Rise of the Food Trucks

11 November 2015

We speak to organisers of the KL Food Festival about their annual event called KL Cinta Makan and to the folks behind KL Food Feastival (affiliated with the Kl City Council or DBKL) about the appeal of food trucks amongst Malaysians.

 

Malaysia is no stranger to mobile food providers. Our food culture is one steeped with the love of food, representing identity and creativity. Parents will tell their kids of fond memories from ‘50s and ‘60s Malaysia, where traveling street vendors would carry food on their backs moving from street to street, selling kuih, or dumplings. Their calls would signal tea time or dinner time in town, and children and adults would run towards these food sellers, anticipating delicious little morsels of delight. With the advent of bicycles and the motorcycles, these mobile food providers grew their repertoire - noodle soup, porridge, satay, cendol, pisang goreng, rojak (a spicy Malaysian salad of tofu, cucumbers and radish with a peanut sauce) are just some of the more common delicacies.

 

 
Food trucks parked out at the KL Food Truck Feastival (KLFTF), in Malaysia's iconic Dataran Merdeka


Today, food trucks have taken on different forms, partly inspired by the global village we now live in. The 2014 movie, Chef starring Jon Favreau as a an embattled and hot-tempered chef losing his job and moving on to becoming a food truck operator was particularly inspiring and indicative of the food truck phenomenon that has hit many cities around the world. Fast, affordable food, cooked right on the spot, and served in an outdoor setting certainly does intrigue.

 Despite having a culture of mobile food vendors in Malaysia, the form it takes on in major cities in Malaysia is impressive. Going on a model where people are lured to taste the food with the influence of social media, and a moving truck that is able to park in suburban neighbourhoods with very little cost in comparison to brick-and-mortar restaurants is also part of the appeal for the truck vendors.

 

Datin Rohana Nasir, Batu Road Retailers Association (BARRA), organises the KLFTF along with DBKL/KL City Council.


The KL Food Truck Festival for example organised its inaugural event at Zebra Square in Kampung Pandan, calling it KL Cinta Makan on Valentine’s Day this year. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Little, assisted by his cousin Ray Nordin who heads the Operations aspect of the festival, while Faiq Lutfi Shahrin and Vini Balan help with social media and organisation duties. Jeffrey, of course, is more commonly affiliated with Laguna Music, a homegrown music production company. The foray into organising this began with Jeffrey’s love of food and discovering new talent, which thankfully has led to food and not just music.

 The response to KL Cinta Makan was unexpected. Jeffrey mentions that the crowd that arrived despite it being Valentine’s Day was large for the space they took up. “Honestly, we expected about 2,000 to 3,000 people, but more like 5,000 showed up, which was quite nice.” With music by local bands such as Enterprise, Lab the Rat, Halfway Kings and food trucks like The Guac Truck, Cowboys, and Nachos Region - the food fest-goers reported back that it was time to have more of such events. Ray and Jeffrey are keen to organise more events where food meets music (with art and perhaps, workshops) but are reluctant to make it too “common.” They believe there should be planning and the event should be one that is special, so that it garners more interest and support. After all, food trucks are almost everywhere these days.

 Food trucks are by no means inexpensive, the truck itself is fitted with a kitchen and a generator which can cost anywhere between RM100,000 to RM200,000. It requires patience and a lot of dedication, to be able to source for fresh ingredients, and to be able to find locations and a menu that gets the crowd continually interested, along with impeccable service and savvy social media skills to publicise locations, delicious looking food photos and new food.

 

The Laughing Monkey truck team serving KLFTF-goers affordable, rich and aromatic coffees as well as delicious sandwiches.

The main issue however, is that currently under local city council laws, there are no specific licenses for food trucks, as the category doesn’t exist under local licensing laws. However, recent reports suggest that due to its proliferation in many Malaysian cities, it is something those at DBKL for example, are looking into. This means that food trucks can sometimes be fined and summoned for parking in high traffic areas. Some food trucks have reported that restaurants find the parking and serving of food to disrupt their business, creating a competitive atmosphere, between food truck vendors and restaurant owners in certain areas. Food trucks also have a responsibility to vaccinate their staff, to manage the risk of infectious diseases while preparing food, similar to that of restaurant staff, or food handlers in any setting. Thus the appeal of food truck festivals like KL Cinta Makan, or the KL Food Feastival to vendors.

The food trucks at the KL Cinta Makan event earlier this year, paid a minimal amount of RM300.00 and a rubbish disposal deposit, without having to fear being fined or having to drive around because spots are filled at their usual venue. The truck vendors at KL Food Truck Feastival are charged RM200 per weekend. There are different sessions, and it spans across the first and third weekends of each month, coinciding with DBKL’s efforts to get to know food truck vendors their needs better, as well as to celebrate the lack of cars in the city for the KL Car Free Morning event.

 

Cowboys Food truck team serving up perfectly grilled burgers, chicken wings and nachos to the attendees of the LPGA event at the KL Golf and Contry Club.

A joint event organised by Batu Road Retailer’s Association (BARRA) (headed by Datin Rohana Nasir) and the KL City Council, KL Food Feastival was envisioned to show both locals and tourists the variety in Malaysia through the 25 food trucks that are stationed in front the iconic Dataran Merdeka. In an effort to get to know food trucks better, DBKL is also negotiating with food truck vendors who sign up at the KL Food Feastival for licensing evaluations at three locations of their choice.

As with both events, while all food trucks are invited to participate, Ray mentions that it is also essential to have the food trucks rotated, to preserve some element of variety in its offerings to the consumer. Interestingly enough, at the KL Food Truck Festival affiliated event for the Sime Darby LPGA held in September 2015, much of the food served ranged from burgers, to tacos, sandwiches, chicken wings, pasta and nachos. As Jeffrey is quick to explain, “These food items are possibly the easiest to make, and require little cooking time in comparison to full meals ordered at a restaurant.”

 

The organising team behind the KL Food Truck Festival and its star event, KL Cinta Makan (L-R); Faiq Lutfi Shahrin, Ray Noordin, and Vini Balan. Not pictured: Jeffrey Little

It looks like with measures being taken to officially license food trucks, they will be here to stay. Perhaps a far cry from the origins of mobile food vendors in Malaysia, but still holding similar elements of food cooked from the heart that the wallet embraces, along the streets of the cities Malaysians love the most.


Some of the food trucks visible at the KL Golf and Country Club and Dataran Merdeka tantalising tastebuds in the Klang Valley 

 

KL Food Truck Feastival happens every first and third weekend of the month from 9PM-1AM on Saturday and 6.30AM to 9.30AM on Sunday.

KL Food Truck Festival organises regular events at public or private events and can be found at https://www.facebook.com/klcintamakanfest

 By: Michelle Gunaselan

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