Not all restaurant operators choose to stay inside in the comfort of their bricks and mortar buildings. Some decide to take their act on the road and try out a more mobile culinary experience.
Lancaster Smokehouse owner-operator Chris Corrigan decided to plunge into the food truck business in 2014. He purchased and outfitted a heavy-duty chassis with help from a local stainless-steel fabricator. “I built a versatile mobile kitchen and went with commercial grade quality to make it an extension of our Kitchener (Ontario) restaurant,” he says. “It cost more, but we feel it was important to do it right – especially as it reflects on the restaurant and our brand.”
Corrigan chose a late model lower mileage vehicle to outfit to his specifications. Originally he planned for curbside operation, but once he started running smack into webs of regulations, he decided to focus instead on catering and events.
“By putting our focus on catering, the costs and profit margins are more controllable,” he explains. “Our barbecue style product lends itself well to mobile operation, and we just modified our existing recipes to simplify and streamline where necessary. By catering events where we know the number of plates going in, we can be more efficient and it is far more lucrative.”
Lancaster’s mobile kitchen helps increase the traffic at his standalone location and vice-versa. As part of the preparation for an event like a wedding, customers often come into the restaurant for a tasting session to help them decide on menu items for the event.
The restaurant’s kitchen staff love working the truck, he says. “When we go to events, they are competing to be along. There’s a lot of time pressure at the events and high energy. The service is fun because we’re parked at a location where everybody is having a great time.”
Corrigan is part of one of a growing number of foodservice operators choosing to go mobile. Canada-wide, estimates put the number of food trucks at more than 400, with more in the west than the east.
For the best results, buy or build a quality food truck with commercial equipment that will last since it needs to handle a more industrial operation.
Carefully evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on catering and events versus curbside service.
Use a food truck as an opportunity for your staff, especially younger employees, to have fun and learn the business.
Calculate the $$$
Getting a food truck up and running is a challenging, competitive and potentially expensive venture. New fully operational trucks run to $120,000, and conversions of existing vehicles can cost between $30,000 and $100,000 plus the cost of a used truck like a step van.
As well, consider the costs of:
- liability and business insurance
- vehicle registration
Build Your Brand
Food trucks that distinguish themselves through smart marketing and menu choices can stand above the competition and reach customers they want to attract, says Small Business BC. Developing a strong brand is a top priority for successful food truck operators. “Aside from your menu, think of what sets you apart from your competition and sell it.”
Some food trucks proclaim their brand with LOUD letters and artistic flair, while others use a subtler approach. Experts say it’s important that branding fit and speak to your particular product niche and target clientele.
Lancaster Smokehouse opted to mirror the look of their restaurant with similar colour scheme, fonts and graphic design. “It gives us a consistency and helps build brand awareness between our mobile kitchen and our standalone location,” Chris Corrigan says.
What’s in a name?
Looking to be whimsical, clever, memorable, or humorous? Play on words, or keep it simple and descriptive? A name can make or break a food truck’s success. Some of Canada’s more popular food trucks have names that are short and memorable: Winnipeg’s Tot Wheels (think tater tots), Duck Truck MTL (nothing but duck on the menu), Toronto’s Fidel Gastro’s (retro food), Vancouver’s Aussie Pie Guy (self-explanatory).
By choosing a name that is easy to pronounce, understand and remember, customers are more likely to tell their friends and colleagues. Avoid names that are too long, confusing or trendy because fads pass, after all. Consider the visual impact of any name you choose; how will it look on the side of your truck?
A useful name recognition exercise from the website mobile-cuisine.com: Share with 10 people the name you are considering and then, a week later, “connect with them again and ask them to recall that name. How many people were able to accurately remember it? If it was fewer than seven, you may want to consider other more memorable alternatives that truly grab people’s attention.”
So, what’s stopping you? It’s time to get truckin’.
By Lawrence Herzog
- Build a menu with items that are simple, good and distinctive.
- Keep recipes simple and easy to vary.
- Get creative with dish names customers will remember.
- Watch your food costs and price points.
- Make your brand strong and distinctive.
- Get social, interact with your customers online.
- Be ready for bad weather.
- Budget for slow days in your business plan.