Flatbread Grill, sweetFrog,The Boneyard Truck discuss the money-making ‘chaos’ of food trucks

If the restaurant industry were called on to develop a catchphrase for 2018, it might well be something like “Oh no, don’t get up, we’ll come to you.” Taking it to the people is the name of the game this year, with brands like Domino’s now delivering to people in parks, some brands are starting their own fleets, while third-party services are busier than ever. And then there are those fast-multiplying food trucks.

These restaurants on wheels have gained near-cult status in and outside the foodie world. As a result, more brands — mainstream and otherwise — are venturing onto the rolling restaurant range, while many of the brands that started life on the road have grown to Rock Star status, with fans that follow their schedules like groupies. Some of those rolling phenoms were on hand for a lively and fascinating hour-long session at the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky.

The three-brand panel included soft-serve chain, sweetFrog and its Director of Franchise Marketing and Development Shemar Pucel, as well as Flatbread Grill co-founder and CMO Gonca Esendemir and The Boneyard Truck owner/chef, Rich Mainzer. Moderating the fast-moving conversation was Fast Casual Editor Cherryh Cansler, leading an array of topic discussions punctuated by the kind of owner/operator sincerity that was both refreshing and revealing. Here then, are some of the highlights and fun from that panel.

Q: How did your brands begin, or begin food truck operations and what types of venues are they focused on?

Boneyard: Well, first I think mobile food may be the way of the future because of the cost of real estate now, in San Francisco especially. But we’re a barbecue [concept] and ... we actually went to a junkyard and find our truck for about $8,000. It now has more than a million miles on it. ...

I’ve come to find in food trucks, there’s an incredible amount of passion with operators who are willing to do whatever it takes to get into foodservice. ... So with us, and that $8,000 [truck], we took to streets. ... Now we’ve been seven years in the business, now with two trucks. ... But I heard mentioned this morning, “chaos” and that is definitely what we’re in, in food trucking. It’s not for the faint of heart I’ll tell you that.

Flatbread:I agree with you Rich, that it’s not for the faint of heart. ... There are so many moving parts. There are in brick-and-mortar [operation] too, but the moving parts in mobile events is amazing. ... You really need a system in place [for handling food trucks at events] because they pose a unique set of challenges.

Events are more challenging than in a brick-and-mortar operation [which Flatbread also operates]. ... A lot of store staff gets overwhelmed, so we’re learning to find specific event staff that can handle that.

sweetFrog:We launched [event] catering this year too ... with self-serve trucks. They make it easy and simplify the business model. But one thing is different for our mobile operations - everything is a flat rate with 5-, 6- and 8-ounce cups, so that does help.
On the catering front, franchisees have said it took a while to learn how to pre-pour product and freeze for an hour so customers get a great non-icy [serving].

Q: How do you handle your catering operations in trucks?

Boneyard:What it boils down to is having a system. So like we mentioned that word “chaos”? ... CAOS is our word for it - Cater America Operating System ... it’s our system ... and we migrate all the information from our POS there to track inventory. ...

We have two full-time trucks and we have access to three others ... because, you know, more food trucks means more food truckers.

Q: What and how do you use your unit/s in your down-times?

Boneyard: We brought ours to the hospital and the first time we did that we had lines around the building.

Flatbread:In New Jersey, there are a lot of developments there where if you bring your food trucks there for their residents they’ll pay you a flat fee for a couple of hours. That’s a really great opportunity I’ve really wanted to do. ...

Like with brick-and-mortar [stores] you kind of have to pull people in and it’s becoming much more competitive. But I love that with mobile, it’s like here’s my brand - here’s what I do.”

Q: At events do people just automatically come to you or do you have to draw them in too in some ways?

Flatbread: It’s interesting, because you think at events, you’re surrounded by thousands of people and you think they’ll just flock to your truck. But the first event we did, I realized people don’t know who we are.  ... So, I displayed the food nicely and thought that would attract people, but that didn’t work. ...

In-store, our marketing is very minimal, but when I put things [in food trucks] then were very “in your face.” It is different to market in the streets than with brick-and-mortar, and I didn’t necessarily understand that in the beginning.

Q: What about your marketing efforts?

sweetFrog: On social media we ... show a lot of pictures and videos and people having fun. ....  The truck’s a big think because it’s big and pink and green, too. ... We also partner with colleges and universities and give 10 to 20 percent back to the school.

Boneyard:Local search is certainly big ... and barbecue has a season, so we tap into the seasonality of that and we market for when our food, when people are buying barbecue. We target that.

We also do use our truck as a marketing tool to do more catering. ... It’s black and rust and has a forged metal look. Like (they will cater an event for) California’s largest cemeterian ... who understands the irony of bringing Boneyard to what they do.

Flatbread: In the [slow times] ... we do indoor events. ... It’s pretty much a great way to get through the winter. These are set events with things like $5 bites. It’s like a mobile food hall and I really love that and think that’s going to blow up.

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