D’ah, right. Getting a little bit above my pay grade here…
I leave Patrick and Devin and go outside and take a breath of fresh air. Miho’s food line has dropped off. On the menu board a red slash has been chalked through the red curry chicken. “Ran out,” says Juan, the guy who took my order.
“So, how did you get this business rolling?” I ask. “And what’s ‘Miho’ anyway?”
“Kevin Ho and I started out doing a kind of underground business,” he says. “Beer dinners, pairing food and beer. It was me, Juan MI-rón, and Kevin HO. MI-HO. It also sounds like that endearment in Spanish, ‘mi hijo,’ ‘my son.’ It was a creative outlet for us to incorporate things that we’re passionate about: food, music, design, entertaining, and drinks. We’d both been working at the Linkery. That’s where we met. And we went to school in the Bay Area, so we developed an appreciation for farm-to-table food. That’s the philosophy that Miho focuses around. So after doing the beer dinners for a while, and working at the restaurant, we realized we wanted to create something which would sustain our livelihood and feed people with great food that’s locally sourced. We found out about the hot [cooked] food-truck movements in other cities, how it was flourishing in Portland, L.A., New York, so we decided we could do that here in San Diego. We worked on our business plan for about nine months, from August 2009. We launched in May of 2010.
I peek over the counter and look around his kitchen. Even after the earlier frenzy it looks clean, from the metallic shelves to the counters, and it’s spacious for a truck interior. So how much did they have to outlay to launch an operation like this?
“It’s definitely a lower investment than opening up a restaurant,” he says, “less than $100,000. But we don’t like to give out a lot of information because there are a lot more trucks that are coming out right now, over the next three to six months, and we have worked really hard to be where we’re at.”
That amount — let’s guess $80,000 — pales in comparison to what starting a regular eatery would cost. “Opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you’d be looking at $200,000, at least,” Juan says. “That’s definitely why a lot of people decide to go [the food-truck] route. But it’s still a lot of work. You deal with more complications. When you’re a normal restaurant and you run out of food, you can send someone to the back and make more food. But here, once we run out, we run out. It’s a mobile kitchen. Things that you experience as you go along the way that we have to go through [make it tough]! Like, if you buy an old truck. This was an old-school lunch truck. Finding parts, keeping it rolling…”
He rolls his eyes. Lunch trucks, he explains, have been around since the 1940s. “The Moody family has been in the business since then. In fact, lunch trucks used to serve white-collar workers, not blue-collar workers as they do now — the ‘roach coaches,’ as they’re known. They go to construction sites, factories. But not back then, before the introduction of fast-food restaurants. That’s when they started shifting [to blue-collar customers].”
So, if fast-food eateries squeezed a fleet like Moody’s out of middle-class business, how can Juan and Kevin succeed?
“Social networking is definitely one of the biggest success factors, besides your traditional marketing. Those are the top two. Out of any food truck in San Diego, we have the most followers on Facebook and Twitter. Our newsletter goes out to over 2000 people. We have more than 2200 followers on Facebook, about 2100 followers on Twitter.”
What about the fact that they’re sourcing local, organic?
“That helps, too. We can do that at a much lower investment, less risk. We own everything, just me and Kevin. Whereas, if you wanted to do a restaurant, more than likely, unless you have a lot of [start-up] money, you have to get investors. So, the goal was something where we could work for ourselves, create our own path. Whereas if you have investors, you have to be following someone else’s [business plan].”
Why is it a nationwide — maybe worldwide — phenomenon?
“Because I think people are looking for more affordable, accessible, unique dining experiences. It’s not necessarily a green thing. Like, there’s no other truck in San Diego that does green sourcing as we do. It’s happening because people want something affordable, accessible, and convenient. And definitely, it does have its trendy factor. Social networking is a big part of it. People love Facebook and Twitter. They like to know who’s eating where.”
∗ ∗ ∗
These gastro-truck guys may be hot, but, man, they can be hard to find. ’Specially if you’re not Twittering regularly. Tonight, Saturday, I’m in North Park, looking for the other famous San Diego food truck, Tabe. Right now I’m in the goth gloom of the Office, the bar on 30th near University. It’s around 10:00 p.m. That’s when I heard the Tabe truck was going to turn up. Tabe’s famous because it was started by the same Korean family that launched Kogi, a Korean-Mex BBQ truck in L.A. that’s based on the simple idea of putting Korean BBQ into tacos. In L.A. it has truly gone viral. Roy Choi, a chef who thought he was going to be stuck doing hotel banquets, has become a star. Over about a year, Kogi Korean Barbecue expanded to four trucks. They were given a Bon Appétit Award in 2009, while Food and Wine magazine named Choi “Best New Chef” for 2010. Kogi boasts more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.
Tabe (short for taberu, which means “to eat” in Japanese) also has food based on Korean-Mex fusion, though its recipes were created by a Japanese chef named Todd Ichinaga. Soon after, the Korean owners pulled out and sold Tabe.