Back in the early 2010s, food trucks had a moment. Trucks slinging everything from Korean barbecue to grilled cheese to crepes to ice cream pops hit the streets of communities across the U.S., capitalizing on low overhead and an increasingly adventurous consumer.
Gradually the trend faded, and operators and consumers alike turned their attention to food halls, brick-and-mortar fast casuals, and ghost kitchens. But food trucks remain a popular niche from coast to coast, and some trucks managed to build loyal followings and, in some cases, a fleet of trucks servicing multiple communities.
That includes Cousins Maine Lobster, which hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2012. Founded by cousins Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac, the lobster-roll truck gained notoriety after appearing on the hit show “Shark Tank” and scoring an investment from Barbara Corcoran. The cousins quickly franchised the concept and grew it to 38 trucks, 11 brick-and-mortar shops, and three units in Taiwan.
Tselikis shares why food trucks continue to be a smart growth opportunity, especially now that COVID-19 has completely upended how brands serve guests.
It gives you flexibility in where you serve
Part of the appeal of food trucks is that they rarely stay in the same parking spot, instead roaming cities in search of crowds, events, and hungry neighborhoods. That flexibility has suddenly become attractive for operators, particularly those located in areas that have watched traffic dry up due to office closures, declining tourism, or other COVID-related reasons.
Tselikis says this is why he and Lomac opted for a truck in the first place, because it gave them the ability to dictate their own future without needing great real estate.
“We can [book] events, find places, think outside the box to create new opportunities for us to sell,” he says. “In the beginning, if you think about a restaurant, you've got to market it so that people come to your restaurant. You’ve got to choose that A+ location. Whereas with the truck, you can go and find people.”
During the pandemic, many brands have gotten creative with their off-premises strategies, finding new ways to take their food straight to the guests. And that’s what food trucks are all about, Tselikis says, with the added benefit of adapting as you go. “You can have a failure one day and then take it somewhere else and make up for that bad day,” he says.
It’s safe and contactless
When dining rooms started to reopen across the U.S. in May and June, restaurant employees suddenly had to become experts in sanitation, social distancing, and enforcing masks. But without dining rooms, food trucks have the luxury of not having to worry as much about those things.
Tselikis says Cousins’ guests have felt safer with the truck experience because they can order and pay through the brand’s mobile app, grab their bagged food through the window, and eat either outside or in the safety of their car or home.
“We've adapted to be less event-driven, less places where there's a lot of people, which is what we used to do for finding customers,” he says. “But … we've built a really strong following and a really recognizable business, and people say, ‘Cousins is down the street in this wide-open parking lot.’ They drive their car down there, and they feel comfortable standing 6, 10, 15 feet away from other people in the fresh air.”
It appeals to franchisees
Cousins was one of the few food trucks to franchise its concept, offering a unique business model for aspiring restaurateurs who either didn’t have the capital or the interest in a full brick-and-mortar concept.
Tselikis says the brand has seen a rise in franchising inquiries since the start of the pandemic, partly because it’s a low-overhead opportunity in a recession and partly because franchisees are recognizing the potential in trucks in a season that has forced the vast majority of foodservice sales to be off-premises.
“We're having an increase in inquiries from people that want to pivot from what they're doing or add on and diversify their businesses and portfolios because they're seeing it; our trucks, in a lot of ways, are billboards to advertise the franchise, because right now you could be a business person looking at what’s next and you go to our truck and you see a lot of people in line or people enjoying their food.”
It’s a fun experience
Most importantly with food trucks today, they can provide a bright spot in an otherwise anxious time. Now that so many consumers are confined to their homes or hesitant to spend much time in busy retail areas, trucks can deliver an enjoyable experience to their neighborhood.
“You can build an experience around a lunch on a Tuesday, or a weekend to get out of the house,” Tselikis says. “And if you say, ‘I'm going down the street a mile to seek out a lobster roll or a chowder that makes me think of my trip to New England, or I've been craving some high-end food,’ guess what? All those high-end restaurants that are super expensive are pretty much closed right now.”
For more from Tselikis on how Cousins Maine Lobster is adapting during the pandemic, stream the podcast above.