Manila Machine Should Tell the Truth: They’re Closing (Their Truck) Because Running a Food Truck Sucks

April Fools Day never disappoints when it comes to outlandish news stories, but one sad story from Friday looks like it’s actually true. Manila Machine, the six ten month old Filipino food truck run by two food bloggers, will no longer be roaming the streets of Los Angeles, selling their delicious lumpia, sisig, and pork adobo. The news is disheartening for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that I loved the truck. It was one of the few “gourmet” food trucks doing something truly unique (and it didn’t hurt that it was also delicious.)

But as much as I loved Manila Machine, and am sad to see them go, I was really upset by the letter they posted on their website announcing their “hiatus”. In it they list all their amazing accomplishments (press, awards and the such) and imply that the truck is closing because they’ve achieved all their goals- one of which was to make it to the 6 month mark. Sorry, but I call bullshit. And if they are completely satisfied with what they “accomplished”, they never should have opened a food truck in the first place and teased us with their delicious Filipino treats- only to pull them out from under from us once the very first “possibilities beyond the realm of food trucking” presented themselves.

Despite the sugar coated post on their website I think it is more likely that Manila Machine is closing because they weren’t making very much money, and running a food truck is a ton of work and a huge pain in the ass. And their letter really bothers me because nobody ever wants to talk about this. The media is all too happy to portray the gourmet food truck trend as this great, inexpensive way for innovative entrepreneurs to start their own business. And food truck operators are more than happy to play into the stereotype of the happy owner operator, throwing off the shackles of their oppressive desk job to get behind the wheel of a food truck and do something they always dreamed about.

But nobody wants to talk about the fact that gourmet food trucks are a terrible business model for making money. So before you decide to quit your miserable job, and open that food truck selling your grandmother’s amazing muffins, you should know that running a food truck is no easier, or more fun, than running a restaurant. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s less fun and more difficult to be successful. And here are five major reasons why:

1. There are two ways to make money opening a place that serves food: alcohol or sheer volume/franchising. Working out of a truck significantly limits the volume of food you can serve every day, and it’s not just because you have less storage. The limited space of a food truck means fewer employees to make the food. And fewer employees during peak services (like lunchtime) means less volume. And franchising food tuck concepts is notoriously difficult, and in some ways takes away from what makes food trucks seem so special to begin with.

2. Every minute you spend picking up the truck, driving from spot to spot, and taking the truck back to the commissary at night, is time you are working (or paying employees) but not selling anything. The little bit of money that brick and mortar businesses bring in during off peak times makes a difference in the bottom line

3. Twitter is a great marketing tool, but only a fraction of your customer base uses it. And only a fraction of that fraction uses it every day. In other words, in the food business there is no substitute for a stationary location that people can depend on.

4. Restaurants are never immediately profitable, and neither are food trucks. If anything food trucks take longer to become profitable because they’re constantly moving around (see #3). I think many food truck owners see the lines at Kogi and highly publicized food truck festivals and think they’re just going to open up and start making money. It takes a long time to build up a customer base that will support you long term. If you don’t have the capital to support you through the months (possibly years) of building up that business you’re not going to make it.

5. With very few exceptions, the only gourmet foods trucks that are making money are the ones that are using the truck as a marketing tool to build their brand for private events, lucrative corporate sponsorships, catering, or the eventual transition into a brick and mortar business. If your food doesn’t lend itself well to those kinds of things, or you don’t have plans to do more than just sell your food on the streets from a truck, you will not make money.

Each of these factor on their own might not be a huge deal. But in an industry where the margins are paper thin, these little bits add up over time. And if you’re not an owner operator, physically working on the truck 6-7 days a week, the money you pay an employee will cut into your bottom line even further. And this is what brings us back to Manila Machine.

I was super excited to hear about Marvin’s cookbook deal, and I’m sure Nastassia’s “business opportunities” are going to work out great for her as well. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why they wouldn’t hire more help and keep the business up and running, unless it wasn’t making enough money for it to be worth the massive amount of work required .

Now, I know what a lot of people will say. Hey- it’s their business. And not everything has to be about money. Maybe they really did accomplish all their goals, and who are you to decide what they should or shouldn’t do. This is a free country and everybody has every right to open a business for whatever reason they want, and close it for whatever reason they want.

But for me, street food is different… especially in Los Angeles. Starting a food truck in L.A. has an effect on the community unlike opening a regular brick and mortar restaurant. There are now a ridiculous number of food trucks hitting the streets every day, and the general public is already showing their first signs of fatigue. Why should we get excited about these small businesses if they’re just going to close up 10 months later because they got a cookbook deal, or it was too hard, or they weren’t making any money.

If you are serious about running a food truck, you need to do your research, and understand the business you are getting into. Don’t rely on the media to inform you, or other gourmet food trucks themselves- who seem to always want to paint a picture of success to the public. To not is to do a disservice to all of the food truck vendors who really are trying to make a living from selling food of a truck (and not just gourmet food truck owners, but old school loncheros as well.) Those whose goals extend beyond running a business for 6 months, or just wanting to see if they could do it. Because unlike brick and mortar restaurants, which operate independently of one another, food trucks are seen as a single entity. Manila Machine benefited from the popularity of food trucks before it, and future food trucks will suffer based on the mistakes of the ones that are poorly thought out or downright bad.

I don’t actually know the real reason Manila Machine is closing up their truck. They say they will continue to do catering, and that they’re not necessarily going away permanently. But my sense is that that is a cop out, a way to lessen the impact of their closing. I emailed them and urged them to go public with how difficult their journey has been, because as a very popular food truck run by two influential bloggers Manila Machine had a chance to turn this into a teachable moment. Use their disappointment to warn other would be entrepreneurs about the perils of running a gourmet food truck. I got no reply.  Instead they took the easy way out, avoiding the embarrassment of describing how they failed in favor of  focusing on the good things that came out of their time running the Manila Machine.  Food trucks have no obligation to anybody to do this, but for once I wish one of them would.

I’m also mad Manila Machine didn’t give us advance notice! One more taste of their pork and pineapple adobo would have been nice. I wish Marvin and Nastassia the best of luck in the future, and hope that their closing will help convince at least some people that quitting your job and opening a food truck is not the greatest idea of all time (we all have at least one friend who’s thinking about it.)

UPDATE: I updated the title of this post for clarification.  Manila Machine is NOT closing.  They are only closing the truck.  Their catering business is still going strong, and people who have booked them for catering gigs should not be worried.  I apologize for my title, especially if it caused any potential Manila Machine customers to rethink using them for catering.  It was nothing personal, and I fully admitted that I have NO IDEA whether or not making money was the reason for their closing.  I was just using their Friday announcement to lament the fact that more food trucks aren’t completely open about how much it sucks to run a food truck. Their food itself is amazing, and everybody should use them for catering!



  • A lesson for us all, Zach.

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    Really thoughtful post, Zach. I’m always thinking it must be a really hard way to make money, especially when it’s pouring rain or blazing hot. Too bad I never redeemed my free ube cupcake card!

  • Zach,

    i was reading this post and just nodding my head, ‘yup. yup. yup.’ and i’ve never met this truck, the owners, tasted their food, or know anything about them, (mostly staying in my NYC bubble), so it’s from my own experience and the experience of others vendors that i know you are spot-on in this entire piece. thank you so much for sharing your unique insight into a highly misunderstood, misquoted, misinformed industry.

    as always, <3,
    Miss Softee

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    Engaging in character assassination for the sake of increasing your viewership? You are a grown man – why resort to kiddie tactics? Speaking of kids, is this the kind of piece you would be proud to show to yours? I see no actual information about the Manila Machine, only speculation. This post is shock pseudo-journalism at its worst.

    • Character assassination is a bit of a stretch don’t you think? Manila Machine posted a very cheery goodbye on their website, on April Fool’s Day no less- in the hopes that all of it would lessen the PR impact of the truth. And the truth is, they’re closing the truck because it is too much work to make it worth keeping it open.

      I used their final post as an excuse to take issue with the fact that too many food trucks are willing to let the media foster the myth that the new school, owner operated food truck is this amazing new business opportunity for entrepreneurs who don’t have the start up capital to open a restaurant. And the truth is, it’s not a great business model. Manila Machine Machine did nothing wrong. Their truck was amazing. And as a huge fan and supporter of theirs, I was really upset that they spun their closing as “good news”!

    • And for the record, I’ve been researching and covering the food truck industry on both coasts for over 4 years. I stand by every single thing I wrote in this editorial. Marvin, the owner of Manila Machine, can disagree publicly, and take shots at me personally. But privately he knows the truth.

      And, as I said in the post, if he (and his partner Nastassia) are truly as happy and satisfied about closing Manila Machine’s truck as their post makes it sound… well that is insulting to their loyal customers and all the people who helped promote their business (like this site!) People who are considering opening food trucks need to realize that their actions effect the entire community of food trucks. Every new food truck that hits the street makes it more and more likely that government will take action against all food trucks. And people who have no intention of creating a long term, sustainable business end up hurting the credibility of the industry as a whole.

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        If you wanted to write a post about how owning a food truck isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you should have done that. Instead you exploited the Manila Machine’s closing, using pure speculation and assumption to portray its owners as irresponsible. I can’t imagine how anyone could read your post and leave with a positive image of the Manila Machine and its owners. If that isn’t character assassination, I don’t know what is.

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        The problem – and I posted on this as well – is that your reasoning doesn’t make sense to me. There’s a huge disconnect between “I have NO IDEA whether or not making money was the reason for their closing” and “Manila Machine Should Tell the Truth: They’re Closing (Their Truck) Because Running a Food Truck Sucks.” You have no actual proof to substantiate your assumptions about the “real” reason why they’re no longer trucking, but you present your assumptions as true, then shake your fist at The Manila Machine for not coming out with what you can only assume to be the truth motivating their decision. You may very well be 1000% correct, but without any proof, it’s all just bad and misleading logic.

        Based on your speculations, it would seem that the more accurate title would be “IF MM is No Longer Trucking Because It’s Too Damn Hard, They Should Tell Everyone So.”

        And whether food truck operators have an obligation to stay in business for the long-term – oof, that’s quite a duty to project onto anyone. You’re very, very right that people need to research whether this is the right business for them, and that the fiction of the glory of the food trucker is one that needs to stop being published. That said, people get into any business for any number of reasons, short- and long-term, and to chastise anyone for not having a certain goal you think they should have is a little unfair. I do see where you’re coming from, though, even if I don’t agree.

        I’ve read your blog long enough to trust that your opinions are not some random, wild rants – but I’m not going to follow you in a circle either. I absolutely agree with your 5 points on the perils of the food truck business, even they’re obscured by drawing MM into all this. The food truck business is a very hard way to make easy money, and, if money is the primary goal, a would-be food trucker should think twice.

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        One more thing – I also promoted their truck endlessly and loved their food. Me, though, I’m really not insulted if they do view their truck as a success and really are happy to be pursuing other goals. As someone who left a job that, on the paper, was fantastic, to pursue other goals that came up along the way, I know it’s a damn hard and very scary decision to make. I’m happy for them.

      • I’m realizing now I phrased that line really poorly.

        I wasn’t saying I had no idea whether or not they were making money. I was saying that without a public admission from Manila Machine, I can’t say with 100% certainty that money is the main reason why Manila Machine is closing.

        But I do, however, know for a FACT that Manila Machine was not making enough money to make it worth keeping the truck on the street once you factor in how much work it takes to keep it up and running and what a personal toll running a truck has on families (something Marvin confirmed in his clarification post.)

        Marvin can say what he wants about money and the perceived lack of reporting in my post, and take whatever personal shots he wants at me. But I know in my heart that everything I wrote is 100% true. And Marvin does too.

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      Have you read any of Zach’s other posts on this issue? I would, highly, suggest doing so to see where his opinion are coming from. They are not coming out of his ass.

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    The whole point of the article is just to be honest – that owning a food truck isn’t as easy or profitable as it would seem. He said he loves the food of Manila Machine. So, yes – I’m pretty sure he would be proud of showing this article to his kids. And, it isn’t character assasination unless its untrue…

  • You raise many valid questions. When I moving to Los Angeles from the critical mass of Manhattan, I was dumbfounded by the enthusiasm for the West Coast Food Truck scene. I didn’t understand how in the diluted urban sprawl of LA these truck could be profitable, or if they were truly offering unique foods unattainable from (reliable) brick and mortar stores.

    Unlike the majority Angelenos, I have the time to drive out of my way to eat a dosa/shaved ice/fancy fries on the sidewalk, and YET STILL I hardly ever do it. With their inconstant/roaming locations, weather-fickle appearances, and overwhelming number, I simply don’t have the energy to chase them down for food that may or may not be worth the effort. I count of sites (like this!) to directly my attention to those worthy of the effort, like the Crunchy Tofu Bun! But inevitably, whenever the craven hit, the desired truck is far far away…

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    Bummer, I really wanted to try MM after reading so many great reviews…

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    This post is spot on. Thank you for putting this out there.

    I own & operate a food truck and confirm that it is an extremely hard way to make a living, even more work than a restaurant. (I run both, so I know.) Food trucks would not be profitable for most of the concepts out there. You will most likely not be profitable if you 1) attempt to cook your food on the truck (cooking equipment limits carrying space for food you can serve), 2) make food to order (slows you down), 3) are moving around too much (repeat sales = profit), or 4) don’t have leverage with other operations/capital (need time to build customer base). Unfortunately, this is exactly what people expect when they come to a food truck.

    Do some basic math. If you can only cook for or serve 10-50 people/ hour, is that realistically going to pay the bills? Keeping in mind there are only so many “rush” hours in a day. If you need to serve 200 people/ hour to pay the bills, can you feasibly do this with your truck/food concept? Even if you can serve 200 people/ hour, do you have a permanent location that can do this? If not, don’t do it, get out, or change.

    With rising food costs and growing regulatory bans on food trucks, be very careful in your business planning before leaving your desk job for a “dream job” than can quickly turn out to be a nightmare. Then, be ready for some literal blood, sweat, and tears.

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    spunkyzee is 100% correct as are Zack’s comments about the food truck business in general. We’ve had to park our recently introduced truck after only 10 days out because the costs added up so quickly.

    It’s frustrating to see all our FB excitement and get the calls “Where are you today” but I doesn’t take long to realize sales don’t match half the cost. You’ve got to consider the day lease, propane, gas, employee, location rent, food, ice fee, night hookup fee. It’s not a strong business model.

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    Zach, what a troll you are. I prase people like steveorocknroll and queequeg for calling you out on your troll like slander. Also, anyone that would attempt food made to order out of a food truck obviously did not do there homework (spunkyzee). Someone going into this business should model dishes that are already prepared and can be plopped onto a plate promptly. Foolproof. That said, I do not operate in LA, I operate in NW Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered. Feel free to knock me for it but I am very successful with two trucks and no use for Facebook or twitter. I sell Cajun food such as gumbo over rice that is on hot tables. I project six figures this year. If anyone reading this is following their dream just know that the world is full of people like Zach and it feels so good to overcome all that negativity and reach your goals. Once you’ve reached them who really cares what other people think?

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    Zach, and others, thank you for all for the information posted, I have been researching the food truck biz. for about a year and I thought I knew what I was getting into. I have met many of good food truck venders in texas and I get mixed reviews from both side of the food truck spectrum, I took the plunge and started buying some equipment and a step van (food truck ). The food project is at a stand sill for now,as I am still vacillating over the food truck Idea. We have invested about 13 thousand into it, I know the economy is not helping , however should I proceed with caution or should I scrap the whole business venture all together? I would really appreciate any feed back . I am in a position, where selling the truck and equipment would not be a loss,We paid wholesale used prices and we could still turn a small profit.

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