Four Lessons from Food Trucks

In June, street food will return to the actual streets of Montreal for the first time in 66 years. Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum touted the end of the long-standing street-food ban at a news conference last week, saying the city hopes mobile food trucks will help show off uniquely Montreal fare.

Love them or hate them, food trucks are now an indelible part of the foodservice landscape in a growing number of cities across North America. (Toronto and Vancouver have websites dedicated to helping hungry residents track down their food-truck options.) They’re new, they’re novel, and for local audiences, they tap into demand for a break from the foodservice options and experiences to which they’ve grown accustomed.

The debates about whether they poach business from brick-and-mortar units and snarl traffic enough to drive potential guests from the area will continue. But food trucks’ resounding success as a category offers a few valuable lessons for all restaurant operators.

  1. Engage, engage, engage. Food trucks do social media well because they have to. They’re on the go, their guests are on the go, and the most efficient way to let people know where they’re headed is via social media—Twitter in particular. But beyond tweeting which street they’ll be parked on next, food trucks actually interact with guests via social media. (See Los Angeles’ Kogi BBQ truck as an example.) They respond quickly to customer questions and share in their guests’ excitement about everything from new menu items to local sports teams’ victories. In doing so, they help give a voice to the brand and establish its personality. And they demonstrate that sites like Facebook and Twitter can be more than an online billboard.
  2. Take advantage of technology. To offer greater convenience for customers in an increasingly cashless society, food trucks (like farmers market vendors) are starting to accept mobile payments via card readers plugged into smartphones. There’s room to innovate payment methods in brick-and-mortar establishments, too, using smartphone tap-to-pay technologies (like the app McDonald’s is testing), electronic ordering/payment kiosks or card readers carried by servers to speed transactions.
  3. Create a hot commodity. Who didn’t love to chase after an ice-cream truck as a kid? The appeal was in the immediacy, the act-now-or-you’ll-miss-it offering, making the experience a bigger treat than getting a similar product from the supermarket. A food truck, similarly, takes the concept of a limited-time offer to the extreme. Craving a particular grilled-cheese sandwich? Better get down to the corner before the item is sold out or the truck’s gone. Brick-and-mortar restaurant operators can spark this kind of interest, too, by marketing extra-limited-time offers. Spotlight a staff member’s or a frequent guest’s out-of-the-ordinary sandwich creation on one day only. Invite guests via social media to sample an in-trial menu item at a specific store location and give their feedback. Or give extra credit to loyalty-club customers who make a purchase between 2 and 4 p.m. next Tuesday.
  4. Rethink efficiency—and constantly re-evaluate products and processes. Storage and food-prep space obviously are at a premium in food trucks. To maximize efficiency, truck operators assess who needs access to which products when. Taking a fresh look at back-of-the-house operations can be invaluable for brick-and-mortar operators, as well. Consider: If an operation’s kitchen were half its current size, how would it streamline production, equipment and even menu items to ensure that it’s consistently delivering food the concept can still take pride in? Making small tweaks to processes can yield valuable savings of time and money, and contemplating a more drastic change can help refocus attention on what’s most important.

Will Montreal embrace food trucks the way cities such as Toronto and New York have? We’ll get our first indications this summer. In the meantime, take a look at what food trucks are doing well and how brick-and-mortar operators can adapt some of their strategies to boost efficiency and better connect with guests. New competition often sparks complaints. Savvy operators know that it can also spur innovation.

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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