Social Media Strategies for Mobile Food Vendors

by Jay – September 7, 2010

Imagine participating in a high-tech Easter egg hunt.  Would you dig up grandma’s tulip bed, in hopes of discovering your hidden treasure?  Or, would you rather turn on your smartphone and download each egg’s coordinates, along with a detailed description of when it was boiled, what color it was dyed, and how long it has been sitting there?

But what does this have to do with street food?  Hang with me… here comes the payoff.  Now, pretend it’s Jay Hungry’s lunch break and he wants to bite into something other than the baked bread-and-cheese-triangles served daily at the corner pizzeria.  Do you think he wants to spend his entire lunch hour looking for something else, or would he rather go online to learn about what’s good in the hood?  If you’re a street food vendor, you want to attract, and ultimately retain, this customer in search of a novel lunch experience.  In essence, today’s street carts are the hidden Easter eggs and social media is the best way to tell the world where you’re hiding.

Many food trucks in New York City have adopted social media.  It’s an inexpensive way to self-promote and its real-time nature is a valuable component in obtaining instantaneous customer feedback. Yassir Raouli, who runs the Bistro Truck, prefers separating his social media usage into a two-pronged strategy; he utilizes Twitter to announce his truck’s daily specials and uses Facebook as a way of promoting his press clippings.  This is a fine strategy, but if I were to give him one piece of advice, it would be: “talk more to your customers via Twitter.”  At the moment, the Bistro Truck’s Twitter page is basically a one-way conversation.  Yassir tweets what’s on the menu and asks his customers to vote him in at the “Vendy Awards,” New York City’s annual food truck award ceremony.  But, there isn’t much customer interaction, in terms of shout outs to them or responses to those who tweet at him.

For an example of how to engage in that crucial two-way dialogue, look no further than The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (BGICT).  I counted eleven updates to their Twitter page, on a Sunday, when they were out of town and on vacation.  One tweet heralded the “Nuclear Winter,” a new ice cream sundae consisting of “Sriracha, chocolate drizzle, cashews, and a pickle.  BOOM!”  When a follower asked what kind of pickle, they quickly replied, “Maine dill.”  This type of engagement keeps your customers hungry for more.  But too many replies can also have a negative effect on your Twitter feed.  The key is to be selective.  BGICT co-owner, Douglas Quint, says,” I only reply when it’s constructive to do so.”  If a customer is irate because his truck is 15 minutes late, Quint lets it slide.  If a customer has a sincere concern, Quint will tweet back.  “Project your personality, but don’t personalize,” is his advice for all mobile food vendors.

Quint prefers Twitter for breaking news, due to its 140-character limitation, and says Facebook is where longer conversations should take place.  He’ll start a thread for a given topic and watch it become a forum for discussion.  He’ll join in, but won’t interject after every single comment, preferring to let the conversation play out.  The reward for such a high level of fan engagement is a crop of satisfied customers who aren’t deterred by the 10-20-minute-long wait for their chance to grab at a Salty Pimp.

For those tech-centric foodies, who go above and beyond the established social media hierarchy, Foursquare is a new platform that allows people to check into geographic locations, street carts included.  The person who checks into a certain place the most is crowned the “mayor” of that venue.  Companies like The Gap, Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza have seen a value to engaging users on Foursquare, and some even offer rewards to their mayor.

One simple suggestion to promoting your streetcart via Foursquare would be to offer something like, “Mayor Monday.”  Hypothetically, every Monday, you’d offer 25 percent off any purchase to the mayor of your street truck, when he or she checks in at your venue.  This could provide a new incentive to keep frequenting your food truck, assuring a touch of customer loyalty that you previously might not have had.

Contrary to what some news outlets in the mainstream say, mobile vending is not a fad.  The fact that the Food Network has co-opted the street food culture and turned it into a reality show is proof positive that it’s here to stay.   If you still need more evidence, look no further than the five finalists, nominated for street cart of the year on the Vendy Awards website.  Four of the five have at least a Facebook page, with most having a Twitter page and a web site, as well.

In this day and age, your focus should be on what your customers are saying about you online; they’ll say it with or without you, so join that conversation.  Consider yourself a social media manager, who happens to serve great food.

Jehangir Irani is a social media consultant and a multimedia producer at Mashable.com.  You can tweet him @jehangirirani, email him at jayirani@gmail.com, and check out what’s on his mind at jehangirirani.com