April 30, 2014 at 8:00 AM
Economic Development Director
Last Friday was the seasonal debut of Street Eats, a food truck event sponsored by the Fremont Chamber of Commerce. Over the next few months, a rotating list of trucks selling everything from Korean barbecue to cupcakes to ceviche will descend on Capitol Avenue, Fremont’s future Main Street, every Friday from 4:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. We’ve blogged before about the important role this event plays in creating community. However, in spite of the growing popularity of food trucks, there are still lingering concerns about competition with “brick and mortar” establishments. We recognize the sensitivity, but having given this much thought, we’d like to present a case for the food truck.
1. Food trucks function as retail incubators.
Let’s face it. Starting a restaurant is expensive, and survival statistics are grim. We’ve watched many family restaurants (and large chains as well) succumb, based on high costs, small margins, and changing customer desires. We believe that food concepts should be able to incubate in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the owner’s home mortgage. Food trucks offer a lower-risk method of testing menu items, and help establish a reputation and customer base. One local success story is Curry Up Now – a thriving restaurant with three Bay Area locations that started on the road.
2. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!
Increasingly, food establishments are taking a “multi-modal” approach to their real estate needs, especially when testing or penetrating new markets. One example is San Francisco-based The Melt – a grilled cheese phenomenon with a strategy of “wheels and walls.” You can actually “book the bus” from the website, which brings a whole new dimension to catering (often the life-blood of a successful restaurant). Just ask Whole Foods. The market chain has successfully integrated food trucks into its business model, which allows it to take advantage of serving events such as “South by Southwest.”
3. The food truck model has changed to be more compatible with dining districts.
It used to be that food trucks scoured city streets looking for a place to do business for a few hours at a time. While that still occurs on a limited basis, food truck operations have shifted to an event model organized by professional planners such as Fremont-based Food Truck Mafia, and Off the Grid. For example, Food Truck Mafia works in collaboration with Chamber organizations and shares profits to support business districts. There is also a growing list of best practices from cities like New York, Portland, and Milwaukee that have successfully integrated food trucks. RHI is a Santa Cruz-based organization that collects these best practices and helps cities walk the fine line between encouraging vibrancy and limiting unfair competition.
4. Food trucks drive unique traffic to a district.
Food trucks can fill customer dead zones by driving traffic to particular places at particular times. How do they accomplish this feat? Two words: social media. Food trucks have distinguished themselves by effectively employing social media to mobilize their fan base. They tweet out locations, specials, customer selfies, and generally create excitement around their “community.” It is safe to argue that customers would not have otherwise visited a particular district without the invitation. Districts can benefit through spill-over traffic, and more importantly, by planting seeds with new customers who will come back later and explore.
Food trucks are here to stay. And it’s not just food that we’re talking about. I’ve seen trucks for vintage clothing, haircuts, and bike repair. As creative entrepreneurs find new avenues to grow commerce, cities need to respond in kind.
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