SPECIAL REPORT: Chains Go Mobile

By Allison Rezendes | Foodservice Equipment Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: There are plenty of reasons for chains to join the growing food truck trend. But before you jump in, consult code officials, plan your routes, menu and equipment and choose the right manufacturing partners.

Food trucks mark one of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry. Independent chefs dish out unique food concepts from trucks that cost considerably less than opening brick-and-mortar restaurants. But while non-chain operators are at the heart of the trend, restaurant chains can find plenty of benefits to going mobile.

Food trucks can help you advertise your brand, test new menu items and reach different markets. The trucks also can allow you to participate in community events or even serve people affected by a natural disaster.

One of the first steps in launching a food truck includes identifying its purpose, says Richard Gomez, who oversees sales, engineering and design at Los Angeles-based Vahe Enterprises. The company has built trucks for Hardees, Carl’s Jr., Red Robin and Qdoba Mexican Grill.

“They have to ask themselves, ‘What is my goal in getting into the food truck business?’” he says. “Most of the chains get into the business because they want to be able to market their brand.”

A recent publicity stunt by Taco Bell serves as an example of a food truck’s marketing potential. An elaborate joke misled people in Bethel, Alaska, to believe the chain would soon open a restaurant in town. After learning of the hoax, Taco Bell staff dropped a food truck in town via helicopter and served approximately 10,000 tacos. Dubbed Operation: Alaska, the stunt was posted on social-media websites, and media outlets picked up the story.

Meanwhile, Carl’s Jr. uses its food truck, called the Star Diner, to participate in community events.

“At Carl’s Jr., we are committed to enriching the communities we serve,” says Marty Steelman, special events manager at Carl’s Jr. “The Star Diner gives us the means to expand that opportunity to provide onsite service out in the community, including at back-to-school nights, sporting events and local business lunches.”

After identifying your goals, there are a handful of other considerations to make before investing in a food truck. For one, consult with your local environmental health department and any other regulating authority to find out what codes your truck needs to meet and what permits you need to pull. Also, plan your truck route and introduce yourself to nearby businesses.

Next, determine whether a truck or trailer will best fit your needs, develop a focused menu plan and choose the necessary equipment. Also, think about what graphics you will use to wrap your truck. Once you have a plan in place, choose the right truck manufacturers.

Do Your Homework

Consulting with your local environmental health department and any other regulating authority serves as an important first step in launching a food truck.

“You have to do your homework,” Gomez says. “Go to your local city hall and say, ‘This is what I’m going to be doing. What do I have to do to meet regulations?’ And follow through with that.”

Gomez says one of the biggest misconceptions about food trucks is that they can go wherever and do whatever they want.

In fact, you must obtain a business license for every city in which you plan to use the truck. You need to pull all the necessary permits, find out what taxes and other fees are required, look into parking regulations and acquire proper insurance.

Additionally, you need to answer basic questions such as what restroom employees will use and where to get propane for the truck, where to replenish water and where to dump waste.

Los Angeles County has some of the more stringent codes for food trucks in the U.S., says Ralph Goldbeck, partner, Carlin Manufacturing, LLC and Kitchens To Go, LLC. The Fresno, Calif.-based company has built trucks for Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

Goldbeck says one of the more demanding codes requires all food trucks to return to a licensed commissary at the end of the day.

“The truck will leave the commissary early in the morning, go out and do business, but then it has to go back to a commissary so it can be properly cleaned and stocked for the next day’s program,” Goldbeck says. “I think a lot of chains are not used to operating in that environment. The commissaries that are out there are more designed for the street-food-type folks as opposed to the chain foodservice folks.”

Elma Eaton, co-founder of California Cart Builders in Lake Elsinore, Calif., adds that, in some cases, chains can create their own commissary setup at facilities they already own.

Other Los Angeles County codes require easily cleanable surfaces inside the truck; certain equipment outfitted with drip trays; warewashing and handwashing sinks; secure lids and latches on coffee urns, deep fat fryers, steam tables and similar equipment; and restrooms within 200’ if the truck stops to conduct business for more than an hour.

See the “Codes To Follow” sidebar for more examples from the mobile-food-facilities chapter of the California Retail Food Code.

Meet Local Businesses

Introducing yourself to area franchisees and other businesses along your food-truck route is another key step.

“One of the things that chains need to consider is how they’re going to deal with their franchisees so that the food truck is not stomping on someone’s territory,” says Eaton. The company has manufactured trucks for Fatburger, California Pizza Kitchen, Jack in the Box and Sonic.

There are a few options when working with area franchisees. Eaton suggests providing them with a percentage of earnings from within their territory or allowing them to operate the truck themselves.

Also, meet with other local businesses along your truck route. Gomez says some trucks can disrupt businesses by blocking store fronts or occupying parking spots.

“Introduce yourself. Make it a win-win,” he says. For example, a food truck parked outside of a skate junction could mention the event when it advertises its location on social-media websites.

Truck Vs. Trailer

When going mobile, keep in mind that manufacturers build trailers along with food trucks. Trailers often are larger than trucks with more cooking and storage space, but are not as easy to move around.

“If they want to be part of the trend and go to all the food-truck shows and have a presence there, then, of course, the portable is the way to go,” Eaton says. “But if they want to have a bigger presence in the community and go to community events, we can build trailers up to 53’ long. Trailers have a much larger capability to get more products out for larger numbers of people.”

Single trailers measure 53’ long and 102” wide. Manufacturers can set them up side-by-side in multiples. Truck sizes vary but typically a 24’ truck serves 250 customers before the operator needs to replenish products. A 32’ truck with a 23’ kitchen serves 500 customers.

Manufacturers report that they build just as many—or more—trucks than trailers.

Price ranges for trucks and trailers vary depending on what features are included. A standard used truck starts at $50,000, while a fully-loaded new truck runs up to $350,000. Trucks cost about $20,000 to $30,000 more than trailers because of the drive train. If you just want to try out a food truck, some manufacturers will lease one for $3,000 to $4,000 a month.

Menu, Equipment Options

There are a number of menu and equipment considerations to make when designing a food truck. Eye-catching exterior graphics also are important.

When planning the menu, manufacturers recommend sticking to your most popular items. Trucks provide limited kitchen and storage space, supporting only so many products.

Eaton says when the Jack in the Box team designed its food truck, it chose popular menu items, such as tacos, burgers and French fries, but avoided shakes because the machines took up too much generator power. But when Sonic personnel designed their truck, they had to have a shake machine.

“You’re going to have to pick and choose what is most important to you to sell,” Eaton says.

Related to food production, Goldbeck adds that chains are unique when it comes to operating a truck because employees must produce a consistent quality of food. An independent operator doesn’t have to meet such requirements.

 “Chains need to be sensitive to maintaining a consistent level of product and production, which they can do in their stores, but when they move out onto the road, it’s more of a challenge,” Goldbeck says. He explains that the galley-type layout of food truck kitchens could affect the flow and function of a chain’s normal production line.

Manufacturers can install just about any piece of equipment in a food truck. Some equipment works better than others. For example, ice makers contain fragile copper wires that don’t do well bouncing down the road. Manufacturers recommend buying bulk ice instead.

When designing a truck’s kitchen, chains often specify the same equipment that they use in their brick-and-mortar restaurants. Chains will pull employees from restaurants to work in the trucks. By duplicating the equipment, they don’t have to retrain staff.

Point-of-sale systems are another important consideration. While a typical street vendor operates with cash, chains need to tie into a POS system with inventory control, Goldbeck says. He says manufacturers recently started selling wireless POS systems specifically for the food-truck market.

For an in-depth look at the equipment equation of a food truck, see “Keep On Truckin’” in FCSI The Americas Quarterly Fourth Quarter, page 46, or online at http://pubs.royle.com/publication/?i=103152.

Want That Wrapped?

When designing your truck, don’t underestimate the power of clever, eye-catching exterior graphics.

“It’s really important that you have good graphics on your vehicle because no one’s going to come up to the white food truck with a little logo on it,” Eaton says. “You really need to put some money into your graphics to make it pop and stand out from the rest of the trucks.”

It costs $4,000 to $6,000 to wrap a truck, Gomez says.

“It’s one of the first things that bring people to the truck,” he says. “You would think it would be social media or word of mouth. But people see an eye-catching truck and that’s when they go onto the social-media sites and look up the truck.”

Choosing A Manufacturer

Once you’ve planned how you will use your truck, it’s time to choose a manufacturer. Look for a certified manufacturer with experience building food trucks. Also, find a company that offers custom work, not just standard options.

Choosing a certified manufacturer is critical, Eaton says. Some states won’t even approve a truck unless it was built by a certified manufacturer. Consult with your local environmental health department for a list of approved companies.

“It’s really important for your safety and protection of your employees that the manufacturer builds it right,” Eaton says. She has seen trucks that have caught fire because the walls contained Romex building wire that rubbed against metal and caused sparks to mix with gas.

Also, look for a manufacturer with experience building food trucks. Some manufacturers have built trucks for more than 30 years.

“As you can imagine with this new trend of food trucks, not only are the operators jumping in the business but there are a number of manufacturers jumping into the business,” Goldbeck says. “It’s not rocket science but it does take a great deal of knowledge on how to make all of these systems properly fit and operate, especially when you’re traveling down the road.”

Plus, find a manufacturer who provides custom work. Companies that build only cookie-cutter models are not familiar with how to modify a unit to include specialized equipment, Eaton says.

Once you’ve done all your homework and built your truck, watch your rolling advertisement hit the streets.

“We’ve had good experiences with the folks that we’ve dealt with,” Goldbeck says. “If approached properly, it can be a new market opportunity and a great way to get your brand exposed to folks who have never seen it before.”


Codes To Follow

Codes for food trucks can vary greatly between counties. Following are a few examples from the California Retail Food Code, one of the more stringent codes in the country. Check with your local environmental health department to find out what codes to follow in your area.

•  A mobile food facility must be stored at or within a commissary for protection from unsanitary conditions.

•  The facility must be cleaned and serviced at least once daily during an operating day.

•  All equipment, including cooking equipment, interior of cabinets and compartments, must be designed and made of materials that result in smooth, readily accessible and easily cleanable surfaces.

•  Equipment from which spillage might occur must have a fitted drip tray so spillage drains into a waste tank.

•  Food products remaining after each day’s operation must be stored in an approved commissary or other approved facility.

•  A mobile food facility that is required to provide warewashing and handwashing facilities must provide one warewashing sink and one handwashing sink per site.

•  A facility must operate within 200’ travel distance of an approved and readily available toilet and handwashing facility if it is stopped to conduct business for more than one hour.

•  A facility must have a clear, unobstructed height over the aisle portion of the unit of at least 74” from floor to ceiling and a minimum of 30” of unobstructed horizontal aisle space.

•  All utensils must be stored to prevent being thrown around in the event of a sudden stop, collision or overturn.

•  Coffee urns, deep fat fryers, steam tables and similar equipment must have closing lids fitted with a secure latch to prevent excessive spillage of hot liquids in the event of a sudden stop, collision or overturn.