Even the most aggressive restaurant operators have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit behind The Buoy, whose owners have taken the traditional food truck business model and retooled it for use on Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene. Serving customers while anchored at multiple locations around the lake’s north shore, this first-year operation has found an untapped niche that, so far, it has to itself.
The Buoy is the brainchild of three young North Idaho adrenaline junkies: Prescott Essex and Gared and Corey Schneider. Collectively known as the Hayden Wake Boys, they’re new to the food truck game but old hands at operating a water-based business. Their Hayden Wake venture is now in its 8th year of providing locals with wakesurf, wakeboard and water ski lessons plus rental boats.
Why a floating food truck?
“For years I saw the lengths people went to in order to have good food on the water, whether it was expensive dockside restaurants or ending the boating early to head into town,” says Essex. “I realized there was a huge market for a floating food truck and ran with it.”
Essex and the Schneiders began their venture by retrofitting a 31-foot houseboat with a full-scale commercial kitchen. After the vessel had passed both local health department and Coast Guard inspections, they hired a professional chef to design and execute their fast casual-style menu. The seven-item bill of fare includes two items that sell for $8 (Buffalo Blue Chicken Sandwich, Three Amigos Chicken Tacos); three that go for $7.50 (the 1/3 lb. Buoy burger, a veggie burger and a grilled chicken sandwich); and a chicken quesadilla and an-all-beef hot dog that cost $6.50 and $5, respectively. Chips, bottled water, a selection of sodas and ice cream round out the options.
The concept’s daily operation follows the classic food truck model, slightly adapted for on-the-water use: figure out where boater-customers congregate, then use social media to let them know when you’ll be serving there.
But there’s no walk-up window. The Buoy advises customers to follow this procedure to get their meal: “Text for menu, call to order, listen for your name, pick up order at the front of the boat.”
Lake Coeur d’Alene, a summertime boating mecca for tourists and residents of nearby Spokane, WA, is 25 miles long. The Buoy can go anywhere on it, but typically drops anchor at one of three hot spots spread along the lake’s North Shore. It’s open Thursdays through Sundays.
How’s business so far? “It’s been super good,” Essex says. “We weren’t expecting it to take off this quickly. The first couple weeks, people were a little bit skeptical. Just as soon as the food got out there, people realized it was really good, quality food. It kind of exploded and we’ve been busy the past couple weeks.”
It’s been so far so good on the revenue front, but it might have been even better if their Kickstarter campaign had enabled them to expand the business on the fly.
The Buoy sought $10,000 on Kickstarter. It raised just $3,718 from 13 backers. However, a partial list of how the trio planned to invest their Kickstarter funds gives insight into the opportunities and difficulties that go with running a food truck on a boat. The wish list included:
1. A Zodiac delivery boat. “We're blown away with the volume of customers we've had the past three weeks,” The Buoy partners write on Kickstarter. “Our kitchen is set up very well, we work great together on the boat, and we can make large quantities of quality food with fairly short queue times. The bottleneck in the equation is the docking with the customer. It takes more time and manpower, while taking us away from cooking.
“This is where the delivery boat comes in. We are looking to get a 12-14ft Zodiac to runs orders to customers. This eliminates the need for docking, drastically cuts down our wait time during peak hours, and makes it that much easier for the customer. Now the food comes to you wherever you happen to be. On top of this, the delivery boat opens the door to orders from the shore and docks, another thing that numerous customers have been asking about.”
2. Specialized kitchen equipment. “Customers absolutely love our food. We've put lots of time and effort into perfecting each main menu item. Now, we need to pair these mains with equally satisfying sides,” they say.
“Having a traditional deep fryer on the boat is not an option due to the waves experienced while cooking. So, a specialized greaseless fryer is the answer. This piece of equipment would open the door to making delicious sides like fries, buffalo wings, potato skins, tater tots and mozzarella sticks as well as new mains like fish tacos, chicken strips, and couple other tasty ideas we've got up our sleeve. We've tested the equipment, know it works, and even have a spot in the boat ready for it.”
3. Eco-friendly solar panels/new PA system. “With these solar panels we'll be able to run everything on our boat unrelated to cooking off of eco-friendly solar power. This includes our POS system, a charging station for our business phone, and most importantly, our new PA/stereo system.
“The PA/stereo system is vital to our business. Each customer needs to be notified when their food is ready so they can come dock (or prepare for the Zodiac delivery boat). Currently, we are using a megaphone that is sometimes hard for the customers to hear. The stereo is key for adding to the atmosphere surrounding The Buoy and making it that much more of a unique, unforgettable experience.”
The Buoy’s owners have a month or so of prime operating weather left this summer. But they’re not sweating the shutdown. Instead, they’re eager to resume their winter exploits. Essex skis out of Whistler, BC, while Gared and Corey Schneider snowboard throughout the American west.
The partners will stay busy making ski and snowboarding films until the snow melts next spring. Then it will be interesting to see if The Buoy has any floating food truck competition when next summer rolls around.
Contact Bob Krummert at [email protected]