What makes a winning food truck strategy?

Operators are taking meals on wheels to a new level.

food truck graphic

The booming food truck scene of the last decade has operators considering how the trend could work at their campus or company.

“A food truck is really just restaurant that can go to the customer instead of trying … to entice the customer to come to it,” says Steve Rall, general manager for Bon Appetit at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., which operates a coffee cart and food truck called the Soaring Eagle. According to the 2014 FoodService Director Big Picture survey, 26 percent of college operators have one or more trucks on campus.

We tapped operators who have rolled out their own trucks and carts—which according to operators account for between 1 and 7 percent of total sales—to break down the key best practices for success.

1. Menu board

Chalkboards, dry-erase boards and poster-quality signage printed through a school or company’s marketing department are popular choices. Two of University of California Riverside’s food trucks employ digital menu screens specially designed to work outdoors. “We’ve seen a lot of food-truck operators using a typical TV monitor that they buy at a big-box store … [which aren’t] outdoor-rated devices,” says David Henry, senior director of dining services at Riverside, who operates the school’s three trucks (The Culinary Chameleon, The Moo Moo Truck and Bear Tracks Coffee Truck); a fourth, The Highlander, launching this fall. “On a bright sunny day, it’s all washed out; it’ll just cook in the sun and [the screens] don’t last long.”

2. Name and design

Many noncommercial operators are emulating restaurant food trucks by selecting catchy names and colorful designs for their truck’s exterior, so they’re easy to spot on the go and generate buzz A cheeky name or funky design can also spur social media buzz. "You see a lot of people coming up to the trucks for a sake of just taking a picture of them for social media," says Moses Preciado, operations manager of food trucks at UC Riverside. "There's a cool factor with the design of it." UC Riverside's trucks share one Twitter account (@ucrfoodtrucks) and staffers uses hashtags to promote the individual trucks (#moomootruck, for example) on Twitter and Instagram. 

3. Refrigeration

Under-counter refrigeration units are common, but noncommercial operators should think bigger if serving a large volume. “Very few food trucks have a full size reach-in, let alone a three-door reach-in [like we have],” Moses Preciado says of The Culinary Chameleon. “We keep a lot of bottled drinks cold in there, and we have to carry a lot of refrigerated items [such as] lettuce, cheese, salsa.”

4. Cooking equipment

“Build it to be flexible, [as] there will be a lot of demand to feature the truck at different types of events on campus,” says Adam Coats, assistant director of campus dining and shops at University of Buffalo, of its Big Blue food truck. A 36-inch flat top grill is standard truck gear; the Culinary Chameleon went with a 42-inch griddle to increase capacity, Preciado said. Two 40-pound fryers and two dump stations also were added to accommodate the truck’s No. 1 seller: fries.

5. Holding equipment

If you forgo cooking on board altogether and instead sell grab-and-go items prepared in a commissary, a hot box will keep products toasty. The Culinary Chameleon has a full-size hot box to store rice, beans and a batch of chopped meat. “We really need to have the back-ups ready to go,” Preciado says. 

6. Beverage cooler

Cooler bins mounted on the outside of the truck below the service window hold ice and bottled or canned drinks. “In [The Culinary Chameleon’s] drink bin, we can fit seven cases of 20 drinks,” Preciado says. That capacity means there’s no need to refill during lunch service and only one restock is required during dinner.

7. Point-of-sale system

Most mainstream food trucks keep point-of-sale streamlined using cellular technology—a smartphone-enabled or tablet POS such as Square—and a wireless router. But a secure network or other safeguard is necessary? to meet requirements to accept school or company meal plans, or credit cards, says Henry. 

8. More bells and whistles

The food truck crew at UC Riverside has tricked out its fleet with features including air conditioners to keep staff cool while working inside, back-up and security cameras and a goose-neck microphone with marine-grade Bose speakers to broadcast orders. Slanted terrain also can necessitate a hydraulic leveling system. “A lot of traditional equipment from a kitchen is never meant to be on an angle,” says Henry. “It’s never intended to be moved, hustled and jostled, and some of those pieces of equipment don’t work very well unless they are perfectly level.”

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