Vegan Taco Cart Catering – A New and Healthy Trend

Indeed, mobile cart vendors are hip to the issues around veganism and animal-based foods. The great news is food ingredient manufacturers are on board, too.

Do gourmet tacos – the kinds served at events in mobile carts – require animal products? They don’t if you use the right vendor.

Chalk this up to companies that know their market – vegans in California in particular are more numerous than just about anywhere else – as well as the advance of food supply companies that are developing great products.

Driven by concerns about human health as well as the health of the planet, meat and cheese alternatives are finding their way into both food stores and food vendors. When a catering company that provides vegan tacos competes with animal-products alternatives, it needs to deliver on taste, texture and overall appeal. Fortunately, a handful of companies have learned how to do this very well.

They take the key nutrients found in both animal and vegetable products – amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and water – but source these things only from plants. For example, a not-chicken strip can be made with protein isolates, peas, sunflower oil, soy, carrots, vinegar, spices, garlic and onion (as well as flavorings, salt and colorings). The result, nutritionally speaking, is a complete protein in quantities equivalent to those in a comparable-size portion of chicken.

Tacos are often made with ground beef, and there is a vegan substitute for this as well. With half the fat of ground beef, a crumble-like ingredient is made of peas, oils (canola, sunflower), rice, tomato, spices (marjoram, basil, pepper, thyme, rosemary) and lemon juice.

Vegan cheese must meet taste, texture and “stretch-ability” expectations of diners, whether in tacos, pizzas or other preparations. Again, pea proteins are typically mixed with other ingredients (tapioca starch, palm fruit oil, brown rice syrup, seaweed/carrageenan, among others) to achieve diner expectations.

In each case, the differences between food service companies that fail to offer vegan choices and those that do are meaningful. A vegan generally is so for reasons that go beyond personal diet: it’s about how animals are treated, how they are raised, and the amount of the earth’s resources required to raise livestock. A vegan considers the prodigious use of agricultural land required to raise cattle, pigs and chicken as hugely outsized relative to that required to grow vegetables. And with increasing information on the over-use of hormones and antibiotics in feedlot conditions (where cows, pigs and chickens live, particularly in the weeks immediately preceding slaughter), the vegan is concerned with the amount of those factors entering their body and the waste stream that follows. By patronizing the company with vegan taco catering carts, the diner knows they are working with an enterprise that shares their values.

Vegetarian Taco Cart Catering No Longer Out of the Ordinary

The numbers continue to add up: Vegetarianism is firmly established in the culture, while sometime-vegetarians make meat-free choices very often.

This just in from the Not-Terribly-Surprising News Bureau: Vegetarianism is very common in California. This is evident in directories of vegetarian restaurants and food stores in the state (more than 2100), to websites devoted to southern California meat-free living to the fact that a privately-operated California prison, the Victor Valley Medium Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, California incorporated a voluntary vegan program for inmates that effectively contributed to a dramatic downturn in its recidivism rate (according to a Prison Law Blog, an attorney’s website).

So it should not be terribly surprising that mobile taco carts that provide taco catering have gone vegetarian, or at the very least offer vegetarian menu options. Whether it’s sophisticated, discerning diners or ex-offenders, going meat-free is a valid choice for Americans, Californians in particular.

But it goes beyond the strict vegetarians: There are also the “flexitarians,” those who might choose vegetarian meal options much of the time. Indeed, a full 22.8 million Americans were found by Harris Interactive Service Bureau pollsters in 2012 to follow a “vegetarian-inclined diet.” In addition, 7.3 million people in the poll said they are fully vegetarian (totals projected from scientific population sampling). Cumulatively, about 5 percent of American adults identify as vegetarians.

Those are big numbers – and the reason so many products and purveyors are coming up with plant-derived protein ingredients. For some vegetarians, soy, beans, nuts and cheese are sufficient. But to adapt some recipes to vegetarian preferences, tacos included, meat substitute products have been developed. Based on vegetable oils, legumes, other vegetables (including carrageenan, derived from seaweed), “beeflike” crumbles and other products are available to expand menu offerings. Prepared in combination with spicy sauces and crunchy vegetables found in gourmet tacos, it’s a convincing and satisfying meal.

The reasons people choose to be vegetarian vary from individual to individual, of course. Almost all go that route for health benefits, including avoiding hormones and antibiotics that are in most American meat and poultry. For others, it’s out of concern for the welfare of animals, particularly given reported inhumane treatment in factory feedlots and warehouse-like chicken farms. Most vegetarians are aware also that the amount of resources required to create protein by way of cattle is six times that of what’s needed to grow a protein equivalency in plants. The net effect of vegetarians and flexitarians is that American per-capita consumption of meat has been dropping for more than a decade, with consumption projected to drop in 2014 by 4.8 percent over 2013.

For event planners who must be attentive to the needs of all attendees – carnivores and vegetarians alike – inclusion by mobile taco carts of vegetarian tacos as an option is increasingly advised. Even if few claim the vegetarian mantle as occupying religious status in their lives, they just feel better about eating a meatless taco when given the choice.

The Magical, Universal Appeal of Tacos

It’s not just the Millennial generation that loves tacos in new, upscale versions. Now party and event planners and busy parents alike make tacos a mealtime and event centerpiece.

In food trends, the new things rarely start at the top. National chains such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Applebee’s don’t invent new food trends as much as they pick up on what smaller chains and independent restaurants are succeeding with. While that suggests they are late to the party, larger chains have the ability to bring that party to more people. What might be an ethnic dish known only to a minority of Americans can sometimes become the food of choice for all Americans eventually.  Consider how once a “pizza pie” was a rarity in the U.S., getting its biggest boost from returning World War II soldiers who had spent post-War time in Italy.

The action right now is in better, upscale tacos. Taco Bell, with its 6,500 restaurants in the U.S. alone, is pretty much known for its lower-price, mass-taste offerings. Then along came Chipotle Grill, serving a fresher, tastier product in decidedly hipper surroundings – siphoning off customers from Taco Bell as well as casual dining restaurants. Not to be outdone, Taco Bell’s parent company YUM Brands announced in April 2014 that they were testing a new restaurant concept they’re calling U.S. Taco. The new restaurant, located in Huntington Beach, California, is selling $4 premium tacos with ingredients that include fried chicken breast, lobster and red cabbage slaw.

The proliferation of Latin-themed food trucks in Southern California and the whole of the West Coast, as well as mobile taco catering carts at large corporate and fundraising events, further paints a picture of the “Great American Taco Takeover”.

Whether or not U.S. Taco goes beyond a test market remains to be seen. But the broad appeal of tacos in all forms – lower market, mid-price and gourmet – is now pretty much established. Tacos represent much of what diners are looking for, which is the sensory pleasure of a tortilla shell, hearty ingredients (including crunchy vegetables) and a piquant touch from citrus with hot spices. Regardless of ethnic background, these are tastes that appeal to a broad demographic spread among people of different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and food traditions.

There’s a convenience factor as well with tacos: They are largely a one-hand way to eat. While perhaps not advisable for eating while driving (or biking, as is sometimes the case), tacos allow the diner to keep the other hand free for holding a beverage, a cell phone or the leash of a pet. For event planners, tacos are an easy choice (those on-site catering carts make almost any venue food-friendly) because of the broad appeal of the item. Thirty years ago diners in Orange County might not have known how to hold a taco – today gourmet tacos are served at weddings and corporate events.

How Do Taco Cart Caterers Keep Food Safe?

Not all U.S. states place regulatory requirements on taco carts and other food vendors. Fortunately, California does and certain SoCal cities are even more stringent.

Recent history suggests one should worry about the safety of foods they buy in grocery stores as well as meals they are served in restaurants. But what about food trucks and mobile carts, such as those that provide taco catering? Do food safety regulations apply to mobile dining as much as that from a bricks-and-mortar establishment?

Going back to 1985, the hazards of food-bourn illness first became understood in Southern California when as many as 40 people in Los Angeles and elsewhere died from listeria in Mexican-style soft cheese. A few years later, contaminated meat sold at a popular burger chain in California, Nevada, Texas and Idaho was found responsible for the deaths of four children and hundreds of other customers who suffered serious illness. An E. coli outbreak affected would-be nutritious eaters who bought uncooked spinach in 26 states; three people died, 31 suffered kidney failure and at least 200 (quite likely more) suffered diarrhea and dehydration from spinach raised on a cattle ranch, which likely was related to the contamination.

So if larger, multi-national companies cannot protect their customers from outbreaks, can smaller operations? Actually, many of those massive outbreaks involved small errors that multiplied themselves precisely because of the scale of their operations. Larger companies that are responsible for food borne illnesses have deep pockets, able to recall products from the market, compensate victims and cover legal expenses related to lawsuits.

What drives smaller companies – including taco cart catering firms – to prevent such mistakes from happening is preservation of their reputation. From a reputation standpoint, mobile vendors that sell tacos that operate under a brand name, that have multiple units that cater to corporations and major event planners, will have much more to prove than one-off vendors cited for their lack of licensing (LA County operates a Vehicle Inspection Program with licensed vendors). The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association strongly advocates for an aggressive inspection program to make sure all vendors are compliant with health codes and laws.

What is required under the California Retail Food Code (effective 1/1/2014) includes the following:
  • Management and personnel – Access to cooking facilities only by authorized permit holders; employees must be trained in food safety and hygiene.
  • General food safety requirements – Very specific food handling rules on sourcing and handling of foods must be observed. Similar rules apply to employee hygiene and hand washing.
  • Special mobile food facilities rules – All matters pertaining to the physical makeup of the mobile facility, the means by which equipment and utensils are cleaned and used, as well as the means of storing and serving the food itself are regulated by the department.

To the diner and event planner, it is wholly legitimate and advisable that they ask questions about health code compliance by a mobile cart vendor. As they say, better safe than sorry.

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?
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  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.
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  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.
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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?
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  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.
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  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.
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  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.
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  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).
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  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.
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  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.
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  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.