Kogi Food Truck tacos

18 March 2009

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

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Taco Junkie…

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 hungered for more and had to justify my adventure.

There’s great marketing at work…

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

The reason behind the infamous Kogi line is that Kogi’s founders started with a distinctive and delicious product and knew how to manipulate social media. Waiting in that line became part of the attraction dubbed “Kogi kulture.” In line today, every other person was typing into their phones and taking photos. Souvenir pics of a lunch truck? That’s gotta be a first.

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”) 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? Well, most good buzzes start with crazy. Perfectly rational ideas generate little more than a small mention in a local business journal. And if you’re crazy, L.A. welcomes you, as this city is all about fusing imagination and business.

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’s following the story (and the truck) on Twitter, where Kogi does most of its marketing. As my regular readers know, I’m a critic of Twitter, but I know a few companies derive value from it. Twitter certainly fits a constantly moving business that needs to alert its fans of its current whereabouts. The fans, in turn, get a kick out of subscribing to a business that lets them in on its secrets.

Then there’s that one mandatory L.A. element that enables a lunch truck to gain popularity: awesome weather. Waiting in line and dining outdoors is a lot easier when it’s nearly 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t think this would work in Minneapolis.

Not being a Kogi follower on Twitter, I didn’t know where they would be, and just happened to come across the truck while strolling through 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. And while I don’t have queue-philia — indeed, I’m usually allergic to long lines — I had to join in. I had heard so much about Kogi Korean BBQ, 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, damn, that was one 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 tried the new iPhone yet?”). Some had come from the office towers across the street with lists of provisions to procure for the inmates.

I finally made it to the front of the line, and behaved just like an L.A. Times article on the Kogi Truck 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. And the verdict?

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 sensationally. Lots of great textures in one bite. I would readily order those again… if I didn’t have to wait 90 minutes in line. 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 ingeniously promote a brick-and-mortar location (with perhaps more locations on the way). Kogi also proves 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. Mani deuseyo, amigos!

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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15 years ago

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”

Roger Hsieh
Roger Hsieh
15 years ago

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


[…] true even of Kogi BBQ: very few food trucks have replicated Kogi’s success despite copying their practices. Yet […]