Takin’ it to the Streets

For SGR clients Yumbii and Honeysuckle Gelato, food trucks are all about mobile marketing.

As a child growing up in Memphis in the 1970s, the term “food truck” meant just one thing to me: a Pronto Pup trailer at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Today, food trucks have become a way for culinary artists to bring their unique offerings out of traditional restaurants and onto the streets of major cities.

Interest in food trucks began to surge in 2008. While the food industry sector as a whole struggled during the recession, the food truck industry continued to grow, in part due to the economic downturn. Consumers saw food trucks as a way to splurge on gourmet food without breaking the bank. Spurred on by a growing number of trucks, unique cuisine and television shows such as Cooking Channel’s Eat St. and Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, food trucks have grown to an $800 million business in the U.S., with prospects for continued growth.

“Food trucks are a low-cost, accessible way for aspiring food entrepreneurs to launch their products,” explains Tara Berman, the founder and managing partner of TaraPaige Group (tarapaige.com), a New York-based business advisor to the hospitality industry. “Launching a food truck could be 1/10th the cost of opening a retail brick-and-mortar store. A food truck becomes a mobile marketing vehicle – literally – that is very visible in every way.”

In fact, food trucks have become so much a part of modern Americana that, as announced by President Obama in March, the U.S. will participate in Expo Milano 2015, and will feature at the U.S. Pavilion an area called “Food Truck Nation,” which will showcase food truck-style kiosks serving foods from different regions.

Why own a food truck?

For some businesses, food trucks are a great way to bring to the masses the food of a local restaurant or catering business. Thus, for Honeysuckle Gelato (honeysucklegelato.com), which features a popular sea-salted caramel gelato, bourbon pecan gelato (a finalist in the 2014 Flavor of Georgia contest) and other frozen treats, “the food truck was a way of introducing our brand, establishing a business and having direct interaction with the end consumer,” explains owner Wes Jones. “Our ultimate goal is to be a major wholesaler, and the food truck allowed us to cash-flow our business while establishing an identity and allowing people to try our products.” In other instances, the food truck is the business. One of Atlanta’s most popular food trucks is Yumbii (yumbii.com), which brings fish tacos, sesame fries and other Asian-Mexican fusion dishes to the streets of Atlanta. There is no Yumbii restaurant – just two Yumbii trucks appearing at Atlanta-area office parks, malls, colleges and universities, and fairs and festivals.

It’s not as easy as it looks

While operating a food truck may seem like a fairly simple proposition, it actually implicates a wide range of business and legal issues, not the least of which is navigating the complexities of city, county and state requirements for business, health and vending licensure/permitting. And as with any business, brand security, through domain name protection and state and federal trademark registration, is essential. “We wanted to create a brand with the goal of becoming a major presence in Atlanta, then the Southeast and, potentially, across the country,” explains Jones. “With this in mind, our top priority became protecting our brand and we quickly found out that this process was much more challenging than we ever thought it could be. Applying for trademarks was a process we could not have navigated without SGR. We feel that through our work with SGR we have protected our brand to the best of our ability.”

One of the most difficult issues for food truck operators is operating in a local regulatory climate that is not always friendly to food trucks. Only in March of this year did the Atlanta City Council pass an ordinance creating a pilot program to allow food trucks on public property, and then only in 18 designated areas of the city. If successful, the program will likely be expanded to other areas.

The ability to sell on public property is important because other venues, such as food truck parks, have met with mixed reviews. “Food truck parks work well in some cities, but have struggled in Atlanta,” explains Carson Young, owner of Yumbii. “We are so spread out here, and driving and parking are a problem.”

Getting the word out

Food trucks thrive on social media to spread the word about their product offerings. “Social media plays a vital role in the food truck phenomena,” Berman explains. “Foodies who base their next meal on what’s hot, what’s new and what’s trending find out about the next new product through social media. This online sharing and following of where the food truck will be today and what’s on the menu is what the foodie lives for.”

Thus, Yumbii followers can find Yumbii trucks  on the Yumbii web site or via Facebook. Yumbii also touts a global Twitter following. And Honeysuckle Gelato has used social media to promote contests for creating and naming new flavors of gelato and sorbet, and to advertise weekly specials – all with the goal of getting customers to keep coming back.

So, what’s next for the food truck industry? According to Berman, tighter regulations have made life more difficult for food truck operators in places such as New York City, although operators in other cities continue to benefit from fewer regulations and the food truck buzz emanating from New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Both Jones and Young see TV and movie set catering as a developing opportunity. As Berman observes, “Food trucks will continue to be a great marketing resource for new products and new and existing chefs.”