Is Food Truck Culture Right For Your Restaurant?

The number of food trucks is on the rise, which is a good sign for the restaurant industry.

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 the culinary industry without a brick-and-mortar investment. Now, even established eateries are embracing food trucks for a variety of reasons.

Before you start 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.

Understanding Food Truck Culture

Customers receive their food orders and read the menu at a food truck service window.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 significant tourist attraction. Trucks are often housed in pods or lots dedicated explicitly to selling their wares for these popular mobile restaurants.

And sell they do. These mobile restaurants rose to popularity during the most recent recession, and the industry is growing. Since 2008, the humble food truck has grown to a $2 billion industry with more than 32,000 businesses registered. So it’s safe to say food trucks are having a moment.

The good news is, this moment also benefits surrounding restaurants. Since 2008, the humble food truck has grown to a $2 billion industry with more than 32,000 businesses registered. Moreover, 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 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. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as buying an Airstream trailer and putting in a grill. Some cities have restrictions on where a food truck can park and strict safety requirements. Denver, for example, is notoriously food-truck friendly, with low barriers to getting started. But, on the other hand, Boston requires a lot of requirements and licenses and is quite expensive to get started. 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’s future, it’s essential 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 authenticity, speed, and price. Street tacos, falafel, tamales, dim sum, Korean barbecue, and yakitori are a few standard options interspersed with American favorites like burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and fried delights. Fusion dishes are also standard fare. All foods are offered in portable formats: in boxes, on sticks, wrapped in paper, hot, and ready to enjoy.

Food Trucks Make Your Food Accessible

A smiling woman holds a cone of freshly made french fries ordered from a food truck.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 food trucks hoping to cater to the lunch audience. Some food truck owners establish relationships with local businesses which allow them to park in their lot or in front of their building in exchange for a rental fee or even free food.

Food Trucks Allow for Experimentation

Many restaurant owners see food trucks as a way to expand, offer a specialty menu, and 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 into enjoying your full menu when they can sit down for a dining experience.

Food Trucks Allow for Restaurant Expansion

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 option to relocate if the venture proves successful.

Food Trucks Change Up Your Marketing Game

A man browses the menu hanging on the outside of a food truck.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 gauge reactions and get to know your clientele. This connection is an integral part of food truck culture.

Support Your Community with a Food Truck

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 will enable 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

Despite the many benefits of expansion into a food truck “satellite” restaurant, running a food truck also comes with a set of challenges. Restaurants are already challenging businesses to run: from managing people to keeping down food costs and complying with codes and laws (not to mention attracting customers). Food trucks come with their own red tape.

Food Trucks Might Heat Up Competition

Fellow restaurant owners may see food trucks as competition, and local businesses may resist the presence of a food truck. In larger cities, zoning laws and regulations on food vendors are established, but you may pioneer through uncharted territory in smaller towns. Familiarize yourself with local 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. In addition, restaurant owners often save by buying food in bulk and storing items in refrigeration. Cold storage space is minimal on a truck. However, you can expect time and fuel spent running back to your base to resupply your stock, so your food truck will require careful planning ahead.

Food Trucks Require Additional Operating Costs

Two women stand at a food truck ordering window, ordering food and talking to each other.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 are essential as well. Finally, assuming restaurant staff is driving your vehicle, you’ll need to ensure they’re trained to drive and maneuver in a large truck.

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. Next, the truck needs proper plumbing and wiring, including fire-safety compliance and heat-proofing. Finally, 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.

Food Trucks Aren’t as Safe as Brick and Mortar Buildings

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 or Venmo are easy to use and 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 an excellent 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.

 

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