Do you have to be a whiz at communicating via Facebook and Twitter to get in on the food truck game? Maybe not. Only 13 percent of customers responding to a new National Restaurant Association survey said they find food trucks that way. Most patrons—73 percent—say they just happen to see the trucks on the street.
This surprising result is just one indication that the food truck segment—now formally referred to as “mobile dining”—is beginning to mature. Early on, gourmet food trucks were quasi-underground operations where renegade chefs did their own thing, relying on social media to keep customers up to date on their ever-changing menus and locations.
That era may be drawing to a close. Trucks still move around a lot, but now a reasonably predictable schedule of locations seems to matter to customers more.
In addition to the many customers who said they stumbled upon a food truck, 54 percent said they selected one by going to an area where food trucks typically gather (i.e., a rodeo). Thirty-nine percent said they found out about a truck from a friend. The food truck business may turn out to be a little like real estate, where the three things that ultimately matter the most are location, location and location.
“Convenience is a major driver in restaurant growth, and food trucks are certainly a convenient option by essentially bringing the restaurant to the consumer,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the NRA.
Indirectly, the NRA survey also helps define how much room the mobile dining market has for growth.
While the aforementioned 73 percent of survey respondents told the NRA they did business with a food truck because they “just saw it on the street,” most consumers never set eyes a food truck. When NRA asked people whether they had seen a food truck parked in their community this summer, 29 percent of consumers living in the Western U.S. said they had. Twenty-four percent of Northeast U.S. consumers had seen one, but only 15 percent of consumers in the South and a miniscule nine percent of those in the Midwest reported a sighting this summer.
One possible interpretation of this data: If most food truck customers decide to become patrons when they happen to see the truck on the street, and if most people say they never actually see a truck, there’s a huge gap in the marketplace waiting to be filled.
Who should fill it? How about existing brick and mortar restaurants? Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would be likely to visit a food truck if their favorite restaurant offered one. That’s up from 47 percent a year ago.
The message here is that customers are almost begging existing restaurants to get into this part of the business. If you’re looking to extend your restaurant brand, the time to give the food truck business a try may be here. In a recent Technomic study of consumers familiar with food trucks, 91 percent of respondents say they view them as no passing fad. Why wait?