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Restaurant chains increase appetite for food trucks

The ZZ Truck, open for business in a Los Angeles parking lot.

David Brancaccio: With the payoff being a fine burrito with fresh cilantro or golden falafel in a pita: who among us has not stood in line waiting to get lunch from a truck? Some are gourmet, some are scary but among the attractions of a food truck, they tend to be independent. 

But as Susan Valot reports a chain restaurant is getting into the game


Susan Valot: A half-dozen food trucks fill a parking lot south of Los Angeles. There’s a Filipino taco truck, a heavy metal themed gourmet burger truck -- and then there’s the ZZ Truck, where workers stand outside, taking orders.

ZZ Truck employee: One French dip slider?
Customer: No, make it two.
ZZ Truck employee: Two? With fries or without?

What makes the ZZ truck special is that it’s owned by Sizzler. Yes, that Sizzler, the long-established –- but recently declining -– restaurant chain.

Chris Rahder: We’ve been to so many events where people’d turn around and be like, “Are you kidding me? This is Sizzler?”

That’s ZZ truck chef Chris Rahder. He says the menu at a Sizzler restaurant is completely different than you’d find on the truck.

Rahder: It’s a way for us to help rebuild Sizzler, to propel it up as a marketing scheme, as getting out with people and things like that. So it kind of revitalizes the youth of Sizzler so that it’s not just going after one crowd.

Meaning the senior crowd the chain’s become known for. And Rahder says Sizzler’s truck –- which hit L.A.’s roads in August –- stays in neighborhoods where Sizzler restaurants are. He thinks just because corporations are getting into the food truck biz, they won’t put the little guys out of business.

Rahder: Just like brick and mortar restaurants, there’s always going to be great mom-and-pop restaurants and then there’s going to be these corporate Applebee’s and everything else that’s going to be out there. So I don’t think it’ll do anything like changing the landscape of having somebody creating a grilled cheese truck.

But expect most of the big restaurant chains to start rolling out trucks soon. That’s according to John Self. He’s a restaurant expert at the university of Cal Poly Pomona.

John Self: And the winner is going to be the public and I think the winner will be the restaurant industry because it’ll expand into a totally different new market.

Independent food trucks say they welcome the competition from big corporations, but they worry that too many trucks from the chain restaurants could flood the market and sour it for everyone.

In Los Angeles, I’m Susan Valot for Marketplace.

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