for a cheaper price because they don’t pay rent, maintenance fees or the things we have to maintain.”
The former proprietor of Toshi’s could not be reached for comment and Organic-to-Go representatives did not return calls. A sign on the latter’s window informs passersby that the place will reopen in April as a new concept called Mixt Greens.
Jerry Snyder, whose company J.H. Snyder Co. owns and maintains its headquarters in the Museum Square building where a half-dozen restaurants are housed, said his tenants are complaining.
“They’ve been screaming at me because the trucks have lowered their business by some 20 percent and, in this recession, that’s not healthy,” said Snyder. “If they stay in place, I’ll probably lose most of my restaurants there.”
Snyder said he has already encountered resistance from at least one would-be tenant – a hamburger shop – to which he offered the now-vacant Toshi’s spot.
“They would have come in if not for the trucks,” he said. “We’d love to have them because they do very well, but they said, ‘As soon as the trucks leave, we’ll talk.’ ”
So instead of selling the spot to a place that makes hamburgers, Snyder said he expects to sign a lease with a national coffee house chain. So far, no specialty coffee trucks have shown up on the Miracle Mile.
But even if the food trucks played a role in the restaurants’ demise, the truck owners said, it’s all in fair play.
“We’re trying to make a living just like any other business,” said Teddy Lawrence, owner of a soft-service ice-cream truck called King Kone regularly found on the Miracle Mile. “It’s absolutely fair competition. When businesses are competing you have to enhance your product to compete.”
The brewing business battle isn’t new. The popularity of taco trucks, purveyors of low-priced Mexican food, sparked a feud in East Los Angeles two years ago after restaurant owners complained that the competition wasn’t fair.
County supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting the trucks from staying in one spot longer than an hour, but a lawsuit brought by a group of taco truck owners, backed by a petition signed by 12,000 supporters, overturned the law.
Then early last year, a handful of trucks – many offering far more diverse fare, from Korean food to ribs – began appearing on the city’s Westside. By summertime, the lunch trucks were legion along the Miracle Mile, causing established restaurateurs to complain. Some even contacted police, who, in a series of aggressive sweeps along Wilshire Boulevard beginning in August, cited many of the trucks for minor parking violations or not having business licenses.
The restaurateurs have found a champion in Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who has acknowledged he put pressure on police.
“I believe those truck shouldn’t be there,” said the councilman, who represents the Miracle Mile area.
“The bigger philosophical question is whether this new wave of entrepreneurialism is something that people want to see. My concept is that it goes against the broken-window concept, the tide of what a boulevard should be. You walk on it, have a restaurant or sidewalk café to go into, but you don’t go get food above a gutter on the street.”
More recently, LaBonge said he persuaded the city’s Department of Transportation to lower the legal parking limit from two hours to one on the Miracle Mile.
“We need to establish what the appropriate location for those trucks is,” said the councilman, adding that the new parking limit will take effect within two to three months along both sides of Wilshire from Hauser Boulevard to Curson Avenue. “I don’t think (the trucks) should be out there at all, or only very briefly.”
Lawrence of King Kone said the catering trucks do their best business during the lunch period from about 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
“For us to be out just for one hour will be very difficult,” he said.
Also involving himself in the debate is Councilman Dennis Zine, who has introduced a motion challenging a Los Angeles Superior Court decision overturning a 2006 citywide food trucks ordinance. The law prohibited the trucks from parking in residential areas for more than 30 minutes or in commercial areas for more than 60. An earlier ordinance, also struck down by the court, prevented food trucks from operating on private property or within 100 feet of a restaurant.
Zine’s motion, currently being reviewed by staff, urges the council to “identify potential alternative solutions to regulate food trucks, including the feasibility of legal challenges.” The council is expected to review it later this year.
Cause and effect?
However, it’s not even clear that the shuttered businesses were driven away by lingering lunch trucks. Toshi’s, which had been there for only two years, had consistently done about 30 percent less business than longer-lived neighbors, Snyder said. “I think the Toshi concept just didn’t work.”
And Organic-to-Go is remodeling the site as part of a companywide move to transform some of its stores into Mixt Greens, a lunch concept that took off in San Francisco and recently moved to Los Angeles. It features staff preparing organic salads and sandwiches in front of each customer.
In any case, Keith Gellman, an Irvington, N.Y., publisher of ResaurantChains.net, a national online newsletter tracking more than 4,000 chains, said the food trucks are here to stay.
“It’s a trend that’s continuing. It’s a shift in how people eat and not necessarily a bad thing,” he said, noting food trucks are a national trend in major cities across the nation.
Jeff Davis, president of San Clemente restaurant research and consulting firm Sandelman and Associates, said that the restaurants are going to have to just deal with the competition.
“Nobody likes somebody coming in and stealing their business, but, frankly, they wouldn’t like it if somebody opened up a restaurant next door,” he said. “The food trucks have stepped up their game to become more competitive; everyone is feeling it and casual dining has to sharpen its focus.”
The focus seemed quite sharp during a recent lunch hour on Wilshire.
Christian Jun, manager of BoolBBQ, a catering truck offering Korean-style barbecue, tacos, burritos and quesadillas, said he serves about 180 customers a day; half of them are workers used to bringing their lunches from home, and the rest refugees from across the street.
“Customers tell us it’s our quality and price. They give us lots of support,” he said.
One man who regularly supports the catering trucks with his lunch money is Dan Neal, 27, a former aficionado of Organic-to-Go. Now, he said, “I prefer the trucks for their variety and convenience.”
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