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Is Food Truck Culture Right For Your Restaurant?

The number of food trucks is on the rise and that’s a good sign for the restaurant industry as a whole.

The popularity of food trucks is soaring and shows no signs of slowing down. Budding chefs and restaurateurs once saw food trucks as a novel way to enter into the culinary industry without a brick and mortar investment. Now, even established eateries are embracing food trucks for a variety of reasons. Before you starting truck shopping or coming up with punny names for your menu, consider the benefits and the challenges of operating a food truck connected to your restaurant. Here’s what every restaurateur needs to know about the trend.

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Understanding Food Truck Culture

Anyone who’s spent time on the West Coast, visited Austin, or traveled through Hawaii, knows the popularity of food trucks. In cities like Portland, trucks are seen as a major tourist attraction. Many groups of trucks are housed in pods or lots specifically dedicated for these popular mobile restaurants to sell their wares.

And sell they do. These mobile restaurants rose to popularity during the most recent recession and the industry is growing. With over 4000 licensed food trucks out there, the industry reports revenue growth of 7.9% per year over the last five years. It’s safe to say food trucks are having a moment.

The good news is, this moment also benefits surrounding restaurants. In Seattle’s thriving culinary scene restaurants have seen 16% growth, even with the influx of food trucks in the area, suggesting food trucks may even bolster the restaurant industry in a city (or at least, they don’t hurt neighboring food establishments).

Like all restaurants, food trucks are bound by licensing and regulation. It’s not as simple as buying an Airstream trailer and putting in a grill. Some cities have very specific restrictions on where a food truck can park, as well as safety requirements. Chicago, for example, is notoriously restrictive when it comes to mobile food vendors with 97% of the famous “Loop” off-limits to food trucks. So, before you consider a foray into vending, you’ll want to carefully examine your city and state licensing regulations and permit requirements.

Should you decide a food truck is in your restaurant future, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons first. A food truck is a wise investment for many restaurateurs, but it’s also a significant investment and not one to take lightly.

Food Truck Benefits

Food trucks often feature global and ethnic options appreciated for their authenticity, speed, and price. Street tacos, falafel, tamales, dim sum, Korean barbecue, and yakitori are just a few common options interspersed with American favorites like burgers, hot dogs, pizza and fried delights. Fusion dishes are also common fare. All foods are offered in portable formats: in boxes, on sticks, wrapped in paper; hot and ready to enjoy.

Customers line up along food trucks in a park.

The novelty of food truck culture appeals to people on the go, which is why many trucks capitalize on the need for speed by parking in business districts during lunch breaks. Downtown areas often swarm with office workers looking for a quick bite. City parks and green spaces are surrounded by a ring of food trucks hoping to cater to the lunch audience. Some food truck owners establish relationships with local businesses who allow them to park in their lot or in front of their building, in exchange for a rental fee or even free food.

Restaurants see food trucks as a way to expand, offer a specialty menu and to get more experimental. If the local business district or college campus isn’t within walking distance of your restaurant, a food truck expansion can convert new business over the lunch hour. Offer a few samples of your best, most portable lunch features and lure patrons to enjoy your full menu when they can sit down for a dining experience.

The pop-up restaurant format is also helpful if you’re looking to take your menu in a different direction or want to test out a neighboring market. Before you sign a lease on a building, test the market waters. A food truck offers a half-step toward the idea of expansion, with less investment and the constant option to relocate.

Besides testing the menu and the market, a food truck provides excellent advertising for your restaurant. Think of it as a mobile billboard: a vehicle with your name on the side. The food truck is a great way to catch the eye of visitors, concert-goers, state fair patrons and other customers who are new to your business.

Running a food truck also offers cooks and restaurant owners a chance to interact and engage with their audience in a very personal way. The intimate nature of selling food face-to-face, helps you really gauge reactions and get to know your clientele. This connection is an important part of food truck culture.

Better yet, food trucks allow you to become part of an active community. Any restaurant can advertise during a game or sponsor a local event, but a food truck allows you to establish yourself in the heart of the action. Your presence at established city events like theater in the park, city sporting events, or farmer’s markets helps you build local clout. Customers may visit for the food, but they’ll come back again because you’re a member of the community.

Food Truck Challenges

Food trucks are lined up on a downtown street - this is a new and regular part of food truck culture. Despite the many benefits of expansion into a food truck “satellite” restaurant, running a food truck comes with a set of challenges as well. Restaurants are already tough businesses to run: from managing people, to keep down food costs and complying with codes and laws (not to mention attracting customers). Food trucks come with their own red tape.

Fellow restaurant owners may see food trucks as competition and local business may also resist the presence of a food truck. In larger cities, zoning laws and regulations on food vendors are established, but in smaller cities, you may pioneer through uncharted territory. Familiarize yourself with your municipal laws and ordinances. Introduce yourself to business and even other restaurant owners in the area. Building relationships will go a long way to establishing your reputation and ensuring you can park your truck with ease.

If you’ve already established a brick and mortar restaurant, you’ll have an advantage above other food trucks, as you’re working from a home base (a.k.a. your commissary). Many restaurants establish strong relationships with suppliers to keep costs down and it’s much easier for suppliers to deliver to an established restaurant. Restaurant owners often save by buying food in bulk and storing items in refrigeration. Cold storage space is much more limited on a truck; time and fuel are spent running back to your base to resupply your stock, so your food truck will require careful planning ahead.

Additionally, there’s the cost of the truck itself. Keeping a food truck up and running entails fuel costs, part, and maintenance. Licensing and insurance is important as well. Assuming staff are driving your truck, you’ll need to ensure they’re trained to drive and maneuver in a large vehicle.

A customer receives her food from a food truck service window. Outfitting a truck for cooking food is no small feat. For the basics, you’ll require a fryer and cooking surface, storage, refrigeration and a staging area with a heat lamp. The truck needs proper plumbing and wiring, including fire-safety compliance and heat-proofing. You’ll need a service window, a cooling system (air conditioning). Ventilation, gas, propane and a generator.  Whether you’re buying a used food truck or custom building one on your own, it’s essential the layout is ready for cooking, preparation and sanitizing. Like any restaurant, food trucks must meet all basic food safety requirements.

During busy lunch hours, customers may line up down the street (hopefully). Many restaurateurs choose to operate cash-only, for convenience and speed. That said, many criminals are also aware a busy food truck may carry hundreds of dollars at a time. Protect yourself by setting up a more secure checkout with a POS credit card system. Although this will require access to the internet, many options like Square are easy to use and can offer fast and safe checkout, making them well worth the investment.

If you’re ready to take your (restaurant) show on the road, a food truck is a sound option to expand your business and build your community reputation. Do your research, carefully weigh the pros and cons, and go in with a solid business plan. Mobile restaurants and food truck culture may be the wave of the future, but established business practices will help you ride the wave toward success.

Featured image “El Meximum Food Truck” courtesy of Flickr user Nan PalmeroPost image “Food Truck Thursday” courtesy of Flickr user Ted EytanPost image “The Food Truck Rodeo” courtesy of Flickr user Charleston’s TheDigitelPost image “Food Trucks Around Town” courtesy of Flickr user CityofStPete – all images licensed under CC by 2.0.