Follow that taco truck!

Mobile eateries have been around for generations feeding blue-collar workers who crave a filling meal on a limited time and budget. On the west coast, the iconic taco trucks are sure to be found at lunchtime near any construction site. But beyond white-collars with the late night munchies and more open-minded foodies, few considered them as epicurean destinations. Now, what happened to other American classics like cupcakes and doughnuts, is happening to the taco truck. Gourmetization by gentrification.

In LA, the media darling Kogi BBQ serves handheld Korean-Mexican fare with a fine dining pedigree. Behind the wheels is Roy Choi, a chef who started out cooking at Le Bernardin in NY and more recently ran the kitchen at the 4-star Beverly Hilton restaurant in LA. Choi’s mobile menu includes Korean short ribs, spicy pork and tofu tacos prepared with high-end ingredients and packed with the flavor of carefully created marinates. But the food quality is responsible for only half of Kogi’s astronomical popularity–the truck commands lines of over one-hour wait and serves up to 600 customers a night. The other half comes from its 140-character marketing strategy.

In a curious twist on business economics, the one service that is yet to find its business model is empowering Kogi’s business to thrive. The truck has over 26 thousand Twitter followers that signed up to receive updates on where it will show up next. There’s no set agenda, locations are announced on the day; sometimes only a few hours ahead. Foodies and fans flock to tweeted addresses from all over town. Chasing the chef’s 2 trucks feels like the quest for “Where’s Fluffy” from “Nick and Norah’s infinite playlist”.

Kogi’s cult success inspired a myriad of copycats ranging from pure plagiarism to more original interpretations, kicking off a gastromobile trend.

In San Francisco, the Crème Brûlée Cart roams around the Mission district at night serving à la minute caramelized custards. Boccalone, purveyor of “tasty salted pig parts”, is sending its Salumi-Cycle to the Financial District during lunch hours. In its inaugural trip last week, the full load of 25 prosciutto paninis sold out in just 2 minutes–leaving dozens of hungry customers empty-handed. Other roaming food carts in the city include Sexy Soup Lady, Magic Curry Man and Mobile Pho Truck. Like Kogi, they all use Twitter to broadcast their locations, albeit to a much smaller audience.

Even Chez Spencer, the renowned French restaurant in the city, has launched a takeaway spin off in a converted taco truck. The concept follows the same gentrified gourmetization but isn’t quite as successful–the menu doesn’t have much of a street food flair and orders are said to take up to 45 minutes to be done.

This week in New York a converted pizza truck is hitting the road as Cupcake Stop. The owner is a law school dropout who put his bar exam on hold to sell cupcakes. He guarantees the confections are baked from scratch daily and expects to sell about 1,500 a day. Beyond announcing the truck’s location on Twitter, he is also using the social network to ask his followers for flavor suggestions. Over 500 submissions have already been sent.

But the idea of mobile eateries has always spurred some controversy. Neighborhood associations and local restaurants often see them as nuisances or threats. In mid 2008, Los Angeles passed an ordinance that required taco trucks to change location every hour (30 minutes in residential areas). A few weeks later a judge ruled the law unconstitutional allowing the trucks to conduct business in set locations. No shuffle required. The city of San Francisco, which has strict polices about street food, is constantly threatening to shut down unlicensed trucks and carts. Twitter is allowing mobile businesses to cultivate an ever-growing customer base while constantly changing their location.

But in the end, this is still restaurant business. A few months from now, many of these ventures will likely go out of business as fast as they hit the road. Diners will grow tired of niche menus and realize the long lines are not always worth braving. Unlike restaurants though, mobile eateries have the advantage of easily moving to a new spot and taking their fare to new fans. The most loyal Twitter fans will follow.

For now, until the fad goes out of fashion or legislators discover the wonders of 140-character social networking, we can enjoy the creativity and convenience of technology-powered gourmet street food. So get on Twitter and follow that truck.

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