As far as Craigslist jobs go, my three months slinging brats on a German-inspired currywurst truck in Los Angeles will go down as one of the most unique and unconventional that I’ve worked. But did I think this experience would creep back into my life during my first months on the job at National Geographic? Never in a thousand curry ketchup–covered years.
While sitting in a brief presentation by photographer Gerd Ludwig, I was surprised to learn, first, that the magazine was doing a story on food trucks in L.A. and, second, to see the truck I worked on in 2012 featured in his photos.
Months later, I got Ludwig on the phone to interview him about his assignment. He immediately expressed feeling akin to many of the people he photographed.
“Just like me [people working on food trucks] have a very adventurous, unpredictable lifestyle,” he said. “They don’t know exactly where they’ll be the next day. They work at odd hours. They work when it is required. It’s not the kind of nine-to-five bureaucrat that works on the food trucks,” he explains.
Our experiences with food trucks, though born from different motivations, still left us walking away with the same understanding of the industry. I was in college working under-the-table to make rent, afford one-dollar tacos, and survive an unpaid internship. Ludwig is a German-born L.A. transplant who was commissioned to do this story in the same style as his “Sleeping Cars” series.
But we both agree on the industry’s vibe. Ludwig summed it up, saying the “whole atmosphere is super-relaxed; everybody is happy and super-friendly.”
And this environment presented both challenges and blessings for him while shooting the story.
“I was interested to show how food truck food has infiltrated all segments of the society,” Ludwig explains. “It is popular with [everyone from] the funky kids to the business person who has a quick lunch in a suit and a tie.”
Photographically, he shot “quick, snapshoty portraits” of people with their food. He also tried to show the decoration of the trucks, which turned out to be the “hardest part because, generally, the food trucks tend to park at busy sidewalks by other vehicles that are distracting in the images.”
To counteract that, he concluded that nightfall provided the best conditions to capture the personality of the trucks.
For me, working on a food truck was another story. Quite literally, it’s all about mobility.
There’s an incredible amount of legwork that goes into prep. Ingredients are usually self-sourced, and prime vending real estate requires advance reservation. It involves more movement than just matching the truck to a curb at lunch rush. “L.A. was built after the invention of the car,” Ludwig explains. “This is the reversal. Here, the restaurants come to you. They drive to you. They drive where you are.”
The most important character in my food truck life was my friend’s ‘83 diesel Mercedes, which I borrowed for shift errands and logistics.
I crisscrossed the freeways many mornings from my downtown L.A. apartment to make pickups for the day’s lunch rush. SoCal driving is a numbers game: I would take the 10 to the Russian bakery in WeHo for pretzel rolls or the 101 to Glendale for bratwursts from a Bavarian delicatessen. On the mornings I wasn’t doing pickups, I physically reserved parking spaces with the Mercedes at 5:30 a.m. in areas with particularly popular lunch rushes. If I wasn’t getting the food or reserving the space, I was picking up the truck itself from the South Central commissary, which was like a food truck motel. Truck owners parked them in lots, paying for space and routine cleaning.
Driving around so much, so quickly, gave me an asphalt literacy of the city. The sprawling urban geography, coupled with the weather, is why Ludwig thinks the food truck industry was born in California. “It’s always warm, it’s always sunny. You just find a spot, be it on the grass nearby, be it on a little wall nearby—you don’t need chairs and tables here,” he says. “If you had 20 food trucks parked in Manhattan in a street, where would all the people be able to sit down and eat?”
My memory of the food truck industry is perfectly captured in Ludwig’s pictures. The work culture was carefree and flexible. “It was so easy and pleasant,” Ludwig echoes of shooting. “Everybody said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, take my picture!’”