This is part of Restaurant Hospitality's special coverage of the 2012
Food trucks have evolved from a hot trend to a tool that’s equally useful for industry newcomers and established brands, MUFSO panelists agreed.
Trucks allow entrepreneurs to field-test an idea without investing in a permanent location. Conversely, mobile units can reenergize established brands and introduce them to new audiences.
The latter strategy has worked for Sizzler Restaurants, which debuted its ZZ Truck Powered by Sizzler to give the 54-year-old brand more cachet with a younger demographic. “It was a way to tell people about the new Sizzler,” president and CEO Kerry Kramp said. The truck started out as a test at the nearby Camp Pendleton military base and has since made the rounds at local events in Los Angeles.
“It’s also a beautiful way to try items we wouldn’t be able to test otherwise. We get almost immediate response,” Kramp added. The truck menu includes sliders, grilled cheese toast, umami fries and ice cream sandwiches. Some of the better sellers have landed on the Sizzler menu.
David Weber, president of the NYC Food Truck Association and cofounder of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, launched a food truck as a research project and decided to branch out. He has expanded to two permanent locations and four food trucks in New York City, as well as a Times Square kiosk. He’s also authored a book, The Food Truck Handbook. He says food trucks offer, “a way to be in a place where your customers are and your restaurant isn’t.”
Business has been so brisk in the exploding Dallas market that many food truck operators are looking for brick-and-mortar sites, according to local blogger Stephanie Hawkes, who follows the scene closely. Ease of entry attracts a lot of dreamers with unrealistic expectations, she observed.
“I frequently talk to people who say ‘I make the best cupcakes’ or ‘My kids’ friends think I’m the best cook, so I’m going to open a food truck,’” Hawkes said. “I ask them if they are prepared to work 18 hours a day.”
Weber said he thinks friction between restaurant owners and food truck operators is largely a media invention, and that more operators are seeing them as an extension of the hospitality industry. He suggested that trucks practice “responsible vending.”
“There’s nothing more inflammatory than pulling your falafel truck up in front of a falafel restaurant,” he said.
Kramp agreed that events attracting multiple food trucks can actually be a boon to brick-and-mortar locations because they create a critical mass of people who might not otherwise be in the neighborhood. “People will spend time in an area and discover restaurants that they might not have seen,” he said.
Mobile restaurant operators are less likely to resent competition because truck gatherings tend to spur demand, panelists said. “Think about how your local mall is designed,” Weber observed, referring to food courts. “Having all the food in one location is a win-win because hungry people know where to go.”
Gary Torres, who operates two Dallas-based Nammi Cruisin’ Vietnamese Fusion trucks with Teena Nguyen, considers truck-focused events a plus for business. “You want good competition around you,” he said. “That brings people to the area.”
Find more MUFSO 2012 coverage online at Restaurant Hospitality's sister publications, Nation's Restaurant News and Food Management.