ONE SILVER LINING in the cloud dogging the restaurant business is the proliferation of food trucks in major cities across the country. Utilitarian lunch wagons have been a fixture on blue collar work sites for decades, but it took an upstart named Kogi to turn up the heat on this niche. As everyone knows by now, Kogi's Korean tacos and clever use of social media tapped into an unmet need for mobile food — and sparked a rush of wannabes. Wondering whether you should be out there, too? We talked to some road warriors and wound up with a checklist of questions you need to answer before you put the pedal to the metal.
Is your food road ready, and will selling it offsite complement your brand?
The first part of that question seems obvious, the second less so. The beauty of an item like a taco, cupcake or burger is its portability and ease of preparation. If your creations are masterpieces, demand split-second timing or require a knife and fork to consume, you might rethink that impulse to mobilize your menu.
A truck has limited space for equipment, storage, personnel, etc., so you're better off focusing on what your staff can do well and quickly instead of trying to re-create your entire restaurant on the road.
From a lengthy menu of modern Mexican choices, “we picked what we felt would be the strongest sellers,” says Susan Feniger, whose Border Grill took to the road about a year ago. Besides a handful of taco varieties, the truck sells quesadillas, ceviches, organic rice and beans. The food is cooked beforehand and reheated on a griddle in the truck.
Canter's Deli, an L.A. institution, recently launched a truck with a list of favorites culled from its gargantuan printed menu at home base. Waitresses helped identify the most popular items that would also work in a mobile setting: about 10 different sandwiches, three sides, matzo ball soup and the ever-popular desserts. To keep price points for the sandwiches competitive — in the $5-$10 range — they are 25 percent smaller than in the restaurant, but “still ridiculously large,” says Bonnie Bloomgarden, who manages the truck.
Burgerville, an Oregon-based chain, started up its Nomad truck last year as a way to test out demand in potential expansion markets. The menu is a scaled-down version of the company's properties, but with limited frying space the only fried item is potatoes. And milkshakes were available at first, but they were so popular that the truck couldn't keep up with demand, so now they're only offered on special occasions.
And don't forget that a major factor fueling the demand for food trucks is, well, the food, which is perceived as edgier, fresher and more craveable than standard restaurant fare. “You've got culinary (minded) individual throwing out wicked flavor profiles and interesting items,” says Kevin Higar, a director at Technomic. “You have to think: ‘How is my item going to be different?’”
The Austin, TX, Hudson's on the Bend, where dinner checks average $75, has been serving cone-shaped tastes of its “hot and crunchy” fried shrimp, chicken and avocado at the city's annual music festival for the last five years, and this past year the restaurant decide to capitalize on the popularity of the treats — not in a truck but in a trailer that is permanently located in a lot downtown that has attracted other food vendors. Checks at the Mighty Cone trailer average $10.
General manager Sara Courington says she has seen a series of operators come and go since Mighty Cone set up. “It's hard to make money unless you've got a really marketable product,” she observes. We've done well because we have a reputation.”
What kind of equipment will work in a small space?
One of the advantages of the mobile kitchen — a small kitchen that is relatively cheap to equip, compared with a full-blown land-based facility — also happens to be one of its disadvantages. In other words, choose carefully.
A big dilemma is how to keep foods chilled. Refrigeration is typically at a premium in a truck, so you might need to get creative about ways to keep cold foods cold (e.g., have them delivered throughout the shift).
If you are catering to a diverse audience, you might want to design a flexible space that will accommodate more variety. Burgerville's newer trucks will likely have a grill setup that can be converted to vegetarian foods on days when demand is higher (during certain music events, for example).
Newer trucks are coming with more bells and whistles attached. Border Grill management has learned a few lessons from its first truck, lessons it's incorporating into a second unit that will go on the road this year. Peter Barrett, director of facilities and information systems for the company, says the new truck will be custom fitted with a slightly wider kitchen and have an oven, range, griddle, fryer, refrigerator, steam table, even a POS system, which will make it one of the most versatile road restaurants. A plus: “It has a really nice horn,” which announces the truck's presence with Mexican music.
How will you provide the basic utilities?
Once you've settled on a menu and the equipment, you'll need to work out how you're going to produce it. Are you going to run the engine? Generators? Propane tanks? What about water?
After a hefty investment, Barrett says, Border Grill's new truck will run on biodiesel, which will also power an on-board generator. So it will burn waste cooking oil from the restaurants, taking care of the disposal issue.
“You can use propane for frying, baking, barbecuing and even smoking units. You can hook them up to generators and there is no reason you can't run them for six-hour shifts,” says Phil Mott, a professor at Kendall College's school of hospitality management and a veteran restaurant operator. “The limiting factor, and this is one of the unspoken problems in this area, is the water. These trucks have hot water heaters on board, but usually a limited amount of water. An operator might say we only have so many gallons of water, so we'll cut back on how much we use. We don't want to run out….You can only wash your hands and the dishes so many times.” That's asking for trouble.
Speaking of water, have you given any thought to where your employees will take bathroom breaks? Some cities require a mobile unit to arrange for access to bathroom facilities with the local businesses. Are you willing to knock on those doors?
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Do you have the patience and wherewithal to cut through red tape?
Depending on where you are doing business, you can't just pull a truck up to your back door and stock it from your kitchen. You can only park on private property. You need to schedule inspections. You need a food vendor's license, and you might need to explore the black market for one. The mind reels.
If you are planning to take your mobile unit to more than one municipality, you'll need to understand the local laws. Feniger says she's lucky that one person in her office has figured out the local regulations, which she considers a headache. At Burgerville, the marketing team manages the permits, which require some lead time.
If you don't want to go there, you can always do what the Kogi owners did: Pay a consultant to help you out. Companies like RoadStoves, which helped Kogi get off the ground, don't just equip and rent out trucks. They know the ins and outs, the local ordinances, health codes and permitting requirements, and they can help you navigate the local territory. Bloomgarden, who runs the Canter's Deli truck, sought RoadStoves' help when faced with the prospect of spending six months to build a truck that would pass health department muster and get all the permits lined up. Canter's streamlined the process by leasing a truck from RoadStoves.
Do you have a backup plan?
If you're lucky enough that demand for your products outruns supply, you have several options. One is to shut down and drive away, which is how many mobile restaurants work. It might actually benefit you: Make something elusive, and it acquires cachet.
Another tack is to line up a crew to keep the truck supplied.
Currently, Burgerville has an independent vehicle painted in the same colors as the Nomad that will provide more food or water as needed from a centralized commissary. The chain is adding several more trucks, which will be designed with a trailer that can be attached when needed.
Do you grasp the power of social networking?
Kogi's success reflected the growing power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media to communicate with an audience. Higar says a moving target ups the cool quotient of a mobile restaurant, that many patrons like the challenge of finding it before the food runs out.
“You've got all these different dynamics, and for millennials, this sets up really well,” he adds. It caters to their desire to multitask, and to socialize — the people waiting in line for their food, many of them regulars, already share their loyalty to the product and develop into a microcommunity.
That solid loyalty is one reason Burgerville got into the mobile business. Attending some street cart festivals, which are popular in cities like Portland, OR, and L.A., c.e.o. Jeff Harvey says he “noticed lines of people standing in front of these carts, sometimes 20-30 minutes, to get the food. When I asked them why they spent so much time, they could tell me a story about the owner, and they had a loyalty that was quite huge. The owners were building a different relationship with the guests, a stronger relationship.” He figured Burgerville could benefit from doing the same.
The downside of moving from place to place is that, unlike a bricks-and-mortar operation, it takes planning and marketing, although marketing through social media is more immediate.
Do you have the right people in place to staff a mobile unit?
In most restaurants, jobs are divided into front and back of the house. But on a truck, the smaller staff must wear multiple hats. And, as Burgerville's Harvey observed, they need the ability to engage with the guest.
In Burgerville's case, employees have been trained to chat up guests in line about the sources for the products and tell the chain's sustainability story.
“You need to find people who are both hands-on sellers and can manage the back end of things. It's like running your own small restaurant, so the person serving is also doing GM duties,” says Border Grill's Barrett. All the restaurant's mobile unit staffers get cross-trained for every position.
Will bad weather cut into your business?
Dining alfresco in Los Angeles or Miami is one thing, doing so in New York or Boston during the cooler months is quite another.
In a city like New York, where most people walk at least part of the day, mobile food trucks operate year-round. Even ice cream trucks have customers in the dead of winter. “Yeah, it's not the same business; yeah, you're affected,” Mott points out. “If it's raining, your business is going to go away. That's one of the risk factors. You have to figure that into your business plan.”
What about the wet Pacific Northwest? “You put out awnings to give people coverage from the rain. It doesn't keep people away,” Harvey says.
Higar says one option during inclement seasons is to contract with businesses to feed lunch to groups of workers.
Catering opportunities offer an additional hedge against the weather. In fact, some operators see catering jobs as the ultimate purpose of a mobile unit. Bringing a kitchen to an event is less of a hassle than trying to use someone else's, and the truck adds a festive element to the party.
“Operationally it's simpler,” Harvey says. “You can agree on a menu with the guest before an event and determine the pricing so that you know going in not only will your costs be met but what kind of margins you will make.”
An added bonus, as Mott points out: “Your brand is sitting in someone's driveway.”
Are you doing this for your ego, or to make money?
It's a natural reflex to respond to new competition in the neighborhood, but you need to make a decision based on a solid business plan. And, while trucks are a moving billboard for your flagship, running them demands certain skills. “You have to be very organized, and you really have to know portion control, because you're also competing with trucks charging $2 or $3,” Feniger says. “You have to manage and sell and you have to work your butt off. You're adding on two hours at the beginning of the day and the end. It's challenging, and it's not as simple as it appears.”
Feniger says Border Grill's truck is profitable “because we work really hard at it, and the team is meticulous about watching costs. I can see how you could do this, and if you're not careful, lose money.”
In the end, you need to decide how serving food on a truck will serve your reputation. “Any time you put a product out there, it's a representation of your brand,” Higar says. “If it's subpar, it's probably doing damage to your brand, not just the truck but the bricks-and-mortar operation as well.”
Trucks are the media darlings, but there's more than one way to break outside of the restaurant box:
Mobile food carts
Michael Schwartz, chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, wanted to be part of the vibrant street scene during weekend neighborhood festivals. So he adapted a hot dog cart with a small griddle, steam table and small compartment for cold items and beverages. The MGFD cart menu lineup changes for each outing, but the first time it included knishes, a sausage sandwich, sides and buttered popcorn ice cream. “We've been playing with the idea of street vending for some time,” Schwartz says. “It's a great way to test new items and connect with customers outside of the restaurant — and most of all to have some fun.”
Several California chef/entrepreneurs are turning old buses into restaurants on wheels, complete with guest seating. The most over-the-top, Le Truc, will sport copper and walnut burl tables, embossed tin ceilings and a kitchen with high-end equipment and a menu described as “neo-gastropub/izakaya.” It will be parked on private land in San Francisco.
Boccalone's Salumi Cycle tweets its daily location in San Francisco, where it turns up with a fresh batch of the day's panini.
Not your average street food
Examples include San Francisco's Spencer on the Go, which offers French treats such as escargot puffs, frog legs with curry and grilled sweetbreads; Wafels and Dinges, which sells Belgian waffles in New York City; and desserts, including cupcakes from the Cupcake Stop and Nutella-stuffed croissants from Sweet Sweets, both in N.Y.C.