Special Report | April 2014 | By Daniel P. Smith

What Ever Happened to Food Trucks?

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Food trucks evolve quick service restaurant industry with innovative trends.
Cofounder Natasha Case has turned her popular food truck Coolhaus into a major food and retail player.
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A significant impact, a strategic future

This, of course, is not to suggest that food trucks are on the verge of falling into any abyss. According to a report from Intuit, food trucks are expected to be a $2.7 billion industry by 2017. Moreover, food trucks have been an unmistakable force injecting the industry with some much-needed dynamic energy.

“Food trucks made the food industry sexy again,” Naude says.

Young chefs and culinary newcomers used trucks to push food in novel directions, such as authentic global dishes, fusion cuisine that merged ethnic flavors, and sustainable, farm-to-table offerings. Able to take greater culinary risks given that they were not married to a particular menu, food truck operators propelled an evolution in food culture and posed a healthy challenge to restaurants, which explored the streets for examples of culinary ingenuity. Some of the more successful food trucks, including Coolhaus and Slapfish, began opening brick-and-mortar spots, further enlivening the restaurant scene and heightening industry development.

“When the underdog began posing a challenge, it made many restaurants dig deeper,” Case says.

Food trucks also pushed the restaurant industry on the technological front. Uniquely tied to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, now ubiquitous marketing tools in the arsenal of brick-and-mortar outlets, food trucks simultaneously expedited the spread of advance ordering and mobile POS, compelling the industry to view customer interfacing through a new lens.

“These technologies might have been developed with trucks in mind, but restaurants quickly found their value,” Case says.

Then, as is prone to happen as the marketplace continues turning, a funny thing happened: Brick-and-mortar restaurants, once staunch enemies with food trucks, began investing in trucks of their own, seeing the mobile kitchens as a great way to expand their brand and market reach in an inefficient, cost-effective way. Established quick serves such as Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, and Qdoba had trucks patrolling the streets, while various independent operations also put their brand onto four wheels.

“Food trucks became a two-sided coin,” Jackson says.

As making a living in the food truck space alone becomes a more challenging proposition, many foresee the food truck becoming the means to an end rather than the end itself. A truck, for instance, might help build buzz around a brand with demos and samples, capture catering opportunities, and function as one piece of a broader brand strategy that might include a brick-and-mortar restaurant, wholesale distribution, or a more well-rounded, effective catering business.

The food truck scene remains alive, yet it is increasingly being positioned in this new light. Entrepreneurs, many industry insiders say, will continue to enter the market with trucks, but do so with a more strategic business plan in hand. The truck will allow individuals to test their concept, build an identity, and generate critical insights on location, menu, and pricing before moving forward with a more elaborate investment of time and money.

Burmeister estimates that in Portland, about one third of the city’s newest food carts are already doing just that: entering the market with a business plan and a strategic vision, rather than merely a whimsical dream and a few tasty recipes.

“These folks believe they’re going to be successful and have a plan they’re committed to,” says Burmeister, joking that he now receives press releases announcing the debut of new carts and trucks, a once unthinkable, even comical, concept.

Many of these upstart food trucks will be looking to follow the path of Slapfish, which turned its 10-month food truck run in the O.C. into a burgeoning brick-and-mortar concept that aims to have eight units in operation by the middle of 2015.

With the Slapfish truck, Naude fine-tuned his concept’s seafood menu, trained staff, penetrated the market, and studied potential brick-and-mortar sites. More importantly, though, he leveraged that successful 2011 truck campaign to secure the necessary financial backing for a physical restaurant. Once he signed the first commercial lease, a spot in Huntington Beach, California, he immediately returned the food truck to his leasing dealer.

“We got in and got out,” Naude says. “As I see it, the food truck is a home run from the marketing standpoint, but from a financial standpoint, it’s just there.”

Throughout late 2011 and early 2012, then, Naude chronicled Slapfish’s journey from food truck to brick-and-mortar restaurant on social media. When the fast-casual eatery opened in April 2012, fans lined up around the block.

“We didn't open up hoping we would have customers,” Naude says. “They were there waiting for us.”

Existing concepts, meanwhile, seem ready to continue embracing food trucks as a worthwhile brand extension traveling to pre-planned events that allow the operation to put out a limited menu and efficiently manage its use of goods and labor. It’s a marketing vehicle, not the sole source of income; it’s used strategically and sparingly, not rolling down the streets on a daily basis.

Naude, in fact, is contemplating resurrecting the Slapfish truck, utilizing it as a roving billboard for the brand focused exclusively on catering and special events.

“When you’re able to go to specific private events, you can get paid up front, know the numbers you need to hit, and avoid the bureaucracy. That makes the truck more appealing than if it was the prime source of revenue and, from my vantage point, that’s what makes the most sense,” Naude says.

For Jackson, the veteran Texas Restaurant Association CEO who watched distinct food truck climates emerge in cities such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the rise and repositioning of food trucks is a familiar tale of change, of entrepreneurial evolution and marketplace transformation.

“The restaurant industry is one that’s always in transition and food trucks are experiencing that right now,” Jackson says.

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