Food Trucks: Taking Your Brand to the Streets

National burger chain "Johnny Rocket's" has hit the streets.

By Chef Tom Smith |

National burger chain "Johnny Rocket's" has hit the streets.

These days, some of the food that’s moving fastest is … the food that’s moving fastest. Brick and mortar operations are finding an increasingly important opportunity in food that drives to its customer — rather than the other way around.

Coast to coast, from burgers to burritos to Korean specialties and more, food trucks are an idea that’s really on a roll. And the themes and menu-styles of those trucks are as varied as the people operating them.

As food trucks continue to create a buzz on the food scene, executives of large chain menu development teams and directors of R&D find themselves considering whether going mobile might put the pedal to the metal for their operations, as well.

Successful smaller truck operations have had to build a business and a truck at the same time. However, national chains can remove half of that requirement: Already-established operations are free to focus on how the menu at their established operations can go mobile without jeopardizing the brand.

But before you launch your first Tweet or Facebook status about your new rolling restaurant, before you update your website, there are decisions to be made.

1. The first and greatest challenge isn’t building the truck or getting the proper permits…it’s knowing how to translate your brand, menu and operational considerations into a way to drive positive publicity.

It is safe to say that, for a national chain, building a truck isn’t about generating a large revenue stream. Instead, it’s more about brand awareness. Taking a popular core menu item to the streets is a way to promote your brand and several chains have already done so: Dairy Queen with its Blizzard Mobile, for example. This truck both helped to celebrate the Blizzard’s 25th anniversary and promote their new Mini-Blizzard through FREE giveaways of the new offering. That may go against the ingrained instincts of hardworking marketing executives — but DQ ticked up the praise and delight in every city it rolled into.

Isn’t that what business like yours is all about: pleasing your guests while promoting your brand?

The DQ Blizzard Mobile took its message and products on a multi-city tour. But as you’re planning your own promotional tour, where do you go? Large cities? A coast-to-coast road trip? But isn’t that what your competitor has already done? Consider another approach. Travel into two or three markets hit hard by the economy; a goodwill gesture toward those appreciative markets can demonstrate your brand’s level of community support. Your customers may well remember the kindness. And when they have five extra bucks in their pockets, they may stop in at your place first.

Ok, so you’ve decided that a truck can serve your brand. You know where you want to drive it.

2. Next consideration: startup costs. Concentrating on a smaller menu of your core item(s) can help keep your costs lower. But what about the costs for the truck itself?

Depending on your location, building or renovating a truck can cost somewhere from $30,000 to $80,000. And consider the permits: Most metropolitan areas require a permit to operate a food-vending vehicle. Handled in a way similar to liquor licenses, these permits can cost from $100 up. Add food costs, the 2-3 person crew who’ll operate the truck…oh, and gas — you’re going to need plenty of that. Still, altogether, the total is cheaper than a new brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Now you have a truck, a menu, and a place to go.

3. Next step: Shout the news from the rooftops. Choice is one of the beauties of a truck operation. You can take the meal to people or reach them through social media. Either way, they’ll find you. Most small independent vendors live through social media, with upwards of 60 percent of sales accountable to that resource. Social media can turn a truck’s arrival into a happening; a number of entrepreneurs in Los Angeles who have harnessed that medium over the last couple years have expanded into two and three truck operations.

Single-city prowls and multi-city tours aren’t your only avenues of opportunity. Consider catering — take your truck to large corporate functions. College and university areas offer an ever-hungry audience: Students can swarm your truck for inexpensive noodles, sandwiches or ice cream. And consider the unexpected: The In-N-Out Burger truck has even been spotted at wedding receptions.

Having a small mobile cooking source opens another unexpected opportunity: a street-level R&D kitchen. Try some new ideas and get instant feedback. Let crew members survey diners to see what consumers want to see from your brand. And don’t forget the merchandising. A food truck can be a way to sell branded merchandise or create the buzz of ‘Free’ — who doesn’t like a free t-shirt? Offer one to your first 50 guests. The word will get around.

Increased exposure. Promoting your brand. Building good will. Testing that next great idea. All by serving the great food you already serve. Extraordinary opportunities happen. When you have a great idea and just let it roll.