Food truck fad

Food truck own­ers are find­ing they need more so­phis­ti­cated plans now that the novelty has worn off.

The Oklahoman - - BUSINESS - BY JOYCE M. ROSENBERG AP Busi­ness Writer

Start­ing a food truck to sell tacos or bar­be­cue on down­town streets may seem easy or fun, but own­ers are find­ing they need more so­phis­ti­cated plans now that the novelty has worn off.

A culi­nary fad a decade ago, food trucks have lost some lus­ter and even new ones may not draw a crowd. Many prospec­tive restau­ra­teurs now use trucks as low-cost test kitchens and as lit­eral mar­ket­ing ve­hi­cles. And food truck op­er­a­tors soon re­al­ize they need to think strate­gi­cally — es­pe­cially about the win­ter.

Jack and Max Bar­ber started a food truck called Mainely Burgers in 2012, sell­ing burgers and fries at the beach in Scar­bor­ough, Maine, and the next year added a sec­ond truck in Port­land and an ice cream truck. But the com­pe­ti­tion with Port­land's restau­rants was tough.

"We were def­i­nitely bummed out that do­ing the streets of Port­land wasn't work­ing," Jack Bar­ber says. The brothers re­al­ized they had to change their busi­ness model. While the trucks are still a big part of the busi­ness, ca­ter­ing is a bet­ter way to bring in rev­enue.

The Bar­bers now have a full ca­ter­ing cal­en­dar, and busi­ness has been good enough that they have a restau­rant in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts.

Food trucks are still ap­peal­ing to chefs and en­trepreneurs be­cause they cost less than restau­rants to open — tens of thou­sands of dol­lars ver­sus hun­dreds of thou­sands or more, says John Gor­don, a restau­rant con­sul­tant with Pa­cific Man­age­ment Con­sult­ing Group. That dif­fer­ence was par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, and the cheap menus drew con­sumers who could get unique food for less than at a restau­rant.

But trucks feel less spe­cial to cus­tomers now, par­tic­u­larly in big cities, restau­rant con­sul­tant Clark Wolf says.

'The glory days are over'

"They're no longer a kind of se­cret, mov­able, un­der­ground trea­sure," he says.

The big­gest growth in the in­dus­try is past, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm IBISWorld. It counted 4,046 food trucks in the U.S. last year, nearly twice the num­ber of 2008. But it projects an­nual rev­enue growth of 3 per­cent from 2017 to 2022, com­pared to 7.3 per­cent from 2012 to last year, when rev­enue to­taled nearly $1 bil­lion.

When Gerald and Chizuru Abra­ham started their Ja­panese food truck in Los An­ge­les three years ago, they were un­daunted by the fact that "the glory days are over," Gerald Abra­ham says.

"The heyday when trucks could pull up just about anywhere and build a line in min­utes is noth­ing short of a fan­tasy to us," he says.

But Okamoto Kitchen has been suc­cess­ful, and added a sec­ond truck a year ago, be­cause the cou­ple has cho­sen their menu care­fully. Rather than sushi and tem­pura, they serve meat, fish and sand­wiches us­ing tra­di­tional Ja­panese fla­vors like ponzu.

"To sur­vive, you have to have some sort of unique con­cept," Abra­ham says. The cou­ple also doesn't bring the truck to the same lo­ca­tions too of­ten so cus­tomers won't tire of their cui­sine.

But sell­ing ve­gan pizza daily at the same spot, out­side Buzz Mill, an Austin, Texas, bar and cof­fee house, works for Robbie Lordi.

"We feed their reg­u­lar cus­tomers, so they don't have to leave to eat else­where," says Lordi, who started his truck, Li'l Nonna's, two years ago. It's com­mon for Austin bars with­out their own food oper­a­tions to ar­range with trucks to park nearby.

Lordi also has a reg­u­lar clien­tele, and busi­ness is growing enough that he's con­sid­er­ing adding a truck or open­ing a restau­rant.

Have plans to ex­pand

Find­ing a reg­u­lar place has made Bruce Smith's fried chicken truck, Chick-N-Nooga, a suc­cess — a turn­around from his first food truck, which suc­cumbed to slow win­ter sales in 2013. Now Smith sells to em­ploy­ees of Ama­zon's ware­house in Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee, sev­eral days a week. That meant a 50 per­cent in­crease in rev­enue last month com­pared to May 2017.

"Ama­zon is the rea­son I sur­vived," Smith says. He's now con­sid­er­ing whether to ex­pand, and like Lordi, de­cid­ing whether to do so with an­other truck or a restau­rant.

The own­ers' strug­gles are proof that food trucks re­quire a strat­egy, says Matt Geller, pres­i­dent of the in­dus­try group Na­tional Food Truck As­so­ci­a­tion.

"If your dream is to own one food truck and make money, don't do it," he ad­vises.

Drew Pumphrey also needed a new plan. The first three years for his bar­be­cue truck, The Smok­ing Swine, were tough; win­ters in Bal­ti­more are lean times. But two years ago, Smith's truck was fea­tured on the Food Net­work show, "Din­ers, Drive-ins and Dives," and Pumphrey be­gan get­ting ca­ter­ing or­ders from com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

"Most of that ac­tiv­ity comes through the months when we're not on the road that much, from Novem­ber to March," he says.

Be­ing in the right place at the right time helps. Greg Tillery knew a food truck in New Or­leans could lead to a big­ger busi­ness, but "five years later I never would have guessed in my wildest dreams I would have a restau­rant on Canal Street."

Two years later, the truck, We Dat's, had a line of 60 peo­ple wait­ing for chicken and shrimp at the Bayou Clas­sic, an an­nual foot­ball game be­tween Gram­bling State and South­ern univer­si­ties. Tillery re­al­ized his po­ten­tial — that day led to the open­ing of a We Dat's restau­rant in 2016, and a sec­ond nearly a year ago.

[AP PHO­TOS]

Cus­tomers get their lunch at the Ja­panese food truck Okamoto Kitchen in Bev­erly Hills, Calif. Rather than sushi and tem­pura, they serve meat, fish and sand­wiches us­ing tra­di­tional Ja­panese fla­vors like ponzu.

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