Catering trucks: $80,000 kitchens on wheels

KPCC's Bridget Read with Juan Gomez, co-owner of West Coast Catering Trucks, in an almost-complete catering truck built for crepe-makers.
KPCC's Bridget Read with Juan Gomez, co-owner of West Coast Catering Trucks, in an almost-complete catering truck built for crepe-makers. John Rabe

Despite Los Angeles' recent gourmet food truck craze, most people have no idea what it takes to turn a truck into a mobile kitchen. Juan Gomez of West Coast Catering Trucks does, and he showed Bridget Read, Off-Ramp's summer intern, how.

For Juan Gomez, co-owner of West Coast Catering Trucks, making catering trucks is a labor of love.

“I love going to the trucks though,” Gomez admitted. “I mean there’s so many out there. So I like going, taking the family, and kind of showing my kids, ‘Look! Look what your daddy built, that truck!’”

Gomez and his two brothers started West Coast Catering Trucks in the city of Commerce in 2000. Now they make around 25 to 35 custom catering trucks a year.

The first step is buying the truck. The brothers buy Chevy or Ford Utility trucks for $20,000, and, Gomez says, we “start from scratch. We start cutting out the openings where the service windows go, where the entrance door goes, the exit door, and we start pretty much from the ground up.”

Then, the brothers work with the customer, which often means convincing first time owners to rely on his expertise.

“The customer will come and they’ll have an idea as to what size of a truck they want. Normally most people they want something compact, less money, but once we start putting down on paper the equipment they want, (then) we let the customer know what size of a truck they need.

Even though a customer might say ‘I want a 16-foot truck,’ they have like five or six items of cooking equipment they want to install, then that’s when we say ‘No, all that equipment must fit into a 20-foot truck.’”

Then, after buying the truck and consulting with the owners-to-be, a team of ten workers, including welders, electricians, and plumbers, and the Gomez brothers start transforming an empty truck into a kitchen on wheels.

While giving me a tour of a newly completed truck, about 6 feet wide and 18 feet long inside, Gomez showed off the dozens of appliances and features required for operation: a 4-burner professional gas stove, a 4-foot-long griddle, acres of white plastic prep tables, utensil sinks, a hand sink, an exhaust hood, two water tanks — one for fresh water, one for waste water — storage space above and below, and room for up to six people to work.

Gomez spoke of the artful way that a manufacturer optimizes what insiders call the “flow” of the orders — where they come in, how they’re made, how they’re paid for, and finally handed out.

“It’s like an assembly line. You have one person taking orders and then you pass the orders onto the cooks, and then from here they prepare all of the food and they bring it back around to the front counter again, on which they will do the last toppings or whatever they put on the plate, and then it goes out the second window.”

Once a truck is complete, the manufacturer must answer to the health department, whose inspectors have to okay both the plans and the finished product. In fact, health code dictates how most of the truck is built, including the materials.

Gomez covers the walls of his trucks with stainless steel, making each one look like a small spaceship on the inside, because “it’s all food grade. All of this material will not rust or change color,” he says, calling the health department “very picky.”

In addition to the health department, manufacturing practices are subject to the standards of NSF International, the group that provides sanitation and food safety certifications around the world. In 2008, the California health department changed its laws regarding catering trucks — known as MFPU’s for “mobile food processing units,” so that they not only need health department approval, but an NSF stamp as well.

A truck like the one Gomez displayed costs about $80,000, before gas, permits, food, plates, napkins, utensils, and maintenance. The total costs surprise a lot of first-time owners.

“Most people that come, it’s like this is their life savings. This is the very first business that they have ever owned. It’s like every single truck that we sell, this is how they’re going to get their kids through school and this is how they’re going to pay their rent. It’s a big deal."

By the way, the Gomez brothers are not only manufacturers, they're pioneers. Juan Gomez says they were among the first to put windows across the sidewalk side of the truck, so people can see their food being made.

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