Food trucks are a staple in Los Angeles and in much of the world, and that’s all thanks to Vahe Karapetian or “Lunch Truck Vahe” as he’s known.
At Vahe Enterprises Inc., everything is built in house. They manufacture custom food trucks — the same ones on nearly every L.A. street.
Karapetian still shows up to work every day at his East L.A. factory, in a suit and always early. At the age of 81, he’s still creating.
Born in Lebanon, Karapetian immigrated at age five to Soviet Armenia, where his family saw very rough times, he says. It was those hard early days that shaped him, he adds.
After his father passed away, he started working at just 16 years old to support his family. At nights, he studied engineering at the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute.
Then on July 4, 1968, Karapetian moved to the U.S.
Once in L.A., he began working for an air conditioning company. He didn’t speak a word of English but he had an idea.
“I asked my boss if he can give me a chance to experiment on one truck in the backyard,” he recalls. “In five months, I built the first truck.”
That was the first catering truck that could be mass produced and make food-on-the-go safely and efficiently.
Pretty soon he had five orders and not long after that a whole fleet.
“Lunch Truck Vahe” became an industry leader, selling his creations all over the world.
Back in the 1970s, food trucks mainly served construction sites, but throughout the years, Karapetian’s designs made it accessible for any chef to take their menu to the street.
But Karapetian says his biggest accomplishment is helping other immigrant-owned companies succeed, like with King Taco going on wheels and expanding the chain in a big way.
“Only this country gives you opportunity,” he says. “Achieve whatever you can achieve.”
For the last four decades, Karapetian has been relentless in creating opportunities for his community, especially the Armenian community, funding schools, churches and cultural centers both locally and abroad.
He even built a factory in Armenia to create catering trucks for Europe and the Middle East. But when war broke out in Nagorno Karabakh in 2020, the plan changed and the trucks turned into mobile emergency rooms to help heal the wounded.
What happened in Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh as locals call it, reminds him daily of the Armenian genocide, he says, and what his people endured in 1915. His mother was a survivor of that genocide.
His latest contribution is a tribute to his late mother — a lunch truck turned into a mobile studio.
He loaned a food truck to the USC Institute of Armenian Studies for a project called My Armenian Story — a crowd-sourced oral history project to record, gather and document individual stories of Armenians in Southern California and reconstitute them as part of the national story.
“Using this truck — with such a great story — to encourage everyone, immigrant or not, Armenian or not, to share their own stories — this is very special,” said Salpi Ghazarian, director of the Institute. “And we hope it drives the urgency and importance home.”
People can hop into the mobile truck and record their family story at various locations in the L.A. area throughout April in honor of Armenian History Month. You can see the truck’s schedule here.
Throughout his life, Karapetian has achieved his American dream and has received many honors, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
“We Armenians always love to achieve something,” he says.