It’s been 10 years since the food truck craze took off across the U.S., yet it’s far from reaching its maximum potential. Over 70 percent of Americans would make a purchase from a food truck if they recognized the brand, but only 15 percent of the top 200 quick-service restaurants have figured out how to go mobile. So how do brick-and-mortar restaurants take advantage of this movement that’s still in its infancy?
Brands need to think of the entire delivery platform, from A to Z. It’s not only about creating a unique food cart, but also about developing a robust business strategy for deployment and to drive sales—from the cart’s aesthetic and menu to the real estate strategy, permitting, marketing, and more.
Focus on the customer experience
The first step is to determine if your restaurant can translate to the streets while still maintaining the customer experience you deem important. While it won’t be the exact same experience as in your brick-and-mortar locations, there needs to be some resemblance in order to attract and retain existing customers. Operators should create a list of the most important parts of the brand experience—the non-negotiables—that they want to convey via their mobile presence and determine if it’s feasible to do so sustainably.
Develop a menu
If a mobile strategy seems like a fit, the next step is to determine the menu. For most restaurants, it’s impossible to serve everything, regardless of complexity. Food trucks and carts are small—some have only 50 square feet of enclosed kitchen space—so there’s limited inventory you can keep on board. Think about what your best-selling items are and what you can serve from a cart without losing the quality and brand value customers have come to expect. For example, when Le Pain Quotidien wanted to launch a cart, they decided to focus on the brand’s popular avocado toast and a select few specialty beverages. Dunkin’s new cart is beverage-focused, so it was important to make sure that every cup of coffee poured at the cart was the same as in its brick-and-mortar locations. For others, they have used their carts to launch new products as a pop-up restaurant or an experiential marketing campaign.
Identify your target real estate
Once the pieces begin to come together, it’s then time to think about where the cart should operate to reach the most customers and what permits will be needed. Many brands will want to capture additional business at community events and in public spaces like parks and business districts where there isn’t an opportunity for them to have a brick-and-mortar location. But other brands place a cart outside their business during remodels and temporary closures. With a mobile strategy in place, there’s no reason to lose business. The most exciting opportunity is to develop the “white space” where a brick-and-mortar solution doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.
Spread the word
As most operators know, the saying “If you build it, they will come” is rarely true without effective PR and marketing. Leverage any communications vehicles in your existing restaurant—in-store signage, email communications, social media, app push notifications, your employees, etc.—to promote the cart and where it will be in the coming weeks. As word of mouth spreads, your customer base will grow. Be sure to be clear in your communications as to where you will be, what hours, and any other pertinent information, like what you’re serving that day in the case of a rotating menu. Last but not least is to leverage your existing loyalty programs across all platforms to increase participation and the network effect.
Consider expanding your fleet
If the inaugural food cart is a success and there’s infrastructure in place to grow, consider expanding your fleet. Today’s POS and GPS technology makes integrating and managing multiple mobile carts simple. Some brands have been so successful that they have needed to deploy more just to keep up with demand from local events wanting their presence.
So, while food trucks and carts have been popular for over a decade, now is just as exciting a time as ever to take advantage of the immense white space in the market and reach new customers. You may actually find that mobile is as important to your business strategy as catering, loyalty programs, and LTOs in driving traffic and sales.
James Meeks is CEO of MOVE Systems, a turnkey mobile cart—referred to as the "Cadillac of Food Carts" by The Wall Street Journal—that has helped franchisors like Dunkin' and Nathan's Famous, as well as countless independent operators, have a cost-efficient, mobile presence to reach customers outside of their brick-and-mortar stores.