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Corporate restaurants roll out their own LA food trucks

An employee from The Habit grabs a cheeseburger order from the burger chain's food truck. Susan Valot/KPCC

Hundreds of gourmet food trucks call the L.A. streets home, with more revving up all the time. Some are independents. Others are linked to trendy restaurants run by red-hot chefs.

But now the food truck craze has drawn in restaurant chains that want to take their menus out for a spin.

Workers from the Habit burger truck deal with lunchtime crowds at an industrial park in Rancho Cucamonga. The Habit’s a 40-year-old (mostly) Californian chain that’s been expanding.

The Habit’s Mike Mirkil says the burger chain rolled out its first food truck, for catered events, late last summer.

"We’re still an unknown brand," Mirkil acknowledged. "So what the truck can do for us is it can be out there in the community and it can be a very great marketing tool to create brand awareness and excitement for us."

Mirkil says the Habit is already established as a brick-and-mortar restaurant chain.

"The truck can allow us to go places and serve people where we don’t necessarily have a physical restaurant," he explained. "We're not a McDonald’s that’s on every other corner. And we do have a lot of fans who have experienced us in other places. So the truck is really something that we can take to them."

But Sizzler is taking a different approach with its ZZ Truck. It travels with the independent food truck crowd.

It’s hard to find the Sizzler name on the ZZ Truck, unless you look closely. Workers take orders on iPads while a satellite TV blares nearby. Nearly everything on the menu is new, making the truck sort of a test kitchen for the long-established but recently declining Sizzler chain.

"You know, it’s a way for us to help rebuild," said chef-in-charge Chris Rahder. "It's gone into a plateau and then it’s come down and now it’s kind of — we’re trying to use this as a vehicle to propel it up, you know, as a marketing scheme, as getting out with people and things like that.

"It kind of revitalizes the youth of Sizzler so that it’s not just going after one crowd," Rahder said, referring to the senior crowd that the chain’s become known for. And he says Sizzler’s truck, which hit the road in August, goes where Sizzler already is.

"It doesn’t make sense for us to be out in somewhere where there’s no real Sizzlers, unless we’re thinking about going there," Rahder explained. "So we’ll use this truck to test grounds. So if we want to open one in, you know, somewhere out in Riverside, where we don’t have a Sizzler, then we would put this somewhere in the community and kind of get some feedback on it."

Sizzler’s Chris Rahder doesn’t think corporations entering the food truck fray will ruin the grassroots food truck landscape, saying that it's "just like brick-and-mortar restaurants."

"There’s always going to be great mom and pop restaurants, and then there’s going to be these corporate Applebee’s," said Rahder. "So I don’t think it’ll do anything like changing the landscape of having somebody creating a grilled cheese truck."

He summed up by saying that people will "vote with their money" on what food they want to eat.

"It doesn’t matter if we have iPads to order with or if we plaster a TV on the side of it," Rahder said. "It’s going to come down to what people think of the food."

Food truck follower Addie Arboleda of Torrance says she probably won’t try the corporate trucks.

"This is supposed to be more of like an underground, unique-type thing," said Arboleda, dismissively. "Corporate trucks, it’s like, you can just go to the restaurant."

Others in line at a food truck gathering in Harbor City say they might give the corporate trucks a try, just to see how they’re different.

John Self, a restaurant expert at Cal Poly Pomona, expects most chains will eventually roll out food trucks.

"And the winner is going to be the public," said Self, "because it’ll expand into a totally different new market, just like when you see the restaurants put it in grocery stores — you know, the frozen CPK [California Pizza Kitchen] or something like that. And it’s a totally different market."

But will those corporations whip the little guys? Chef Roy Choi, co-founder of the popular Kogi Korean Taco Truck, welcomes the challenge.

"This is a chance for these companies, with their power and their access and their marketing and their connection and their ability to get food out there, for us to create what I’ve been dreaming of all along, is like hawker centers in America, you know," exclaimed Choi. "So if we go that route, I’m all for it."

Kogi Truck chef Choi says there will always be an independent spirit among food trucks, no matter what... and it's that spirit that attracts a loyal following.