The food-truck economy

Josh Hiller co-owns a company called RoadStoves. It's the go to place in LA for all things food truck: business plans to graphic designs to where you park the thing at night. Hiller and his partner have become king makers on the LA food truck scene.

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Kai Ryssdal: So here's the thing about living in Los Angeles: If you're hungry, but you just can't decide what you're in the mood for, you can go out and stand on certain street corners and the food comes to you.

Kai Ryssdal: So what's good?

Jonathan Salvatore: We basically do an authentic-style Philly cheesesteak.

Ryssdal: On trucks. Retro-fitted delivery vans making and selling almost anything you could want. Korean tacos, Chinese dumplings, South Philly cheesesteaks like I had for lunch the other day.

Ryssdal: I think I'll go with the American cheese, with the roasted peppers...

All that mobile goodness doesn't just happen, there is a business to putting those trucks together.

Josh Hiller: Right now, we're walking down gourmet row which is Grilled Cheese, Baby's Bad Ass Burgers, Nana Queen's Pudding and Wings, the Dumpling Station...

Josh Hiller co-owns a company called Road Stoves. It is the go-to place in LA for all things food truck. They do business plans to graphic designs to where you park the thing at night. Hiller and his partner have become king makers of a sort on the LA food truck scene.

Hiller: You know, we'll sit down we'll talk about their idea, we'll see what their business plan is. Do we think this is someone that can succeed? We provide a store on-site where people provide actual food and beverage products. We help promote with the iPhone app on the website and we help train in terms interior kitchen cooking equipment, driver training...

Getting back to that whole idea thing though.

Hiller: We're standing next to the Grilled Cheese Truck now, and when they came to us and they said, "Look, we have this gourmet grilled cheese concept," my partner Morris said, "Absolutely, I love it. Let's get you on the road." When people see this big melty vehicle rolling down the street, they know, a heart attack's not far behind.

Before the roving heart attacks, Road Stoves was born like so many other start-ups. A good idea, some working capital and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. In this case, helping a friend get his Korean taco truck started about a year and a half ago. That turned out to be an experiment we now know as the mobile money-maker Kogi. Hiller figures Kogi nets a couple of thousand dollars a day on delicacies like their kimchi quesadillas. That's half a million dollars a year on the very high end. Just to stay on the road, a truck has to clear a couple hundred a day. Remember the cheesesteak truck where I had lunch? We caught up with the owner back on the Road Stoves lot.

Jonathan Salvatore: I'm Jonathan Salvatore. I run the South Philly Experience truck.

Ryssdal: It sounds like you're from Philly.

Salvatore: I'm from South Jersey, but close enough.

He does work pretty long hours.

Salvatore: Typical day, wake up at six, set the trucks up. Try to get the trucks ready by 10:30. Get them to lunch by 11:30. They serve lunch. They come back, restock them up and then they go out again, bars and late night scene.

The South Philly Experience is also having a typical year when it comes to success on the food truck scene.

Salvatore: We're almost a year in and it gets better everyday. We're actually starting our second truck today, so that's why I'm a little behind. I'm trying to work two trucks for the first day.

For every South Philly Experience and Kogi that are expanding and making a profit, Josh Hiller says there are scores more just trying to break in.

Hiller: We get hundreds of calls a day from people that want trucks. So it's not an issue of, do people want to get into this business? It's really managing the growth, so it's palatable for the city, for the police department, for business owners, for consumers. But in terms of business opportunities for chefs and new culinary treats for consumers at a good price point -- it's phenomenal.

So phenomenal in fact, that Hiller says it might be time to take this LA scene and export it. Road Stoves is in talks to launch some trucks in Austin, Texas and points elsewhere. But he's pretty firm about not taking too much credit for the success of food trucks in LA.

Hiller: What it all boils down to no matter what we do is the food. So these chefs have to provide a product and that's all on them.

If there were any doubts about how ready the rest of you might be for a food truck explosion, the Food Network just announced a new show for their line up. "The Great Food Truck Race" premieres in a couple of weeks. You can think of it as a cross between "The Amazing Race" and "Top Chef." Two of the contestants -- the Nom Nom Truck and Nana Queen's -- pull out of the Road Stoves lot and onto the small screen August 15. You've got to see these trucks to really appreciate them. Check out a slideshow of the trucks, and send us photos of your favorite trucks.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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