By Elliot Maras | Food Truck Operator
For Wing It On, a Waterbury, Connecticut-based fast casual chain that launched in 2011, expanding into food trucks was a no-brainer.
“It was on my mind from day one,” company co-founder Matt Ensero told Food Truck Operator.
The truck boom had started to take hold, said Ensero, who began noticing an increase of food trucks at special events, breweries and universities.
“I never saw a wing truck,” he said. “It’s a ubiquitous food in America, especially with brewery partnerships, because nothing goes better than wings and beer.”
But in the first few years, Ensero, who came from an entrepreneurial family, had to focus on establishing the brick-and-mortar operation. In the past eight years, the company has grown to five franchise locations in New Britain, Bridgeport and Middletown, Connecticut; Manchester, New Hampshire, and Linden, New Jersey.
When Ensero brought Justin Egan on as a partner one and a half years ago, he finally found the time needed to focus on a food truck.
“We finally had the resources and some time to look at that project,” he said.
The truck takes shape
They bought a 26-foot Workhorse P42 step van from Frankie’s Hot Dogs, a Waterbury, Connecticut company that launched a food truck in 2013, but by 2017 wanted to focus more on catering.
“They (Frankie’s Hot dogs) approached me when they found out we were looking for a truck,” Ensero said. “They already had a lot of the equipment built out.”
Restaurant Equipment Paradise in East Hartford, Connecticut, which provides equipment for Wing it On’s restaurants, replaced some of the truck’s equipment. The truck’s 20-foot kitchen now has three fryers, a refrigerator, a freezer, a three-compartment sink, cabinets, timers, a propane steam table, prep tables and a custom-built sauce table and bowl rack. The phone number and menu are on the side of the truck.
One change was a custom-built table for the variety of sauces, which are critical to chicken wings.
“We weren’t able to get 24 flavors for wings on the truck, so we cut the (restaurant) menu in half and we put our most popular flavors and put those on the truck,” Ensero said. “We tried to replicate as much as we could the success of the in-store experience.” The company invested a total of about $75,000 in the truck, Egan said.
The truck uses the same Toast POS as the restaurants, which includes a kitchen display screen. The POS allows them to set up an indoor ordering station inside of a customer location and have the orders prepared on the truck.
Customers usually get their wings in three to five minutes, Ensero said. At busy events, order-takers can take orders on a mobile phone from people standing in line. Lines can be as long as 50 people at festivals and universities.
“We didn’t want to use tickets,” he said. “In a restaurant, they’re doable, but on a food truck, you want to keep as much paper and mess out of the kitchen as possible. The kitchen display screen was definitely the way to go.”
Getting health department inspections required a lot of time, he said. Where a restaurant has one inspection a year, the truck has to get approval from the eight to 10 health departments for the jurisdictions it serves. For festivals, it is necessary to get temporary permits.
“The paper work was the most unexpected bottleneck the first year,” Ensero said.
“Cooking and serving customers is only half the business,” he said, “There’s a whole other behind-the-scenes world that goes on, in terms of keeping your truck booked and filling out compliance paperwork.”
A new tool for franchisees
Ensero and Egan wanted to create the first Wing It On Wheels truck to provide a prototype that the company will make available to its franchisees. They wanted to operate the truck from the corporate-owned restaurant to develop a manual to provide to franchisees. Wing It On Wheels will be available as a standalone operation or as a complementary offering for a franchise brick-and-mortar store. Depending on the size of the truck and whether new or used, a franchisee could expect a total investment range of $74,543 to $151,358, Egan said, while the food truck franchise fee is $25,000.
Another goal for the first truck was to market the brand on behalf of their franchisees. They looked for events that were close to existing franchise stores.
The truck provided coupons to customers to redeem at the stores. “We would drive sales from the truck to the store,” Ensero said. “They actually generated a good deal of new business for our existing franchisees. That’s one of the benefits about having a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a food truck.”
Another benefit is that the restaurant prepares the food for the truck, so it is not necessary to have a commissary kitchen like many independent food trucks.
“Your store acts as your commissary,” he said.
A refrigerated vehicle delivers the chicken from the restaurant to the food truck, where it can be heated and served. The restaurant also prepares the sauces for the truck.
Having multiple franchisees has also been helpful in situations where the truck runs out of food supplies.
“There’s a lot of unique benefits that most one-off, mom and pop food trucks don’t have,” Ensero said.
Part two of this two-part series will explore how Wing It On marketed the Wing It On Wheels food truck.
Photos courtesy of Wing It On.