Food trucks used to be mostly a Los Angeles phenomenon, but today you can find them in most major metropolitan areas. The original “Korean taco” menus are still a staple in California, but the food-truck concept is, basically, interesting gourmet (or semi-gourmet) food served from a specially equipped truck. It's an alternative to grabbing traditional fast food, or sitting down at a table in a restaurant.
And people seem to love them. Wherever you see a food truck, you're also likely to see lines of people waiting. Many food-truck operators rely on social media — Twitter and/or Facebook usually — to let people know where and when they will be parked and serving. Some customers may even already be there waiting for their favorite food truck to pull up.
“It's a great business,” said Lizzy Caston, who writes food-truck blogs and has worked as a consultant with some operators. “With one (coffee-shop owner in Cleveland) we ran the numbers and saw, 'Oh, we can pay this thing off in eight months,'” she said.
But it's a business that few caterers have chosen to get into at this point — and that may be a mistake.
The new caterer
Bo Kwon is not a caterer — or at least, he wasn't. With a background in marketing and sales (he has worked for Nike and some software companies), Kwon was between jobs and thinking about what he might do next when the idea of food trucks came to him.
He took his parents' traditional Korean recipes and consulted with Roy Choi — the man behind the Korean taco food-truck trend in 2008. Kwon came up with his own recipe, which, he said, “we think is one of the best.”
Two years ago, Kwon put his first KOI Fusion truck on the streets in Portland, Ore. Almost immediately, he got a request to cater a black-tie event, which had three different food trucks and two drink vendors set up just outside a $1 million house, creating a kind of food court.
“We used those pictures and got introduced to Oregon Bride Magazine,” Kwon said. “Ever since that, it's been two to three wedding requests every week. People are hiring us a year ahead of time.”
In short, Kwon is now a bonafide a caterer. “We never expected that people would want a food truck to cater an event,” he said. “Now it has turned into the majority of our business.”
Today, KOI Fusion has three trucks, plus a kiosk, which serves food just like the trucks but in one established place. The commissary (commissaries are the facilities where food trucks are stored overnight, cleaned and stocked) has parking space for the trucks. Currently, food is cooked in the commissary kitchen and then loaded onto the trucks. However, Kwon has a license that allows raw-food preparation on the truck, so he has future flexibility.
Price and novelty were the reasons people initially were drawn to KOI Fusion for catered events. "In the beginning, I was very low in terms of price — I just didn't know what caterers got paid," he said. "I'm structuring it differently now, but we know that we still need to come in lower than a traditional caterer."
Price and novelty were the reasons people initially were drawn to KOI Fusion for catered events. “In the beginning, I was very low in terms of price — I just didn't know what caterers got paid,” he said. “I'm structuring it differently now, but we know that we still need to come in lower than a traditional caterer.”
Kwon said he doesn't think he's competing with full-service, higher-end caterers, but rather with the catering operations run by restaurants and commercial operations, such as big-box stores or supermarkets.
He didn't think he was getting into the catering business, but that's where he is — and it's growing. “The catering side is the side of the business we want to nurture,” Kwon said. “I think we're going to continue to see growth there with events like (football) parties, anniversaries and birthday parties.”
Rules and regulations
Joel Dondis owns Joel Event Catering, a full-service catering operation in New Orleans, La. He also operates a food truck that sells gelato strictly for his dessert shops, Sucré.; He knows the ins and outs of the food-truck business, and he's not sure every caterer can turn it into a moneymaker.
He said it's important to have good weather, and to be in an area that has enough of a population to ensure good sales when your truck is on the street. And the health and legal restrictions can make it difficult to operate a food truck in some areas. In New Orleans, he said, food trucks aren't allowed in some of the busiest areas.
“The most important thing to understand about the truck business is that it's not a sure thing,” Dondis said. “It has its complications, so be conservative in your business model.”
Dondis said he bought a used truck and remodeled it to carry gelato. Altogether, he said, it cost him about $20,000, which he doesn't consider that expensive. Dondis thinks that in a bigger city (New Orleans has a population of about 800,000), a food truck could be a real moneymaker.
A marketing opportunity
Dondis says the gelato truck is great for marketing, and he's gotten business from people who buy from the truck, then come into the store. “If I can get our brand out there in a more unique, grassroots way, it's a benefit,” he said. “You're meeting different people in different locations. With our brand, it's been good.”
A Joy Wallace Catering Production & Design Team in Miami doesn't have a food truck, but the company uses a trailer-mounted smoker to do food truck-style business, said John McPhee, director of marketing.
The smoker, which is about 20 feet long, 9 feet wide and 12 feet tall, was a key piece of equipment for the barbecue division that Joy Wallace launched in November 2009. It can smoke more than 2,000 pounds of meat at once, so it's used mostly for big events and concession sales.
Add a bright yellow, 15-foot banner and park the smoker where people can buy individual barbecue servings, and the company has itself a mobile marketing machine. “It's doing marketing for the picnic division,” said McPhee, “and we've gotten orders for picnics based on people seeing and tasting our ribs.”
The smoker is parked by the commissary on Fridays, at a winery about 25 miles away on Saturdays and in a convenience store parking lot on Sundays. The last site is the most successful, because it's on a busy street and people are already there buying food to take home. They also take the smoker to a local ribfest and are planning to take it to food festivals and other public events.
The smoker is a showpiece, but McPhee said they're not actually cooking the meat on-site when they set up the smoker in public areas. “We throw wood in there so people can smell the aroma of smoke,” he says. “But the food isn't smoked on-site or we'd have to be there eight hours in advance.”
There are a lot of food trucks in Miami, McPhee said, and Joy Wallace didn't see the value in getting into that competition in a big way. “If we thought it would be really profitable, we would have gotten a truck and put graphics on it.” By using the smoker as a pseudo food truck, the company gets a marketing tool without having to make an additional equipment purchase.
Is a food truck in your future?
Food-truck expert Lizzy Caston said the trend is still growing in popularity. “We're seeing four-star Michelin chefs getting into it now,” she said. With a used truck, reasonable regulations and a product that lends itself to street service, a food truck may be a marketing tool that brings in new revenue — and helps fend off the competition.