Food trucks comprise the trifecta of fast food – unique, mobile and culturally diverse. Granted, there isn’t a drive-thru, but walking 15 yards from your vehicle isn’t physically taxing. There is also the appeal of social interactions with other customers/fans.
Although the food truck movement has been in motion around the country for about a decade, Sacramento, California didn’t enter the arena until three years ago. Its first event at Fremont Park attracted 10,000 people. Clearly, Sacramento had been biting at the bit, so to speak.
Food truck curious, I asked Paul Somerhausen, Director of Sacramento Mobile Food aka “SactoMoFo” about this growing entrepreneurial community. This informative conversation provides insight to those considering opening this small business.
I remember local restaurants initially feeling threatened by the potential loss of business.
A lot of restaurants had concerns, and rightfully so, that a truck would park right outside their door and try to hijack their established customer base. The reality, though, is that it doesn’t make sense for either business to do that. Trucks have their own following. They’re very active on social media. Thus, they attract customers that otherwise probably wouldn’t be coming to that corner.
Sacramento is different than a lot of cities. San Francisco, for example, is vertically based. It’s very hard to find a corner where you can park close to a restaurant. Sacramento has a lot of food desert areas — state buildings without proper food support — so in that sense, that threat doesn’t exist.
Having said that, the City of Sacramento has not resolved this issue in an appropriate way. We’ve been working with them for over three years now to try and make changes to current legislation. Despite a lot of goodwill and over a dozen meetings, nothing has changed yet. There’s hope, as there will always remain some, but it’s been very difficult to find legislation that meets everybody’s criteria.
What’s the specific issue?
If you follow the letter of the law, you cannot restrict food trucks from parking in front of restaurants. You can restrict where food trucks park based on public safety concerns. For example, they can’t park across the street from a school, because that could potentially lead to kids running across a busy street. You can tell them not to park too close to an intersection because they’re so large, they block the view. Any place where there’s not proper ADA or a proper surface area on a sidewalk may create access issues. Those are all acceptable reasons.
However, to say you cannot park within “X” amount of feet within a restaurant is restraint of trade, and restraint of trade is unconstitutional. That’s not the government’s role. As long as you follow the rules, have the proper permits and required documentation, local governments cannot tell you where you can and cannot do business, as long as it doesn’t interfere with public safety. The big clause the city has wanted is some type of protection for restaurants. But, the city attorney has told them very clearly you can’t legally add that to legislation, because if somebody were to sue on that, they would win. So, we’re sort of in a stalemate. How do you find legislation that makes the trucks, restaurants and city attorney happy and, yet, still meets the objectives of giving somewhat of a buffer to restaurants?
I’ve noticed that a couple of restaurants have actually branched out into food trucks.
Correct, and I think you’ll see more of that trend. Most restaurants, when they can branch out, open a second restaurant, do catering, but, here, you have an opportunity to branch out in a different way. I suppose you could open restaurants at every corner, but that’s a significant financial investment, where for a relatively modest amount by restaurant business standards, you can have a mobile unit that serves for catering, revenue on days when you otherwise may be slow in the restaurant. More restaurants are becoming aware of that. I believe that’s a good thing.
In my mind, food trucks are an incubator. They offer an inspiring entrepreneur an opportunity, if considering opening a restaurant, to test their concept, test their ability to run a restaurant. Very few, if any, food truck owners are looking at owning one food truck and being solely focused on that for the rest of their foreseeable future. A food truck is a stepping stone to a second food truck, to a restaurant, to multiple restaurants, if you’re following the philosophy right. A food truck has serious limitations. Its kitchen is the size of an RV kitchen, roughly. You can only cook so much. You can only put out so much product. You can’t sell alcohol, you can’t sell appetizers. So, you’re hoping and praying that the four or five items you have on your menu are moving fast enough that you can do a high amount of revenue to make a living. It’s not a long term plan of success. You need more than one.
Yes. The restaurant industry, perhaps more than any other industry, is unforgiving. About 80 percent of restaurants fail in the first three years. Food trucks are no different. We’ve seen a number of trucks already come and go. What sets the food truck industry apart, is that you can start one with no background in the food industry. It just puts you at a higher risk of failing, because a lot of people watch The Food Network and have been told by their friends and family that they’re great barbecuers, pizza makers or lasagna makers, and they think, well, I can do this. I can make a business out of this.
The TV shows make it look like it’s very simple and it just isn’t, particularly the reality of the dedication and sacrifice you have to make to be in this industry. You’re looking at six to seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours daily, when you’re engaged in some capacity with your business. Your return on the investment is relatively slim compared to all of the time, effort and risk. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. A lot of people come in thinking, “I only have to work two hours at lunch and then I work three hours at dinner, and I’m going to make all this money.” It just isn’t like that. There are food costs, staff costs, finding staff, finding spots where you can be successful, narrowing down your concepts to winning food opportunities. In a food truck, you can’t have a menu of 30 different items. You have to have four to five items at the most, and you have to hope that of those, there’s two that really stick with your customers and they follow you loyally. That’s where you’re going to make your bread and butter. You have to keep tweaking until you figure out what works — price points, spots, demographics, what area of town, which dish does well. Surprisingly — to me, at least — was that in certain parts of town, certain trucks do better and other trucks do not. There is a lot of guess work.
There’s no “Dummies” guide on how to be a successful food truck owner. People have to come up with their own concept. You can’t buy a map for where you can park. You have to find spots five or six days a week, and hope that you get the volume you need to be successful.
I’ve noticed that, not only are they in parks, but they’re also in parking lots, and some of the park and recreation branches are hosting specific food truck events or are including them in others. But, how do you follow individual trucks?
Most trucks have both Facebook and Twitter, and maybe Instagram, accounts, and most of them do a pretty decent job keeping you updated on where they’re going to be in the foreseeable future. My experience with Facebook is puzzling, because every time you sort of figure out the metrics, they change them just enough to where you have to figure out to engage consumers again. But, I find it to be a valuable tool within its limitations. Eventually, Facebook’s days will end, so I already have worked on Plans B and C, expanding our reach.
Do you belong or interact with other food truck organizations?
I occasionally talk with some of my colleagues within the State of California, because each market is very different — different set of rules, customers, food preferences. Food trucks are pretty local. Trucks successful in San Francisco are likely not to be as much here, and vice versa. The Sacramento palate is quite different. It likes comfort foods — burgers, grilled cheese, barbecue, bacon — things that are delicious, but are recognizable.
Desserts, too, I’ve noticed.
Yes, sweets are very popular here, but, people are particular about them. Ninety-five plus degrees becomes a really good day for shaved ice, but a bad day for gelato. Eighty-five to ninety-five degrees is really good for gelato, but not so good for shaved ice. We have a Belgian waffle truck which is very popular. The truck itself is unique and their product is very high end.
At events when there’s eight, ten, twelve trucks, you have between two and six seconds — as long as it takes someone to walk by you — to capture that customer. You capture them in a couple of ways. One: your truck should scream what your product is. If it’s very subtle and has a very clever name, but you can’t see what is being sold, the next truck is going to say, “Burgers,” in really big letters, which will capture them.
Visual aid is helpful.
Visual is the key and, unfortunately, some trucks don’t think of that. The design, the wrap, is expensive.
Two: If your menu is done by your 6-year-old kid and is barely legible, you’ve just lost an opportunity to get the customer close. You see some trucks that have these difficult-to-read menus with a lot of variables. Your menu should be legible by somebody with poor eyesight from ten feet away. You only have one opportunity in this 45-second interaction.
What was your personal path that led you to the role of promoting the mobile food truck movement in Sacramento?
I’ve been promoting local restaurants for the last ten years with a separate group that I manage and my concept with that is to expose restaurants which do a really good job at cooking, but perhaps don’t do a good job at marketing. I think the greatest treasure we have in Sacramento is our food offerings. We have upwards of 100 different cultures living together. About half of them offer original cooking and a lot of those are fantastic opportunities to eat authentic food from a country on the other side of the world, often at a really good value. Yet, most people when they think of Stockton Boulevard, they get a little nervous because it’s not the best neighborhood, or at least it’s not perceived that way. When you look down that street, there are dozens of restaurants. How do you know which ones are good? Language can be an issue because the owners don’t even speak English. As a consumer, that can be intimidating because, it’s not clear what’s being offered to you. If tripe shows up on your plate, and you weren’t ready for that, it can be a little shocking.
So, about 10 years ago, I started doing smaller restaurant promotions. I set up dinners and encouraged people to try these different ethnic restaurants and smaller Mom and Pop type places.
Through that, I partnered with a friend of mine and we did a taco truck tour of Sacramento and I was really impressed with what they offered. They made us aware of the fact that they weren’t allowed to be downtown, according to the regulatory environment that exists. That really bothered us. We started talking about how we could change that; how could we raise awareness about these really good food offerings that are being basically told that they’re not welcome in the city of Sacramento. That led to the first food truck festival.
They’re very active in fundraising events, too.
We have a number of partners that we work with regularly – Loaves and Fishes, Sacramento Food Bank, Shriner’s Hospital – that we try to engage with, because I do believe strongly in having a social conscience. There’s definitely a lack of social infrastructure for those least fortunate and I believe that businesses, particularly those that are successful enough to do well, bear a little bit of that responsibility of helping. Part of our mission has been to make sure that we regularly partner with non-profits and organizations in town that are trying to help those that are less fortunate; particularly with a focus on kids and homelessness. We provide these fantastic meal opportunities to people who are able to afford it. I feel it’s necessary to balance that to afford those same opportunities to those who can’t. As a small, local business owner, I think it’s part of your responsibility and duty to the local community that supports you.
Life is a circle.
I couldn’t agree more.
We’re also fortunate to be near so many agricultural areas. Have you seen any food trucks that are strictly vegan or vegetarian?
There are a few, but much like exotic foods, vegetarian and vegan items are a very small part of the food market. In a food truck, having only so much refrigeration and cooking space, it can become challenging. I’ve seen some trucks experiment, but I haven’t seen anyone do well enough to keep that on a menu on a regular basis.
You have such a slim opportunity of time — two hours during lunch and dinner — to make money. If you’re selling $3, $4 items, they better turn quickly. You need high volume. You can only serve about 100 customers per hour under optimal conditions. If you’re only averaging $5 or $7 per customer, and if you multiply that by two hours, by the time you pay all of your expenses, there’s not enough left over to make a living. It has to have broad appeal and an opportunity to have a broad enough margin to be successful with it. Micro-targeted foods are difficult, because you are excluding a lot of your audience. If you offer hot dogs, you want to make sure that there are at least six to seven variants to your hot dog. You can add bacon, spinach or whatever is your fancy, but it’s still a hot dog. You upsell it based on the sides and variations. That’s a way you can spike your prices and make a little bit more. People will compare it to a brick-and-mortar store.
Speaking of narrow niches, what do you think about the proposed pot themed food truck?
I think it’s clever. I frankly don’t know how that would do here. We discovered quickly that our audience is young families. I don’t know if that would mix well with our demographic.
From an event perspective, it would be intriguing, because the known side effects of those products is that you get very hungry. From a financial perspective, it makes a lot of sense.