But the vehicle drew devoted followers, and its popularity even helped persuade potential landlords to sweeten property deals. Kim decided to keep the truck running, and opened Flying Pig Cafe in July.
"Our Plan A was the restaurant," Kim said. "But in this economy, it would have been very difficult to get a crowd at the restaurant without having the truck first."
There are obvious pluses to having a restaurant, high on the list being the additional room for inventory. Nor does the cooking have to be done in a severely cramped kitchen, or in a rented space shared with other food truck owners.
But the comparatively high cost of running a sit-down restaurant makes it a far riskier venture.
In California, 83 percent of restaurant owners said their food costs alone were higher in July than a year earlier, according to the National Restaurant Assn. Last year, 9,450 restaurants in the U.S. closed, more than 90 percent of them independent operations, according to research company NPD Group.
Bricks-and-mortar eateries also attract a different kind of customer than do trucks, said Michael Dimaguila, owner of the White Rabbit truck and restaurant.
Instead of young people on a budget who don't mind long waits at a truck, restaurants tend to draw families willing to pay more for sit-down convenience. But they can also be more finicky.
"It hasn't been easy," Kim said. "Even if there's a long wait and service falls at the truck, people still give you faith. In a restaurant, there's very little room for mistakes."
On the other hand, the business landscape is getting tougher for trucks. Popularity has brought competition, even from big fast-food chains that now have their own rolling operations on city streets. Trucks are no longer a novelty.
"With the future of the food truck, who knows if it's a fad or not," Dimaguila said.
"The department of health is really getting strict on the trucks," he said. "And while a lot of new trucks are starting up every week, more are closing down too."
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For the Tjahyadi brothers, the key is diversification. They don't plan on stopping with their first restaurant, which they opened in a former El Pollo Loco. It now takes in about $3,000 a day.
But the Tjahyadis haven't forgotten where they came from: The restaurant is festooned with pictures of their first truck. They see the restaurant as a steppingstone to what they hope will be an eventual food empire, with fine dining establishments, a chain of small take-out spots and products such as lemonade and chili sauce sold in grocery stores.
"Even if the food truck thing died out, we'll still be a force to be reckoned with," Eric Tjahyadi said. "We don't want to be only in the food truck business. We want to be in the food business."
(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times
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