The Evolution of San Diego's Food Truck Scene

San Diego Food Truck | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

San Diego Food Truck | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

San Diego has seen catering trucks cruising the streets WAY before food trucks were “cool.” Trucks have been servicing businesses, office buildings, and docks for workers that come from cubicles or the warehouse to gather and purchase a meal.  A basic, yet tasty breakfast sandwich, a machaca burrito wrapped in deli wrap, and a two ounce portion cup full of salsa. Lunch was the standard fare: griddled American items and tasty, yet no-frills Mexican food like tortas or carne asada burritos. Should your business be a lucky one, the mariscos truck came by with fresh options; this is the truck that is now enjoying the food truck craze. Options were a bit more authentic.  A bit more unique.

New and Improved

The days of the aforementioned, “just-business” catering and food trucks are not done, they simply fly under the radar a bit. The stark, white and stainless trucks are still a force, serving businesses regularly at all hours. The “old” trucks, however, are being overshadowed by the “new and improved” food truck. The graphics wrapped all around the truck with eye-catching detail, larger-than-life images of the food they are offering, and technicolor logos, phrases, and menus emblazoned upon the sides of the truck. This new fleet operates differently and is a different breed.

The experience and cuisine you expect to have in a number of restaurants in San Diego is being replicated through growing numbers of food trucks, allowing guests to enjoy a vast selection of quality food at a multitude of locations throughout San Diego. The non-descript tacos from the “plain-wrap” truck are good, but some guests want more of experience like one that the Puesto food truck delivers: freshly made tortillas, filet mignon, crispy melted cheese, avocado, and a spicy pistachio jalapeno salsa. Gourmet food with the convenience of less commitment.

The Benefits of the Food Truck Meetup

It’s no secret that San Diego offers a lot to do with the weather that allows locals and tourists alike to do it almost all year. San Diego also sprawls a bit, so the food truck bringing favorite foods to a location near guests is a win for both operators and guests. There are locations throughout San Diego County that offer designated nights where food trucks come together to offer hungry guests options. Operators seeing this as competition need to realize that trucks can often be very complementary, as some are niche trucks that may only offer dessert or pierogi. Guests are then able to grab a quick bite at one truck, a main at another, and dessert from the next.

Ideally, food truck operators are proactive in the planning process of events where multiple trucks are present so there is no direct competition, else organizers of such events may simply want to fill parking spots. Finding parking lots and getting approval is important in San Diego, so some due diligence up front is needed to secure a spot for an evening or an hour, or else customers looking forward to purchasing whatever food is on the menu will be rather disappointed if the truck had to move to another location, or altogether leave. Not good for a business.   

Food Trucks and San Diego Beer

New Orleans Cuisine + Catering | Yelp, Conrad R.

New Orleans Cuisine + Catering | Yelp, Conrad R.

San Diego’s craft beer scene wave continues to crest, and smart food truck operators are riding that wave, putting work in to partnering with as many breweries/tasting rooms as possible. The beauty of a partnership with a brewery or tasting room works well for both food truck operators and the brewers. The food truck arrives, serves hungry patrons who may NEED a bite to eat before they press on to the next tasting room or simply head home after getting a growler fill, and then depart for another location. Guests at the brewery are happy, and the process allows the brewers to do what they do best and the truck operator to do the same.

Brewers are setting up in many industrial areas, where there is a large concentration of daytime jobs, but not much happening after 5 p.m. Twisted Manzanita Ales in Santee, CA pairs up with food trucks regularly.  Making it easier for people to stop once for some craft beer and a bite to eat provides more convenience than making multiple stops, and offers higher quality. New Orleans Cuisine and Catering truck, for instance, offers patrons at the tasting room legitimate versions of jambalaya and gumbo while mixing in things like Po’boys s and lobster grilled cheese with mardi gras slaw. Lower overhead for both the brewer and the food truck operator afford the opportunity to provide a higher-quality product at the most affordable price.

Brick and Mortar Hitting the Streets

Food trucks come first a lot of the time, when someone wants to rent a kitchen, test out, and incubate a concept. When there is success, then the rented kitchen doesn’t seem to make much sense. A restaurant space seems like the next logical step. Alternatively, established brick and mortar businesses are increasing their presence on the streets with food trucks of their own. This strategy offers more versatility and potential ease of catering jobs, and allows the concept to reach areas away from their core location. A food truck after success in a brick and mortar location can be a strategy for testing out markets, for educating guests on the product offered, or for simply making more sales.

The successful Carnita’s Snack Shack with two locations in San Diego County also run a food truck that parks at the San Diego Embarcadero. Their truck is a regular fixture as their waterfront location is being built. A larger restaurant group (over twenty locations) in San Diego also chose to get into the food truck scene, and are enjoying success with it. The Cohn Restaurant Group and Chef Deborah Scott put together Trucked Up Productions. This subsidiary food truck business focuses on catering, but their trucks can be found at local festivals and other events throughout the city.