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The State of LA's Gourmet Food Truck Scene, With Dave Danhi of The Grilled Cheese Truck

The Grilled Cheese Truck owner Dave Danhi talks about lasting five years in an unpredictable industry, and how food truck culture will continue to evolve.

Elizabeth Daniels

Photos by Elizabeth Daniels

Ask anyone in Los Angeles to name five gourmet food trucks, and The Grilled Cheese Truck would fall somewhere within that list. The well-known comfort food operation has become an indelible part of not only L.A.'s food truck scene, but its restaurant scene as a whole. And with eight different trucks roaming across Southern California, from Ventura south into Orange County, the lasting brand shows no signs of slowing down.

On the five year anniversary of the truck's humble beginnings, and with a still blossoming grilled cheese empire underneath him, Eater talked with owner Dave Danhi about the current state of the city's food truck scene, the necessary expansion into brick and mortar restaurants, and why empowering others is one of the greatest rewards of being a small business owner.

What was the food truck scene like when you started five years ago? There used to be a running list in the Times of all the gourmet food trucks in town. I think there were like ten trucks on the list. It was exciting; people were really into the street food scene and that communal aspect. It's almost as if we were these food unicorns.

I mean, when we first started out, there were so few trucks. I will definitely credit Kogi with starting the social media with all of the trucks. But because there were so few, you sort of had everyone's attention. We would send out a tweet or Facebook post and suddenly our location would get mobbed. It was almost like turning on a switch. There was a lot of excited from people; they wanted bragging rights to having been to these trucks.

And in the five years since, how has the gourmet food truck market changed? I would definitely say that it's gotten saturated. There are around 350-400 trucks now, give or take, so it's grown exponentially. We're not so much of a novelty anymore. People are planning ahead now to go enjoy a truck that they know is going to be near them. They reference it around their calendars, so it's less spontaneous.

We reach more people, but we're affecting them less.

We no longer tweet out and get to hit that switch where hundreds of people show up. And it's ironic because we're at almost 80,000 followers. We reach more people, but we're affecting them less. And now we have eight trucks across Southern California, so we've had to spread that feed across Orange County, Ventura and beyond.

It still seems like the Grilled Cheese Truck has definitely made it into the public lexicon at this point, though. I think that comes from being there at the beginning. It was a perfect storm. The economy got crappy, but not everyone cooks at home in Los Angeles so people were still looking for cheaper ways to eat out. And historically when the economy tanks, people run to comfort food, and we serve that exclusively. At the same time, we can still be your fun date night, things like that.

Thankfully, we've been able to keep the buzz going because the food has always been good. My background was in fine dining for 25 years, at Water Grill and places like that; we're not into sacrificing quality. I also think that grilled cheese is sort of a culinary common denominator. Everyone has a great memory around grilled cheese.

Where do brick and mortar restaurants fit into the future of the Grilled Cheese Truck? The trucks will always be a part of who we are. It's why I got into this; I love street food. The communal aspect of it is so important. So we'll always have that part of it. But our growth is in brick and mortars, airports, concert venues, places like Anaheim Convention Center.

We're also going to be franchising our brick and mortars out to war veterans. If I'm going to continue to grow this gigantic thing that has become my life, I want to do some good with it. So we'll be helping out our veterans, giving them the skills they need to move forward as managers and owners. And they deserve it.

It's going to be survival of the fittest

So how does the food truck scene continue to evolve over the next three years? What's already been going on, and I've seen it happening, is that it's going to be survival of the fittest. A lot of people knee-jerk into owning a truck because their neighbor told them they had the best BBQ they'd ever tasted, and from the outside it seems like a really sexy thing to do. They don't see the hard work, the thin profit margins, they don't do the dollars and cents math. A lot of people who are just hacking their way through this thing are going to be falling out, maybe because they're undercapitalized, maybe they've never cooked commercially before. But there will always be new people coming into it, because ultimately gourmet food trucks are no longer a trend, they're a part of quick service dining.

Gourmet food trucks are no longer a trend

What are your biggest personal achievements, as your trucks have evolved over half a decade? One of the first things I started getting high off of, if you will, is getting to feel the fruits of my labor after 17 hours of work. On a truck, you get to watch people dive into a sandwich that they've waited 20 minutes for. You get to see their face. Personally, it's nice to be able to feel the positive part of cooking for the masses, instead of just going through the motions day to day.

We also employ some 50 people, and that's amazing, to be able to help them feed their families, especially through a tough economy. But in the end it's about feeding people, making them feel happy.

What's your favorite spot to still park? It has to be The Brig in Venice. That's where we did our first public night ever. There's a ton of nostalgia for me there, being surrounded on Friday nights by all those other trucks like Coolhaus, Dogtown Dogs, Kogi BBQ, Border Grill. And they're still around. It's a local crowd, and when they keep coming out week after week, that confirms that you're doing something right.

To celebrate their five year anniversary, The Grilled Cheese Truck will be parked back at The Brig in Venice on Wednesday, October 29, with a monthlong menu that features the return of many of the truck's classic sandwiches.

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