I was recently casing out a new food truck and found myself going through a mental check list of what they were doing right. Using the criteria I established, I determined that this truck, which just launched a month ago has what it takes to (probably) survive the first critical year of business.
This litmus test was developed from several different sources and experiences:
1) A life time of eating
2) Eating from almost every food truck in the city and writing about many of them
3) Graduating from the Art of The Cart course at Hot Dog University in Chicago
4) Working customer service (in emergency situations) on several trucks
5) Two years of service at Knights Ice Cream as a worker, supervisor and working the mobile ice cream truck
6) Two years as coordinator at the Food Fort, an incubator for food based businesses
7) Hours and hours of conversations with Jim Pashovich, the owner of Pitabilities
8) Hours of “philosophy” sessions with the owners of OH!Burgers, Ajumama and Flattop Pizza
So here is what I and looking for in a new mobile food business:
1) Distance Presentation: Customers decide to eat from fifty feet away, so your truck “wrap” or graphics need to convey what type of food you serve. It you can’t do that, it should at least be clear that your mobile operation serves food and is not a delivery truck or backdrop for graffiti. Smart operators will all make sure they have something aromatic on the grill (onions, cinnamon, etc,) that will lure in customers by smell.
2) Your Name gets customers in the Game: Just like the look of the truck, the name of the operations should very quickly let customers figure out what type of food is served. If the name does not spell that out clearly, then you need to have a very short tag line underneath that sums it up in a few words. And example of a bad name choice, Stacy’s 5 Dollar Hollar. The name has scared more customers away that the promise of a bargain priced meal.
3) Uniform(ity)((s)) does not equal conformity: While the goal of most mobile food operators is to showcase their individuality and uniqueness and to shed the images and stigma of mass-produced food. While many may not like it, it is still critical to stay on brand and have some type of uniform or uniformity to what staff wear. While, this does not have to look like a bad fast food parody, it still is worthwhile to make sure people can tell any member of your team from a customer. It can be a hat, T-shirt and/or apron to stay on brand with a uniform and show subconsciously that you are a team.
4) Come early and stay til the end: As a past food truck event planner and frequent customer, there are / were certain trucks I knew would be late and not ready to serve at game time. That not only sets a bad tone for developing a relationship with a site or event, it also costs customers. If your hours are posted as 5 pm and you are not ready to serve, you lose those customers that showed up on time to beat the crowd. And those customers are your most important customers to nurture because their enthusiasm could be channeled into repeat business and free brand ambassadorship, instead they feel their extra effort was dismissed. The same applies to leaving early. Yes, sometimes a place is a dud or the weather sucks or whatever, but when you pack up early without a very good reason then the image of your business is that you don’t keep commitments.
5) Price point is the point: I’ve known some great mobile operators that made incredible food, but they lost customers because they charged $15 for a sandwich. While quality is important even more so is price and at a deeper level, value. While food quality for a truck is typically as good or better than an average restaurant, customers do not expect as much or more for a mobile meal than a sit down meal. As a general rule, the average person will pay up to $6 or $7 for a lunch and $8 to $12 for a dinner. And if they like the food and you can meet that price, the customer will come back. And if you struggle to meet that price point then add perceived value. Make the entrée look like a meal by adding a small 3-4 bite garnish to the main entrée to make it appear to be more (than what it is).
6) Be Clean in All Things at All Times: Cleanliness is beyond Godliness in mobile food. There is still some of the street meat stigma to food on wheels. Your truck needs to look clean from the outside and inside. Your team needs to have clean(ish) clothes and you should go out of your way to show off your dedication to food safety with people changing latex gloves, cleaning inside when not serving and keeping the profanity to a minimum too. In the early days of fast food (White Castle) projecting cleanliness was the most important thing to do to get customers to your door and today, you need to do the same to get them to your window.
7) Customer Service starts before the order and continues after:: Greet customers, answer stupid questions, occasionally offer samples but also make sure you have printed menus people can look at or take with them, have plenty of trash cans and keep them from overflowing, make sure to go orders are packaged to survive the journey and offer to correct any real or perceived failing with a smile on your face. Returning all phone calls, answering all e-mails and listening to feedback comes into play here as well. And the 1000 other things related to customer service have to be executed with excellence every time.
As a small business owner as well, I have seen businesses do the above and bomb, but their odds of success are pretty high if they can execute these “surface” elements of mobile food. Behind the scenes the biggest challenge for most mobile operators is maintaining true food costs to under 30% of operating expenses and paying attention to the business part of the business with the same intensity as the passion for the food.
While the above are important, in any small business there are 100 things you need to do everyday to do well and stay profitable, but in mobile food, if you can knock these seven things out of the park at the beginning your chances of seeing your second year are strong.