I Survived The L.A. Kogi Truck Line: Masterful Marketing Meets Meaty Munchies

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC

How do you say "potentially addictive" in Korean?

How do you say "potentially addictive" in Korean?

I just waited an hour-and-a-half in line for a taco.

Make that 97 minutes for four tacos and two burritos, to be exact. I had started out wanting only a bite from the legendary Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck, but by the time I made it to the front of the line, I was hungry for more and had to justify my adventure.

There’s great marketing at work for ya…

No, there’s no taco shortage in L.A. One of the reasons I love this city is that, wherever you are, you’ll find someone selling tacos within walking distance. Nor, apparently, is there a shortage of people who can afford to spend two hours on a Tuesday afternoon for lunch. (Long live the entertainment industry!)

The reason behind the now-legendary Kogi line is that Kogi’s founders had a great product to begin with and knew how to manipulate social media to generate a buzz. Waiting in that line has actually become part of the attraction: people hearing about the phenomenon head out to be part of the scene dubbed “Kogi kulture.” It’s like the flash mobs that were popular a few years ago, but with an actual justification: good eatings at the end.

I first learned about this L.A. phenomenon in an article about the Kogi Korean BBQ truck in the Los Angeles Times. Kogi’s founders, Mark Manguera and chef Roy Choi, decided to sell gourmet tacos through a couple of L.A.’s ubiquitous lunch trucks (sometimes derided as “roach coaches”), which are usually found at construction sites serving cheap grub to workers who can’t take long lunch breaks. Your standard lunch truck is definitely not known to have a top chef in the kitchen or require hours in line.

Crazy idea, right? Well, most good buzzes start with a crazy idea. Perfectly rational ideas usually generate little more than a small article inside a local business journal. And if you’ve got a crazy idea, L.A. is the place to do it, since this city is all about fusing imagination and business. I couldn’t work anywhere else (I’ve tried).

Kogi also fuses two of L.A.’s major cultures, Mexican and Korean. “Kogi” means “meat” in Korean, while “taco” means “ethnic dish that is often horribly abused in the hands of greedy fast-food corporations but is a wickedly rewarding slice of culinary heaven when created by somebody who gives a damn” — or something like that.

L.A. also has a large social-media-savvy population that is following the story (and the truck) on Twitter, where Kogi does most of its marketing (see Kogi’s Twitter page here). As my two regular readers know, I personally gave up on Twitter, but I do recognize that some companies are getting value out of it. Twitter certainly fits a business that moves on four wheels and needs to alert its fans of its current whereabouts. Its fans, in turn, get a kick out of subscribing to a business that lets them in on its secrets first; in return, the fans keep the buzz going. In line today, every other person was typing into their cell phones and taking photos. Souvenir photos of a lunch truck? That’s gotta be a first. Of course, I contributed by posting word of my participation on Facebook.

Then, of course, there’s that one mandatory L.A. element that enables a lunch truck to gain popularity and feed the need: awesome weather. It’s a lot easier to wait in line and dine outdoors when it’s nearly 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day. So no, I don’t think this would work in Minneapolis in March.

Not being a Twitterer/Tweeter/Twhatever, I didn’t know where Kogi’s trucks would be, and just happened to come across one while strolling back from my latte fix in my neighborhood. At first I saw the line in the parking lot of a loft-sales office, and I thought, really? People waiting for real estate in this market? Then I saw the true attraction: the Kogi truck. And while I don’t have queue-philia — indeed, I’m usually allergic to long lines — I had to join in. The curiosity was killing me. I could justify it as marketing research, and I’m self-employed, so what’s two hours for lunch?

But, man, was that a long wait. Kogi needs street performers to entertain the assembled masses, though they’d probably tire out. A few potential customers bailed. One guy complained to his friends a few times (“I can’t believe you talked me into this… I’m never doing this again…”) but stayed put. Others were like me: curious first-timers who had to taste firsthand what all the buzz was about. Most were relatively young, or looked like people who might use Twitter (“Dig my faux-hawk? How about my nostalgic/ironic/indecipherable graphic T-shirt? Have you heard the news about iPhone 3.0 yet?”). Some had come from the office towers across the street with lists of provisions to get for the inmates.

I finally made it to the front of the line, and behaved just like the L.A. Times article said I would: “Once people have waited in line, they tend to order a lot, pushing the average check near $20.” My tab came to $19.50. After a little more waiting, my vigilance was rewarded with freshly made Korean tacos and burritos (no pre-heated warmed-over stuff for Kogi). And the verdict?

Well, waiting a long time for food can lead to two reactions:

  1. You get so hungry that even a rice cracker would taste like a Wolfgang Puck extravaganza. We’ve all experienced this while waiting for Thanksgiving dinner to finally be served. This could obviously work in Kogi’s favor, since they have a good product to begin with.
  2. You experience that sensation known as “anticipointment,” where something that’s over-hyped fails to live up to bloated expectations, even though it would have been perfectly enjoyable had you just stumbled across it. The Academy Awards — and the films they honor — tend to fall into that category.

I was definitely hungry, but I have to confess that some anticipointment kicked in. At the same time, I don’t like giving anything but the highest praise to honest, creative ventures by young entrepreneurs — particularly if I’ve waited an hour-and-a-half to check them out. So I’ll put on the attitude blinders and try to describe my meal to you as candidly as I can…

Kogi’s spicy-sweet sauce and the crispy cabbage perfectly complement the meat (pork, chicken, or beef shortribs), and the soft taco shells hold it all together, both physically and gustatorily. Lots of great textures in one bite. I would readily order those again. Unfortunately, the tofu taco couldn’t obscure the fact that it was made out of tofu. (Nice try, though.) And the burritos could have (and should have been) done without cheese, which competed with the sauce for attention and overwhelmed the meat.

Now I have a very high standard for burritos: the offerings at Poquito Mas, a Baja-style fast-food chain here in L.A. that makes burritos with fresh ingredients (no freezers or can openers) and — the big kicker — homemade tortillas. Poquito Mas’ tortillas by themselves, without toppings, are a treat. Put grilled meat on top with some smoked salsa, and you’ve got pure ecstasy in every bite. There’s usually a line at Poquito Mas, but it’s more of the five-minute variety, and you don’t need Twitter to find it.

So Kogi’s tacos are great, but I wouldn’t wait an hour in line for them again. That said, I would be willing to try Kogi’s new sit-down menu inside a Culver City bar called the Alibi Room.

And perhaps that’s what the trucks, the Twittering, and the long lines are all about: together they’re a rather ingenious way to promote a brick-and-mortar location (with perhaps more locations on the way). Kogi is also proof that, even in the depths of a recession, creative marketing and good cooking can still whet the appetite.

And on that note, I’ve got some leftovers to tackle — I’ve waited long enough. Ma-ni dŭ-se-yo, amigos!

Update 7/23/9: The Kogi BBQ taco truck has spawned a fleet of imitators, serving everything from gourmet cupcakes to Vegan MotherTrucker burgers. One thing they all have in common: they’re doing that Twitter thing.

***

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3 responses to “I Survived The L.A. Kogi Truck Line: Masterful Marketing Meets Meaty Munchies

  1. Roger Hsieh

    Thanks for sharing Freddy. I’m glad I read this after lunch though. Sounds like good stuff.
    -Roger

  2. Freddy, now you’ve got me curious about Poquito Mas. And the Alibi Room, which I remember laughing at as a young girl growing up in Culver City. God I’m hungry.

  3. 2 chefs from OKC and 1 owner of several successful resturaunts decided to do something new and exciting for this area. Big Truck Tacos was created out of a love for tacos and the dream of selling them from a mobil location. We just returned from LA, driving home our 1987 “roach coach” with big dreams of creating a new taco following that Oklahoma City didn’t know it needed. We have followed Kogi on twitter as well and arrived to partake of the offerings this past Wednesday evening. We too waited close to 2 hrs and spent over $50 (we tried it all) We took pictures and were as excited to be a part of the buzz as any of the many teens and 20′s crowd and we are all over 40. But it was not only about really good food it was also about a dream that was creative, different and inspirational. And THATS more then what 2 hours has given most people theses days. We will create a culture here in OKC because we too have a simple dream that we will execute to the highest level we are capable of. In the end we have accomplished our mission statement ” changing lives, one taco at a time”

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