The Three T's of Mark Manguera: Twittering, Tacos and Trucks

The Manila-born entrepreneur still had to take a leap of faith to become a phenomenon of viral marketing.

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Mark Manguera and the Kogi BBQ truck

Mark Manguera doesn't trace his heritage to Mexico, but he has become the Taco King of Los Angeles.

The 30-year-old Manila-born entrepreneur has not only revolutionized the way we see tacos — he's also broken ground when it comes to marketing the longtime cross-cultural favorite.

Manguera has done all of that by using a couple of L.A. standards: Communications technology and ethnic diversity. He's a partner and founder of Kogi BBQ truck, a mobile Korean-Mexican fusion taco vendor that causes a stir wherever it parks in Los Angeles these days.

The business consists of two taco trucks that have been wending their way through the city since November, drawing worldwide interest with delicious food and a creative marketing scheme based on the Internet and the Twitter social network.

"Kogi BBQ started as a taco truck, and all of the success hasn't been our intentions," says Chef Roy Choi, a partner in this endeavor. "It started out as a hobby to go back to the craft of cooking, and everything from that really developed from Twitter and the Web. The food is hopefully good enough, but really it was the Web where people started to connect and we started to communicate with the people."

Viral marketing, a term advertisers use to describe promotional efforts on social networking sites, has lived up to its billing with Kogi BBQ.

That's because you can't find the Kogi truck sitting in one spot day in and day out. The only way you'll know where Kogi is if you're one of the 24,000 plus people who follow the truck on Twitter to stay connected to its movements in real time.

Twitter followers receive daily updates on where the truck will be that night. For example, for Wednesday, May 19, Kogi's twitter account reads: VERDE: 6pm-9pm@UCLA - Gayely & Strathmore; 10pm-2am@The Brig - Abbot Kinney and Palm in Venice.

Alice Shin, Kogi's twitter writer and blogger, says it's like a modern-day treasure hunt, with people checking their twitter accounts every day to see where the Korean BBQ taco truck is parked that night.

The results have been outstanding, according to Choi, who says the trucks average nearly 600 to 700 customers a night, going through 500 pounds of meat to feed the hordes.

The world has noticed, too, with Newsweek, the New York Times, CNET, the Associated Press, and legions of food bloggers raving about the product.

"[Starting out] we had no idea that we'd be here today," Manguera told the Asian Journal recently. "We had no idea that we would be in the press that you've seen out there. I can't believe it. Here we are hitting national press, international press, national news off of a taco trunk."

Erik Bratt, a former business journalist who is now president of Engage Social Media, recently authored a report that includes an informal survey that indicates a growing acceptance of Twitter as an important business tool. Bratt found that Kogi BBQ is one of 11 recent case studies that prove how effective Twitter and other social networking sites can be to a business.

"These 11 case studies provide a quick, yet detailed, look at how businesses are using Twitter today to drive tangible results," says Bratt.

Korean Tacos

Manguera and the Kogi team's unique marketing campaign are not the only reason for the success. The food is what really drives people to come back time and time again — and to check their Twitter accounts daily.

Manguera has a food background, although he covered a lot of ground to earn his chef's hat. He arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines at the age of three, grew up in the Northern California town of Vallejo, and eventually moved south to Anaheim to attend California State University, Fullerton. He received a bachelor in Business Management at CSUF before continuing to pursue his education at the California Culinary Institute. After working briefly as a chef in Hawaii, he returned to the mainland and landed a job as a food and beverage director at a Downtown hotel.

During that time he met his future wife, Caroline. He says that he's been entrenched in Korean culture ever since. He first thought of the concept of placing traditional Korean flavors on a taco after a night of partying last year.

Many people consider Los Angeles as the birthplace of taco trucks. Yet the city's large Latino population means that most of those trucks offer only traditional Mexican ingredients - carne asada, lengua, and pork tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.

Manguera found himself hungry — and with more liquor in his system than money in his pockets — when he accompanied his Korean-American wife and sister-in-law to a nearby taco truck for a post-party snack.

He came back home and took one bite of his taco then had a thought: What if they placed Korean BBQ on a taco?

Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but he shared his moment of revelation with the rest of the family: "Wouldn't it be great if someone put Korean barbecue on a taco, sold it from a truck at 2 a.m. and parked the truck in front of a club?'

"Sure, Mark," his sister-in-law giggled.

But the thought wouldn't leave Manguera's head.

"They thought I was nuts," says Manguera. "They were telling me I was crazy, and to just keep eating and drinking."

He awoke the next morning convinced that he could make the idea work. He called his friend, Choi, who was working as a chef at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, about his idea.

"He said I was crazy too," recalls Manguera. "But the more he thought about it, the more he believed it was a good idea."

It only took about three weeks for Manguera to start the business.

Leap of Faith

"One of the most controlling factors in life in my mind, and the experiences I have been through is fear," says Manguera. "If you let fear take over you...if you let complacency take over you and your life, in 10 years from now I would look back and wish I did something with my life. It takes a little bit of courage, a little bit of hope and a team of people to get you over that hump."

Indeed, it takes a tremendous amount of guts and fortitude to give up a posh job to start a taco truck company. Yet that's exactly what Manguera did, putting aside his job at the Downtown hotel in order to pursue his vision of Koran BBQ on a taco.

Manguera said he made the move after a conversation with a mentor of his, a man a good deal older.

"Mark, do you recall what you did 10 years ago?" the mentor asked.

"Yes," he answered. "I remember graduating from high school, going to grad night, entering the first year of college."

The mentor came back: "Doesn't it feel like that just happened yesterday?"

"Yeah, it was great times," responded Manguera.

Then the mentor dropped the hammer on his young prodigy.

"Imagine 10 years from now — when you're 37, 38 or 40 years old. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?"

Manguera says he was dumbfounded, unsure of what to do with his life.

Then, he says, it hit him.

"Am I going to keep working at a five-star hotel everyday?" he asked himself. "Am I happy with a cushy salary? Am I happy with my 401k? I have a wife now. Are we happy? Or do I take a leap of faith?"

He landed on Kogi BBQ.

Now Manguera speaks from experience when he advises others to figure out their core concept and a support network before taking that leap of faith.

"Once I had all of them — Roy, Alice, Caroline, who were a lot better than me — then I said I'm ready to go."

Manguera also advises would-be entrepreneurs to ask themselves a couple of key questions before they're ready to go: "Do you remember what you did ten years ago?" and "What do you see yourself doing in ten years?"

Joseph Pimentel is a writer for Asian Journal.

Photo by Joseph Pimentel

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