Last week's Bao soft-launch in SOMA became embroiled in a bicoastal dustup after Manhattan restaurateur Eddie Huang accused the truck of stealing the name of his signature dish, a pork-belly bun named the Chairman Bao. Central to Huang's objections was the corporate nature of the S.F. truck's support provider Mobi Munch (and its supposed ties to Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, misreported by Urban Daddy, where Huang first learned about the truck).
Whether or not Huang was justified in calling for a boycott of the S.F. truck, the flareup helped illuminate the fact that, for all its Twitter outreach that made it seem like just another indie mobile startup along the lines of Curry Up Now or Hapa SF, Chairman Bao is, in essence, a corporate initiative launched by Mobi Munch.This weekend, founders of Los Angeles-based Mobi Munch were at the National Restaurant Association conference in Chicago. As Nation's Restaurant News reported, "A group of industry veterans at the National Restaurant Association show ... are announcing the launch of a new company that aims to offer turnkey infrastructure and development planning to the growing wave of gourmet food trucks." That company? Mobi Munch. The Chairman Bao truck is one of a handful of West Coast startups Mobi Munch hopes will be models for truck rollouts across the nation. The first launch was chef Ludo Lefebvre's LudoBites Fried Chicken truck in L.A. Another rollout is planned next month in Southern California.
Who is Mobi Munch? The guys behind it are restaurant industry vets. Ray Villaman was once executive director of the California Restaurant Association. He's worked for national chains California Pizza Kitchen, Boston Market, Bennigan's, and World Wrapps, which he started with Mobi Munch's other founder, Aaron Noveshen. Noveshen owns the Bay Area mini-chain Pacific Catch, and is the consultant behind S.F.-based The Culinary Edge, a restaurant industry support provider that's logged hours for national chains like Applebees and P.F. Chang's. A third founder, Josh Tang, is an investment banker and media entrepreneur, founder of WireImage.
In other words, Chairman Bao is no independent, hardscrabble startup ― one look at the sleek wrapped truck, splashed with the "Mobi Manifesto," and that's obvious. Actually, the Bao truck does have a chef-operator, Eric Rudd, who's from Minneapolis, and once worked at Nob Hill Grille. What Mobi Munch promises is concept development (the kind of "white board creative" The Culinary Edge offers its restaurant clients), the outfitting of a huge, sleek truck, and media support, including Facebooking and tweeting. The idea, Villaman said, is to match up entrepreneurs with the right truck.
"You might think of us as the Ray Kroc trying to find the McDonald brothers around the world," Villaman told us.
In the months leading up to Chairman Bao's launch, Villaman and Noveshen approached a number of S.F. vendors, including Liba Falafel Truck and Adobo Hobo, existing vendors Villaman and Noveshen considered to have what Villaman called "strong brands." In at least one case, they used a PowerPoint pitch to make the Mobi Munch case; both declined, though Matt Cohen, a street-food consultant who runs the San Francisco Cart Project, did help with permitting for Chairman Bao.
Why is Mobi Munch investing so much effort here? "San Francisco is where we're launching, were based here, I have roots here," said Villaman, who operates three restaurants in the Lake Tahoe area. "It's the mecca of food, and largely all these trends come out of San Francisco."
Are Mobi Munch trucks too slick to appeal to San Francisco, a city with a sometimes irrational mistrust of the corporate? "No," Villaman said, "our approach even with Chairman Bao is to take these indie chefs and make them more successful. A lot of guys can't do it on the level that we think is needed." Villaman said he told Liba's Gail Lillian she has an open invitation to partner with Mobi Munch. "A lot of these chefs have a difficult time scaling," Villaman said.
Is there anything wrong with street food learning the corporate restaurant skills of scalability and marketing? Or anything threatening about restaurant consultants turning their skills to mobile vending? Absolutely not. Any rise of corporate street food would, however, put independent vendors like Lillian, or Hapa SF's William Pilz, at a business disadvantage. And it's not axiomatic that, even if San Francisco one day sees a whole fleet of trucks launched by Mobi Munch and its imitators, that there wouldn't also be room for rolling mom 'n' pops.
After all, the test of street food is in the eating. Let the best vendors ― and not just the best-funded ones ― survive.
Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Contact me at John.Birdsall@SFWeekly.com