By on October 7, 2014

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I don’t normally post about vehicles themselves, but I am endlessly fascinated by the industry, and constantly surprised to learn of new niches. On the finance side, I’m amazed at the variety of vendors that show up at conferences such as those sponsored by Auto Finance News. One of these years I’ll make it to SEMA (the Speciality Equipment Market Association), which by reputation has both the credible and the incredible. But back to my topic: once in a while I do find products – or rather niches, I’m not a “car guy” – that intrigue.

I have fond memories of the local Good Humor trucks, which once made the rounds of Detroit. Then there was the lunch truck at the Chrysler Mack Stamping plant, where I worked some decades ago. Perhaps they’re still in business, but of late I see few such. Yes, the funnel cake van is a fixture at community festivals here in rural Virginia, and at least one of the local BBQs sell their pulled pork from a truck. The vendors of sausages and gyros unload everything from a trailer to set up under a tent, while the Ruritans sell hot dogs and burgers from a modified trailer. Other than the huge step vans on Constitution Avenue in DC, today I seldom see truck-based vendors, and the ones I do see are very utilitarian in their setup.

In Japan the historic model is the pushcart vendor (yatai 屋台). Going back to the 1800s, the Tokyo (Edo-mae) variety of sushi started out that way, a snack food sold on the streets, low not high cuisine. Into the 1970s (but now largely vanished) you could find yatai in the evening outside train stations, selling noodles or yaki-imo (sweet potatoes kept in hot gravel) or tako-yaki (octopus “donut holes”). It was in Tokyo that the phrase “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” first took on meaning for me, because that was another staple of street food. Such are not unknown in the US; you still find pushcarts in Central Park and elsewhere in New York [by which I of course mean Manhattan]. When I worked on Wall Street (well, actually Pine Street) I was fond of hot pretzels. But in Japan the modern version of the pushcart vendor is likewise relegated to the grounds of the local shrine during community festivals (matsuri).

Then I spent a year in suburban Japan. There you encounter a modern version of the yatai of old, imaginative and entrepreneurial. These are (often) young couples in “kei” trucks (mini minivans) fitted out to be one or another sort of mobile restaurant. You encounter them in suburban parks and other places families frequent, or in urban plazas. [In most of Japan parking along the street is not an option. In the areas I frequented the police made no exception in the late evening, when streets were only occupied by the occasional taxi and by drunk sarariman tipsying towards their train home.]

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Entrepreneurial, imaginative. First, the imaginative. To be practical, imagination must be constrained, not given free rein. Keeping things small(er) is one such constraint, pushing creativity in much of the world in directions irrelevant to the US environment. In Japan you find many adaptations to narrow streets and small lots. There are the local restaurant delivery services. At one time that would have been a Chinese restaurant or sushi shop, but tastes have changed and now that niche is dominated by contemporary sorts of foods. In the US delivery is done by employees in their own car. Not so in Japan – it’s by company scooter. In Chiba (a city of 900,000 just east of Tokyo) that might be the local Pizza Hut franchise. [I was never tempted to sample their fare…] Similarly, the backhoe that as I write is digging a trench to improve my driveway’s drainage is small, but it’s a monster compared to the construction equipment at sites in urban Japan.


shovel

KC280001


So I should not have been surprised at vendors in their “kei” minivans, laid out to take advantage of every cubic centimeter. I unfortunately don’t have a photo of my favorite, a “kei” that a couple fitted with a wood-burning oven appropriate for two small pizzas. Not a viable business? Actually, it was about right – they didn’t have much workspace to toss the dough and lay on the toppings, and with the very thin crust they used – something I’ve seen in Milan and Tokyo but not the US – a “pie” didn’t take long to bake. The wait wasn’t bad. Theirs was a one-off, a personal project, but it looked something like this:

My most recent encounter was with a mobile coffee shop. I had a chance to chat with the owner/barrista in between customers. He had designed the layout himself, and helped do the fitting. Water, propane for heat, a grinder, an espresso machine, a sink, a fridge … the whole works, and he roasted his own beans [his logo proclaims that: 自家焙煎]. He wasn’t however in the suburbs but instead near Tokyo Station, taking advantage of real estate laws that set fairly restrictive floor-area ratios forcing newer office buildings to include an off-street plaza. He had a rotating schedule of such locations where he’d negotiated access (presumably for a fee). While he had an awning and some seating, most of his business was take-out. That sultry summer day he was busy enough, though he’s inclined to take the day off in truly inclement weather. Here is the van, with the “master” at work:


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Home Roasted Beans Master at Work Service Counter

In my experience restauranteurs are quite finicky about their setup. This entrepreneur may have been willing and able to take a hand in finishing off his creation (see his 大月珈琲店 Facebook page for photos). However, welding and fitting are not part of the typical Japanese skill set, where “do-it-yourself” does not include even the most basic of household repairs. So with a little bit of digging I found several companies that specialize in such, including ZECC, Maku, Aian Cook [“Iron Cook”], and (winner of the best name) Mobil Cafe Mom’s: Production of Customized Car. The used car page on GooNet lists 104 “mobile retail” vehicles for sale, with prices from around $12,500 for a used truck to $25,000 for a brand new one, albeit none of these have appliances. An example from carsensor.net lists one with already equipped with sinks, plumbing and exhaust fan at $17,000. Yahoo Auctions Japan likewise lists numerous vehicles, so it appears to be an active segment. (I didn’t check Rakuten; in Japan eBay botched its initial entry and is not a player.)

Now I’m sure there are similar specialized firms in the US, and maybe on the West Coast mobile vending remains a lively business model. Yes, there are unusual promotional vehicles, such as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile – there’s one on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. But I’ve not seen such whimsical “mobile kitchens” outside of Japan.

Links to (Japanese) pages with photographs:

  1. Pizza Boccheno
  2. ZECC, which specializes in making “mobile retail” vehicles. Lots of photos.
  3. Pizza Ci Vediamo [note the Coleman brand tent!]

[Note: max “kei” dimensions are 3.4m x 1.48m x 2.0m with an engine of 360 cc – a Smart is too wide and has too big an engine.]

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10 Comments on “Espresso and Pizza...”


  • avatar
    319583076

    I really enjoyed this piece, including the pics. Thanks for your contribution.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    one thing I have always wondered about Japan-I don’t know if this is true everywhere but it is my understanding that rents and prices generally are brutal, how is it possible to survive on food truck revenue?

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    The taco truck is a well known west coast institution and art form and some cities have a strong food cart sector using a variety of base vehicles although the step van is the dominant platform. In Portland Oregon some of the food car outliers include cargo tricycles, mostly for coffee and a double decker bus serving grilled cheese sandwiches.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Smitka

      @Slow_Joe_Crow: Thanks for the note on west coast vendors. I trusted that someone on TTAC would offer that sort of feedback. But I doubt that there’s data for any country / state on how many, how successful and so on. Are these do-it-yourself vehicles or are there established vendors who have standard designs if not inventory of completed vehicles? Anyway, I’d love to know more!

      @Detroit_Iron: Real estate prices peaked in 1991 and are still falling in many parts of Japan, 20+ years later. New buildings in Tony Tokyo neighborhoods are expensive, but I know an American couple who retired to central Tokyo because they like the lifestyle better than Florida and find it much cheaper than NYC or a comparable urban area in the US. They pay under $2K a month rent for a nice place in walking distance from star-rated restaurants that have $15 lunch specials; as they phrased it, 3 of the 5 best Italian restaurants they know are in walking distance, and more affordable than their counterparts in Italy. At the same time, there’s a whole generation in Japan living the sort of part-time serial job existence that is becoming all too common for younger Americans. If you take in a ¥30,000 a day you’re easily besting those sorts of ¥1,000-[$10]-per-hour jobs – and if you can sell 20 cups per hour at ¥400 and a couple kilos of your home-roast coffee at an average ¥6,000 a kilo, you net that and more. Furthermore, some vendors are weekend operations, or operate in conjunction with a bricks-and-mortar store that is mature enough not to eat up all of the owners’ energy, e.g., the husband does the outside sales while the wife tends the home operation.

    • 0 avatar
      GiddyHitch

      Better known as the “roach coach” around these parts. Most often applied to the taco truck that services construction sites than the food truck that services Twitter hipsters.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      In southern California, it’s largely Mexican cuisine, filling food at low prices. In Los Angeles, restaurants got the city to ban food trucks in the restaurant district, because they were stealing sales. Many of the trucks are individually owned, including one that advertised, “Our rolled tacos have choice ingredients picked, prepared, and rolled by naked Mayan virgins – or Carlos, whoever is available.”

  • avatar
    GiddyHitch

    I was very surprised to see a couple of full-sized (Chevy, I think?) food trucks in the park behind the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku. One of them even had a large American flag to announce its authenticity to the locals. Other than those two, the only other food truck I remember seeing in Tokyo was a donner kebab trailer between Shibuya and Omotesando. Given that street parking is nonexistent and that there is a plethora of cheap food in and around the major subway stations in Tokyo, it’s not surprising that the food truck never took off there, regardless of compact dimensions of their vehicles.

    There must be some good food truck customizers in the Austin area – the scene down there puts SF and NYC to shame. Half of the food trucks are just permanently parked in the outdoor seating areas behind the bars down there.

  • avatar
    Tifighter

    Fun article.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    A nice venture just a little off the path. This is what I like about TTAC.

    Thanks!

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