Lessons from Yelp on Taco Cart Catering

Online reviews effectively guide new customers to choosing food purveyors wisely. The key is to recognize and discount the superfans and hyperhaters.

Two things indicate how completely popular taco cart catering has become in southern California. One is just how many there are – dozens of purveyors from Orange to Ventura counties keep diners happy with all iterations of this Mexican standard and all its many, creative variations. Another is online reviews – Yelp in particular.

And while thousands of reviews by consumers in Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, San Bernardino, Santa Monica and Pasadena indicate strong satisfaction with their tacos-on-wheels purveyors, there are those who express dissatisfaction. Sometimes Yelp and other online review sites are heavily gamed – company A pays people to write nasty things about competitor company B, then of course company B catches on and has their minions to retaliate against company A. It’s Spy vs. Spy in 21st century marketing.

But real value can nonetheless be derived from reviews. First, try to ignore the outliers – those who rate something at either zero or all five stars. Absolute negativity and unbridled praise rarely inform us. It’s the reviews in between, those two-, three- and four-star ratings and comments that tell us more about the things taco caterers do right, the things they do wrong and the things that might set them apart from the competition.

Some examples:

  1. Two star reviews: 1. Caterer arrived at the start of the event time, needed 20 minutes to set up. 2. Wait staff took time to eat their own meals while service to party guests was ongoing (and there were lines at several of the stations). 3. Fish tacos were much too salty – does everyone else like it this way?
  2.  
  3. Three star reviews: 1. The line moved fast, so I didn’t mind waiting just a bit. 2. I ordered the spicy but it wasn’t nearly as spicy as I like. 3. I prefer the carnitas cooked a little more crispy. 4. The setup leads you to believe it’s made to order but everything is in a warming tray.
  4.  
  5. Four star reviews: 1. Nice find – the food was fresh and tasty. 2.  The red sauce is spicy and smokey, their green sauce is more sour and fresh tasting 3. The meat is perfectly seasoned and tender. 4. They have vegan and vegetarian options and their regular options seem pretty healthfully prepared.
  6.  

So it seems as if tasty offerings, the preparation methods, freshness, made-to-order and prompt, efficient service are what wins favor with diners.

As gourmet taco carts is used for corporate events, weddings, children’s parties and film productions, the caterers themselves know the stakes are high for providing great food and efficient service. Each of these occasions call for professional quality catering as no event organizer wants to get bad reviews the day after.

Ask for More than Just Great Food from Your Taco Cart Caterer

Service with a smile should be expected. But so too should prompt arrival, a problem-solving attitude and people who clean up messes.

Who saw this coming? Taco cart catering has becoming one of the biggest stories in special event planning in Southern California this decade. Much of it has to do with the food – tasty and easy to eat while mingling in a crowd, and exceptionally adaptable to a variety of gourmet ingredients.

But taco cart popularity also has to do with other factors. Taco carts can go where full-service sit-down meals can’t. This opens up many more venue options for corporate events, weddings, anniversaries, fund-raisers, production shoots and every other type of function.

But the better quality mobile taco cart companies have something else very important to offer besides a great gourmet taco catering menu: service. Goodness knows we have all experienced the downside of bad service due to poorly hired and trained personnel. The better vendors are putting a premium on having the right people working their events – it’s what makes the difference between mediocre and exemplary occasions.

What distinguishes one catering service from the other? Ask your candidates about what happens in four critical time periods around your event:

  1. 1. Planning. Does your contact listen to you in what you want? Do you get confirmation of all details in writing?
  2.  
  3. 2. As guests arrive. Your taco caterer needs to arrive early enough to be adequately set up before anyone arrives. Their preparation makes you look ready.
  4.  
  5. 3. As your event unfolds. The event should be – or appear to be – effortless. But that’s for the host and the guests. In contrast, this is the time when the cook-server at the taco cart is in maximum performance mode. He or she will help diners identify the best taco combinations, advising on what to expect with new ingredients. He will work with speedy efficiency. And he will remain pleasant throughout, even if diners’ demands are over the top.
  6.  
  7. 4. After the guests have left. Who will do the food service clean up? Where will trash go? How will the taco carts be removed from the venue, and on what schedule? While this needs to be negotiated in the planning stage, it comes down to the implementation of the plan. If the finish is unsatisfactory, it may be all you remember about the service overall.

In other words, this requires that the event planner ask a sufficient number of questions to determine if the service quality can be dependable. That shouldn’t be anything to be shy about: if you are the customer, you have every right to know what to expect. After all, you are most likely to know the expectations of your guests.

Taco cart catering has made event planning easier because it opens up possibilities for where and when events can happen. The largely self-contained taco carts can go almost anywhere, making it possible to move event components around to satisfy needs of attendees

Why You Should Research Taco Cart Providers on Service Levels

While once there were one or two gourmet taco cart caterers, now there are many. Several are bad knock-offs so you need to know the difference.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But a poor imitation is just a bad idea.

This is what happens in the food service business all the time. One company comes up with a innovative idea, then others copy it. Rarely are the imitators as good as the original. This is precisely what occurred when an Orange County taco cart caterer came on the scene featuring gourmet tacos followed by a ton of mediocre knockoffs.

Why is that? Where it comes to a distinct, perhaps unique cuisine the original version very often comes from a genuine place. That can be ethnic recipes adopted from a grandmother. Or, the chef is well traveled and picked up some ideas from a month spent in a monastery, or on a fishing boat, or living in a mountain village. Once the collection of ingredients, herbs, spices and cooking methods are studied and embraced, that chef can return to civilization – or in the case of family recipes, to the 21st century – with a new menu to introduce to customers.

When that chef is successful, imitators are sure to follow. This is a story as old as money. The problem quite often is they don’t get it right. With cooking, instead of an ingenious blend of spices, a knock-off provider might just use more salt. They might miss the nuance in cooking or fail to understand if something has a narrow window of time for being served – too early or too late might lead to a compromise in taste or texture.

So how does an event planner know if a taco cart caterer is the real deal? Here are a couple of tips:

  1. Check the time in which the caterer has been in business. The mobile food revolution is not very old – food trucks and taco carts just began appearing in the mid-Aughts (around 2005 or 2006). The most accomplished companies are those that have been in business at least five years or more.
  2.  
  3. Ask for customer reviews. There’s some value to online reviews, however that is a system that is often gamed by competitors to make the other companies look bad. Ask instead a company that provides taco catering for weddings or corporate events for one, two or more past customers’ contact information; contact them and discuss the overall experience (planning, execution and cleanup, for example).
  4.  
  5. Ask about food ingredients, sourcing and special service requirements. This should be the single most important part of the cart caterer’s business. Ingredients are on a par with chef skills and service for delivering the superlative experience.

Never be afraid to do a little research, including quizzing caterers on the phone about their history and the actual food they work with. The good ones are most likely to share the most with you – because they have the best stories to tell.

Not All Taco Cart Caterers Are Created Equal

Planning a party? Gourmet taco carts are all the rage – but to distinguish the good from the mediocre, it helps to approach it with a checklist.

For anyone planning a special event, the matter of catering is foremost on his or her mind. And with the increasing popularity of gourmet taco cuisine and the degree of fiesta! it adds to events, a number of companies providing Latin-Caribbean fare have grown in recent years.

But the challenge is in having some way to distinguish on-site taco catering companies from each other. Do you rely on online reviews, on friends – or something else? What are the factors to consider?

Many web-based lists are somewhat contrived. Either the list is exceptionally subjective, the preferences of one or a small group of people, or those companies on the list pay to be there. There’s some value in user-review sites, but that is often diminished by trolls who never actually used a company but who posit negative reviews to harm a business (the astute reader does their best to weed through those; wisely tossing the outliers of hyper-praise and withering criticism to consider the points made in the moderate middle).

As a customer, it often helps to have a checklist of what you want in your caterer. It might be what everyone expects – great tasting food, excellent service and a reasonable price – or it might be something subtler. Consider applying the following checklist to your top choices for catering an event in the near future:

  1. 1. Licensing and insurance – Mobile food cart vendors, food trucks and caterers in most Southern California municipalities require licensing that confirms some very important things. This includes observation of sanitary food preparation rules (to limit food borne illnesses), as well as the permits required to operate a business within these areas. Insurance matters quite a bit as well: when a caterer fails to live up to the promises and expectations of a food provider (i.e., if someone gets sick from the food), event attendees need a deep-pocket defendant to sue. You do not want to be that defendant.
  2.  
  3. 2. Ingredients – No longer is it sufficient to expect ordinary, factory-farmed produce, dairy and meats. Freshness matters; when in the budget, organic ingredients matter as well. Also, look for that special twist – including signature salsas, sauces and side dishes. A memorable event is one where the host and caterer provide something a little adventurous and extraordinary. Check the taco cart menu and then check it again.
  4.  
  5. 3. Chef credentials – The servers themselves should be holders of a Food Handler Card (CFH Card) in Los Angeles County and many other municipalities in California. That covers the matter of sanitation. But food trucks, mobile taco carts and caterers in general now share what their master chefs know, where they trained and what cuisines and travels have influenced their fare. This is part of what makes dining so interesting today, with an explosion of creativity often characterized by fusions of culture, cuisine, ingredients and creativity.
So go ahead and ask questions of your taco cart caterer – the more informed your questions, the greater respect your potential caterer will give you and your event.

Health and Organic … in Gourmet Taco Carts

It’s true. Those popular event vendors popping up everywhere have found what event planners and attendees want – healthier meals that are fun too.

These are not your father’s mobile food carts.

In cities all across America, the mobile food cart phenomena has taken hold and redefined what we eat, where we eat and when. That might be a worrisome thing if those mobile food caterers were selling what they used to at workplaces, but most are not. Gone are the hot dogs, prepackaged pastries, chips, fries and high-sugar energy drinks (appropriate for football players in Florida, not so much for less vigorous occupations). In their place are much more exciting offerings that are better for the waistline, overall health – and self-esteem.

For example, gourmet mobile taco carts have reinvented the category. Tex-Mex style foods in general have historically came with some healthy (tomato salsa, chopped onions, cilantro) as well as less healthy (fried taco shells, heavy sauces laden with fat and salt) ingredients. Lower-quality beef used as a major ingredient were historically mired in fat.

But what may surprise many is how something such as refried beans, despite a fatty-sounding name, have a good protein-to-fat ratio (13 grams protein to 3 grams fat, respectively, according to Self Nutrition Data). And since there is no law from the culinary establishment against changing a few things to raise the nutrient profile of tacos, enterprising gourmet taco cart caterers have done just that in a variety of ways.

What mobile taco carts now offer to customers include above and beyond gourmet tacos are:

  • Healthier proteins – This might mean slowly simmered carnitas, Jamaican chicken and Caribbean carne asada, as well as island-style black beans, grilled tofu, shrimp or tilapia. Depending on the vendor used, these might even be organically raised or wild-caught, sustainable fish stock offerings.
  • Corn and flour tortillas – While both have their nutritional pluses, the original version was made of corn. Flour tortillas are more protein-dense, but also contain more calories (about 40 percent more), some fat, more carbohydrates and a bit less fiber.
  • Sides and appetizers – Taquitos, ceviche, quesadillas and mini bean and cheese burritos, served before or with a meal, can satisfy an appetite with small portions.

What drove this change? To begin with, casual dining has taken on a whole new cast where food trucks and carts now go to the venue instead of the other way around, where the restaurant building is the fixed destination. Now it’s possible to set up an event in a park, near a ball field, at someone’s home, on a film production (studio or on-location) set, as well as a workplace or corporate office environment where more formal dinners would be impossibly expensive to stage. With gourmet, healthy meals provided in turnkey operation, the party or meeting planner’s options are greatly expanded.

It may not be what your father’s generation knew as mobile, quick-service food. But there’s a good chance he and others would take to this new version with enthusiasm.

Gourmet Taco Carts: Ideal for Fundraisers

There are still black tie formal dinners to raise funds for important causes. But casual, interactive dining with mobile food carts might be better at friend raising.

The world of fundraising typically generates two things. The most obvious are funds to support a cause. But of equal importance is events’ friends-raising function. Because in the special events realm, in particular, the friends made by a non-profit through its events can translate into a stronger volunteer core, new community relationships, new board members and new larger-gift donors.

This begins when people meet people, learn more about the cause and develop a sense of ownership. According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, special events may be more costly to produce than other means of fund raising, but events provide important and indispensible visibility for the organization and what it does.

Often, special events provide the new ways for people to gather and enjoy themselves. That might be in the latest physical feats of athleticism, or a type of social or entertainment event that is a draw to certain demographics.

Popular food choices are often part of the attraction – if not the centerpiece of the event itself. Gourmet food truck-based events are being held around the U.S., where caravans of six or more food truck vendors – from gourmet lobster rolls to gourmet tacos – sell an interesting mix of cuisines to event goers. An entrance fee to cover entertainment might be charged, while food vendors pay either a flat fee for being in the event or a portion of their sales to the sponsoring non-profit. In the best of circumstances, the caterer(s) might identify strongly with the cause and the food carts become an in-kind donation.

These events have a strong draw with Millennials and Generation X (those under 45), so if that’s your target friend-raising demographic, it can be a great platform for raising cash and fostering a community.

But food trucks and food cart catering need not be exotic or designed to only appeal to younger people. Among the most broadly popular mobile catering types are gourmet on-site taco carts, taking advantage of near-universal appeal of Latin cuisines and casual dining. With selections that might include carnitas, Caribbean carne asadas and Jamaican chicken, these hand-held favorites can be just as popular with Baby Boomers as their children and grandchildren.

The hand-held nature of these dishes is a key component of special events as well. No longer do supporters of organizations need to sit at 10-seat round tables and listen to speaker after speaker on a stage. Better, they want to mix and mingle, bid on silent auction items, roam the venue and actually talk to the people involved in the cause. With taco cart catering, it’s far more possible to entertain guests while they can interact with event features and people.

That’s how friends are raised along with funds. At the heart of it is the food, but as people circulate through an event they gradually become the lifeblood of the organization.

Is Your Taco Cart Caterer Licensed and Insured?

Creative gourmet chefs might be good at making an awesome tilapia taco. But the smart event planner also makes sure he or she has permitting and insurance documents.

Although the street vending food goes back to biblical times, the food truck phenomenon in America involving gourmet offerings is less than ten years old. One of the signs of the maturing of the industry is municipally-required permitting, health department compliance and insurance.

Given the renegade gourmet chefs who are the engine behind gourmet mobile vending, that might be surprising. But most of the people behind this movement are entrepreneurs with a firm grasp of the realities and exigencies of running a good, solid and safe food service operation. Many exist with a great deal of help from social media, where an enterprise’s trials, triumphs and tribulations travel as fast as you can say “Instagram.” Also, many cart vendors began their careers in bricks and mortar restaurants, where food safety, employee liability and insurance are a real part of serving food to a sophisticated dining public.

A food industry blogger noted in 2011 that among several key events in the development of this industry is when the city of Los Angeles started to require that food trucks receive a health inspection grade (as of October 2010). The legal industry around mobile food service providers, including Los Angeles taco cart catering companies, obtain certain permits, licenses and registrations, including the following:

  • Insurance – A businessperson’s investment in equipment can only be protected from fire, vandalism, foodborne illness outbreaks, theft and personal injury claims by way of property and general liability insurance policies. This more than protects the proprietor – insurance underwriters will typically inspect the business to limit their financial risks and in so doing ensure a safer environment for patrons, employees and the communities in which business is transacted. Just as important, this protects an organization hiring the caterer.
  • Business license – This registers the business within municipalities where they work, subjecting the enterprise to local food service mandates and scrutiny.
  • Mobile food facility permit – While a mishmash of different requirements by different municipalities challenge the food car operator, permits do enforce requirements on hours of operation, packaging, lighting and waste disposal methods that have valid reasons for existing. Everyone wants happy neighbors, after all.
  • Health, food safety and food handler permits – Each of these is designed to limit the chances of food borne illness or other untoward events that could occur in a food business operation.

These are the things rarely if ever discussed on the Food Network. But each plays a role in protecting the public and raising the trust diners have with mobile taco carts and the like. Only with that level of trust can people become diners, and that trust needs to be earned one customer and one meal at a time. Event planners also need this assurance, as it is the job of most to, above all else, do no harm. From there, a gourmet event on wheels can make a party come to life and leave attendees with a satisfied feeling – and not a stomach ache.

A Gourmet Taco Cart is Not a Mexican Food Truck

The roots of gourmet tacos are from south of the border. But the fresh, innovative ingredients and above-board operations ensure diners a fun, healthy meal.

Let’s give credit where credit is due in the evolution from workaday lunches to gourmet tacos. In America, urban street food has for several generations been characterized by food trucks operating in vibrant Latino neighborhoods and work sites where Latinos made up a large percentage of the workforce. And the appeal was hardly limited to those who trace their heritage to Mexico or Central America: who doesn’t like tacos, burritos, tortas, pozole, a red salsa, a tomatillo salsa, avocado and a healthy mix of jalapenos?

But some of the vendors of these dishes took on some unsavory informal names: roach coach, grease truck and gut truck among them. In some cases, the “facility” was little more than a modified hot dog cart, purchased for about $2000 and operated wherever people might be hungry and food inspectors far from view.

Since the mid-aughts – 2008 or thereabouts – things took a turn for the better. Food truck services along with taco cart catering have emerged as the new way to throw a party or just enjoy a dinner in an unorthodox location. No longer restricted to a single venue, gourmet taco carts can go where the party is – quite like how the traditional Mexican food trucks went to where workers needed a lunch and a cool bottle of aguas frescas.

To be clear, these aren’t the $2000 hot dog carts of old. The gourmet food truck might cost as much as $75,000 new, outfitted with the latest in kitchen appliances necessary for satisfying a mobile diner. Alternatively, on-site taco carts are pared down from that, but still able to prepare a fresh dish to order from people attending parties, corporate events, fundraisers or on film production sets and even weddings.

The vendor might offer signature salsas (e.g., tomatillo, salsa roja and perhaps an island infusion borrowing from Jamaican and other Caribbean cultures). These mobile canteens can come with a bartender, DJ service, servers, car valet and photographers. As diners sip mojitos, they might also have a ceviche stack, taquitos, a slowly simmered carnitas and seasoned and grilled tofu to round out their evening. The more environmentally responsible mobile taco cart purveyor will include grilled tilapia in its entrees, opting for a sustainable fish stock over threatened species such as Mahi Mahi.

Importantly, the higher profile of these food carts and trucks mean they are subject to the scrutiny of local health departments and insurance companies. This protects the safety of the dining public as well as those people who are employed in the enterprise. It’s part of why urban hipsters – Millennials, Gen Xers and even Baby Boomers – have embraced the new style of eating so enthusiastically. Tell them that an event will have taco cart catering and they won’t flinch. It’s what they’ve come to enjoy and trust in event dining.

How to Identify the Best Features in Taco Cart Caterers

As most people know, restaurant and catering reviews can be very subjective. Still, there are foodservice companies that succeed because of a combination of food, service and panache that sets them a peg above the rest in their category – and customers know it.

The relatively young catering category of taco carts is emerging on the West Coast and generating notice by event planners everywhere. With different companies offering similar fare, one might be tempted to think of them generically. But that would be a big mistake – there can be just as much a difference from company A to company B as there are among pizzerias, wedding cake bakers and gourmet seafood restaurants.

The first consideration of course should be the food. Insist on a tasting, if possible, when reviewing taco cart caterers.

Second, consider the overall planning and execution of the event. This has to work for you and your event, including the event guests and the sponsoring organization. If you’re an experienced event producer, you probably have a good idea of how that works if not some familiarity with on-site taco catering.

But for the novice and experienced party planner alike, customer satisfaction ratings are a strong indicator. From a study of Yelp reviews, the following characteristics seem to be prominent on the minds of the taconistas:

  • Food: look for taste, variety, a break from the ordinary
  • Variety of selections, with quality in the food ranging from taco fillings to shells, salsas and toppings
  • Caterer able to handle large (75 or more people) parties
  • Sufficient set-up time is allotted
  • Friendly event staff, including wait staff who walk around to direct people to the food and announcing a “last call” before closing down.
  • Adaptability to party venue, providing ideas on where the set-up would best serve guest convenience
  • Price reasonable relative to service and food quality
  • Creative themes, adapting the taco cart to the overall event
  • Providing other services, including bartenders/bar set-up and music (live or DJ)
  • Sufficient set-ups and service level to keep lines short (to maximize diners’ time socializing and eating)

When speaking with vendors for any type of event – be it wedding, office or family party taco cart caterers – you might use the above criteria as your checklist.

A final note: The chemistry between event planners and caterers is always of paramount importance. Who wants to spend a month or more in planning something with a professional who makes you uncomfortable in any respect? Planning parties should have some joy involved – studies show that when people are having fun working they will be more creative and even more productive.

Gourmet Chefs Find a Home with Mobile Taco Carts

An October 2013 event in New York that asked gourmet chefs to work with ingredients from a well-known fast food company may have seemed ridiculous on its face. But it helped illustrate the confluence of popular tastes and skilled cookery.

The event involved turning breakfast egg dishes, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and fries into such dishes as tortilla Espanola, Kung Pao Chicken and a type of gnocchi (from mashed fries). But this competition among chefs actually trails a trend on the West Coast by several years: the emergency of gourmet taco cart catering.

For at least a few years now, event planners have discovered the emergence of on-site taco catering as a means to accommodate the tastes of partygoers. The taco is perhaps among the most versatile of dishes, allowing any number of ingredient combinations – including Caribbean and Jamaican selections, Island and Mexican preparations and a broad variety of salsas, toppings and sides.

Importantly, those ingredients can be healthy and savory, easily eaten by hand, and yet allow for personal tastes. Many gourmet chefs will attest to the fact that the magic is in the quality of ingredients and pre-event preparation.

Also, as all chefs in the finest of restaurants know, the ambiance is part of the experience. This is why this type of cuisine is increasingly popular – mobile taco carts can bring the party to some of the most beautiful venues possible. Where a beach, bluff, home, museum, park, or hermosa vista may not accommodate a full-out sit down dinner, each of those venues are candidates for gourmet taco service from very moveable, adaptable cart set-ups.

Gourmet taco carts have rolled into some of the best parties in Hollywood as well as some of the more exciting film production sets of Southern California. But the application of this idea – that great, interesting food with near universal appeal can go where the party or event is – works in community events, employee conferences, at product launches, fashion reviews, museum openings, auto sales days, corporate and financial hospitality, on campuses, municipal events and real estate grand openings. The combination of quality food and creative presentation is what makes taco cart themes so appealing to such a broad spectrum.

The Food Network and the general rise in awareness of food variety has a lot to do with fostering this trend. More young people are training as chefs, and many more embrace the importance of pleasing crowds even as they think as both chefs and artists, providing a level of creativity in food not seen ten years ago. No one misses the rubber chicken dinners – or the warmed over, reconstituted burgers.