Before Alicia Powell became a Wetzel’s Pretzels franchisee, she graduated with a political science degree and went on to work in affordable housing for almost 20 years. She owned a fitness studio, which she tragically lost in a fire. She then started helping her friend with a food truck, and it inspired her return to entrepreneurship.
Stories like Powell’s are popping up everywhere in the industry. Brands like Wetzel’s, Cousins Maine Lobster, and Capital Tacos have all realized how much of a growth vehicle food trucks can be.
Having keys and the ability to go anywhere is one of the biggest draws of food trucks, says Wetzel’s CMO Kim Freer. Operators have more flexibility than ever before and can plan their week around where customers are.
“With a food truck, you have to be the mover and shaker,” Freer says. “You are the brand ambassador in your area, and you have to figure out the best place to be in the community.”
Taking a brand on wheels requires more trial and error than traditional models, but potential franchisees gravitate towards the increased mobility and creation of their own schedules. It can be a full-time gig or a weekend side hustle.
Wetzel’s has 20 mobile bakeries on the road, with plans to double its franchise fleet by the end of 2023. The chain wants to expand from coast to coast, matching opportunities to the right franchise partner.
The Access to Equity program, spearheaded by Wetzel’s, is bridging the gap of female and minority representation in its franchisees. The initiative is meant to help people like Powell take the keys and jumpstart their careers in the restaurant industry.
Brands have also noticed an uptick in demand for food trucks from both franchisees and consumers. Cousins Maine Lobster, mostly a mobile concept, emphasizes the food truck experience.
“We go where our customers are, and it’s a very unique experience,” says Annie Tselikis, Cousins Maine Lobster’s director of marketing and franchise sales. “We’re able to provide unique food items to people in a variety of different markets.”
Cousins Maine Lobster’s food truck menu is optimized for efficiency, with items like fried clams saved for brick-and-mortar locations. This enables the team to quickly turn around tickets, adding a heightened level of convenience for customers.
While traditional locations were shuttered during the pandemic, the seafood concept kept moving. Its mobile app supported food truck sales as vehicles delivered fresh lobster rolls to neighborhoods in a socially distant manner.
Food trucks have also thrived in a post-pandemic environment where real estate is scarce and costs are at an all-time high.
“You could launch multiple trucks for the same price as one brick-and-mortar location,” says Angela Coppler, head of development for Cousins Maine Lobster. “Not only that, but it will ultimately generate more revenues and more profits.”
The initial investment for a truck is around $250,000, compared to million-dollar traditional locations. For a franchised Cousins Maine Lobster food truck, AUV is $1.4 million.
Adjustability and ease of entry have proved attractive for prospective operators, but so have lower labor costs.
Earlier this summer, Capital Tacos unveiled food trucks as a new franchise opportunity. During a time when staff is increasingly hard to find, these vehicles come equipped with a kiosk ordering system that can be operated by a single person.
The Tex-Mex brand is offering traditional restaurant formats, static trailers, and mobile trailers. Prospective operators can mix and match.
“In today’s world, giving people the option of different entry points makes a more flexible model,” says Josh Luger, co-founder of Capital Tacos. “We’re seeing people who are choosing to combine different elements.”
Like Cousins Maine Lobster, Capital Tacos reduced its mobile menu. The traditional one has over 100 menu items, but the food truck’s offerings have been slimmed down to the favorites: chips and queso, queso bites, tacos, and burritos.
Technology allows mobile trailers to streamline operations even further. The kiosks take customers’ orders and feed them back to the operator. Customers are notified when the order is ready.
The inclusion of technology has not detracted from the customer experience, notes Coppler. It’s a representation of the current trends in the industry.
“The digital order and mobile app are very relevant experiences within the food truck,” Coppler says. “We are seeing [those things] drive sales and increase average checks. It is a big piece of what is going on in the restaurant business right now.”
With brands like Wetzel’s growing their food truck numbers twofold, the mobile movement is likely to become more common as legacy chains continue to find creative ways to level up brand recognition. Franchisees are more likely to become multi-unit operators and shrink the brand’s physical footprint.
“We’ve seen multiple owners, corporate included, that see how great the demand is,” Freer says. “So, they’re adding a second and third truck in a territory … creating a greater scale and bigger business.”
Operators like Alicia Powell, with dreams of entering franchising but not sure where to start, are attracted to the lower risks of food trucks. She frames it as an introduction to the franchise world.
Her advice for potential franchisees?
“Do it,” Powell says. “If you are thinking about it, do not think twice. Try it.”