The Food Truck Mafia, and the 100-plus, independently-operated food trucks it organizes, has turned the asphalt covered open space of Amador Valley High School's parking lot into a home for one of the hottest food trends in the country. The décor may be slightly less than casual but everything needed for a great eating experience can be found at the makeshift dining venue -- easy parking, plenty of seating, musical entertainment, and between eight and 10 contemporary food trucks featuring trendy menus that change by the season and the week.
Sure, the hours are fairly limited -- they're only open on Tuesdays from 4:30 till 9 p.m., and they won't be around once the rain sets in, but no reservations are required and the dress code is very liberal. And, thanks to the big-picture thinking of Phil Woodman, food truck owner and founder of the Food Truck Mafia, 10% of the proceeds go to support the Amador Marching Band.
Food truck as destination dining has been a growing trend since the fad first took root in Los Angeles in 2008. However, like most "new" ideas, the flashy, highly decorated trucks roving the streets today can trace their roots to a business that actually dates back over a century.
The original meals on wheels, known then as chuck wagons, roamed the prairies of the United States, following the pioneers and providing sustenance to cowboys and other nomadic settlers as they crossed the country in search of new land or work. A natural evolution brought about the portable hot dog stands and the nondescript, white-sided trucks offering the typical stale sandwiches and construction worker lunches that first come to mind when thinking roadside repast.
Phil Woodman's world is a whole different kind of kitchen.
"The people who own food trucks today are young chefs. They're foodies and culinary school graduates who can't afford to start a restaurant. They change the menus and they move around and they go with what works," Woodman said.
As for the colorful, eye-catching advertising that borders on artwork covering the sides of the truck, Woodman said it's what people will remember about today's trucks in 10 or 15 years.
"The trucks needed to stand out, to get attention," he explained. "And now people expect to see the big, graphic wrapped trucks. It's become part of the culture."
Modern culture has played a big role in bringing recognition to the food truck fare as real cuisine. The Food Network has caught the attention of food lovers everywhere with The Great Food Truck Race, now in its third season, while social media keeps the culinary converts in close contact with their favorite trucks.
Woodman uses both Twitter and Facebook to help local fans, which number in the thousands, keep track of which trucks are where as the organization schedules 10 events per week throughout the East Bay.
Each of the Food Truck Mafia events is run in conjunction with a not-for-profit host who receives a percentage of the profits. Woodman says this business model has proven to be a natural, and much needed, fit for both groups.
"When I got into the business two years ago, I tried to get into a food truck event in San Jose and I wasn't allowed in," he said. "Even though I would have paid to be a part of it, I couldn't get in. On the way home I thought, 'Let's find a way to never tell people "no."'"
Woodman also decided that while he wanted to make money off his truck, there was no need to make money off the event itself -- and the Food Truck Mafia concept was born.
"The way the Food Truck Mafia works, we support our family of trucks, and we support the community," Woodman said, pointing out that it's not just the monetary donation making a difference.
"When I was growing up we had block parties, Fourth of July parties, these were part of the social scene in the community. Now, there are no fireworks, no block parties, no real community interaction. At Food Truck Mafia events there are neighbors showing up, hanging out with each other, bringing community back. Even restaurants can't do that."
Restaurants can be the big objectors to the food trucks' presence in the community, and Woodman understands their concerns. But having owned a restaurant himself, he believes food truck events can actually improve business at a downtown establishment.
"When I had my restaurant in Niles, if a food truck had shown up, I would have been closed minded, too, at first," he said. "But knowing what I do now, I would say, before you have an opinion, take a good look at the numbers. See if your numbers aren't going up on the Tuesday or Wednesday night of an (food truck) event. There are hundreds and even sometimes a thousand extra people coming to the downtown because of the food trucks. Find a way to take advantage of that, to bring some of those people into your restaurant."
For those who are enticed by the menus but still recall the days when food trucks bore the unsavory and mostly undeserved "roach coach" reputation, Woodman says customers should eat with ease, dismissing concerns about the cleanliness of today's food trucks.
"I've owned both restaurants and food trucks and let me say this: When the average restaurant opens, it gets its first license and they might not see the health inspector again for a couple of years. Food trucks get scrutinized eight times a year or more," he said. "We have a great relationship with the health department."
As far as taxes, licensing and permits, Woodman says the Mafia trucks are probably over permitted.
"In my company if we do business in a city, we have a license to do business in that city, and when we do business in a new county, we get a license to do business in that county. Whatever the rules for a business are, we follow them," he said.
Laws guiding the development of the industry, however, are not so clear.
"The way food trucks are operating today is new," Woodward explained. "Laws are based on the old ice cream truck style of business and they are not favorable for food trucks, though they are evolving."
California is trying to create a set of standards that will clarify the rules of the business but in the process, good intentions are sometimes getting in the way of common sense.
"About eight months ago, a law was proposed to ban all food trucks from setting up within one half mile of all schools," said Woodward. "But when they started to map that out, it literally left no place for a truck to park. The idea was that they were protecting schools and kids from unhealthy food, but it really hurt our feelings given what we are trying to do for the community and the school programs."
Members of the Amador Marching Band would agree that the Food Truck Mafia has been instrumental in helping the music program meet its fundraising goals. Ellen McGraw, VP of fundraising, first contacted Woodman in February, just hoping to find a way to feed those participating in the school's jazz festival.
"It was a complete success," McGraw recalled. "Everyone loved the variety of food and the program made some money at the same time."
A few months later, the Food Truck Mafia was looking to fill a weekly Tuesday night spot on its calendar and, recalling the school's excellent downtown location, asked McGraw if Amador would like to host the Mafia dinner events.
Having recently accepted an invitation to play at the Fiesta Bowl, the band was already looking for fundraising opportunities. The Food Truck Mafia has made all the difference.
"We are on track to meet our financial goals," McGraw reported. "No matter how many scarves or reusable bags we sell, the Tuesday night events are going to get us through."
The Food Truck Mafia and its mobile gatherings will remain regulars in the downtown food scene until the rains come and outdoor dining isn't so fun.
So what will a true truck foodie do till the skies clear? Simply take a short drive to the best kept food truck secret in Pleasanton: Just outside of Ruby Hill, west of the Isabelle/Vineyard intersection, is an old fashioned, unassuming truck, offering some of the best Mexican food in the valley.
Adrian and Nelly Flores have been setting up shop and preparing fresh sopes, tacos and salsa for people who live and work in Pleasanton -- or pass through on their commutes -- for more than 10 years. La Cocina may not be fancy, but it is good, and the Floreses are guaranteed to be there, rain or shine, no Facebook update needed.
Members of the Food Truck Mafia
Blue Saigon Truck - Vietnamese Fusion Grill
Streatery - Glorious Peasant Food
My Shrimp Shack
Tacos de Los Altos