16 Lessons I Learned After My First Year Owning a Food Truck (Part 3)

Welcome back to part three, the last of our three-part post detailing the lessons learned so far operating ‘Wich, Please, a mobile concession unit located in Rockland, Maine. If you missed parts one and two, please feel free to get caught up before we get going. Today’s topics are meaty, so strap in. Here we go!

12. Social media prowess is the key to marketing your food truck

I can never understand it, when I see anyone in the food business (or almost any business, for that matter) ignoring their social media presence. For restaurants, and particularly for food trucks, a strong, coordinated attack across as many social media channels as you can manage, can make all the difference in the world.

Why? Active participation in social media gets your message to your customers where they live. In other words, people are comfortable and at ease, when they’re checking out their Facebook or their Instagram feeds. Chances are, they’ve opted in to following your page or profile, and are interested in what you want to say. Sharing photos of your food, or your latest location (for mobile units), answering questions, or nearly any other real-time interaction lets your customers know that you’re paying attention to their needs, while providing shareable content and encouraging them to share their relationship with you, the next “cool” brand, with their friends. It takes just a few minutes, several times per day, and is a worthwhile way to connect with your customers in a meaningful way.

Watching people Instagram *MY* food for a change never stopped being a treat.
Watching people Instagram *MY* food for a change never stopped being a treat.

I’ll take it a step further: If you’re considering any room in your budget for radio, print, or television advertisements, and you’re in the mobile food business, skip those old models, and divert those resources into a few paid social media campaigns, instead. You’ll get better results, and detailed reporting that actually allows you to measure those results.

So what’s the magic formula? Establish Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles. Maybe a Pinterest account, if you’ve got time. Post to Facebook 2x per day, Twitter 4x per day, and Instagram 1-2x per day. Post to Pinterest as much as you have time for. Make sure that only around 20% of your content is self-promotional, with the bulk of your posts made up of sharing exciting, audience-specific content from other sources. Actually, if you can keep your posts to around 50% self-promotional, you’re doing better than most.

Follow others. Engage in conversations. Why? Imagine if a stranger ran into the room right now and screamed, “OUR SPECIAL TODAY IS ALL-BEEF CHORIZO CHILI DOGS AND $2 PBR TALL BOYS,” then wheeled around and ran back out before you had a chance to respond. That’s how “run and gun” self-promotional social media posts feel to your visitors. Talk to them, instead. Respond. Answer questions. Thank them for following you.

There you go. Go start your own social media marketing consultancy. I’ll be over here, making sandwiches.

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13. If your motivations are sound, there is no more rewarding and satisfying business to be in.

As our regular readers know, I’ve spent most of my career cooped up in a cubicle, developing early-onset carpal tunnel and nerve damage by slouching in my seat and clicking on a mouse all day. And I’ve been luckier than most; I’ve happened to work for some pretty cool companies, on projects that have gotten good response from the public. I have never, however, achieved the level of job satisfaction that I enjoy each day, working on my food truck.

Do you like it when your barely-qualified middle manager boss gives you a pat on the back for a job well done? Run your food truck well, and you’ll enjoy real-time positive feedback, all day, every day. Times x1000. Do a good job, and you can count on a line of people outside your window every day, each person happy to be there, a smile on their face as they look forward to what you pass through your service window.

Making good food for a receptive bunch of customers is one of the most rewarding things in the world. Good food makes people happy. Hearing someone tell you that your garlic aioli is one of their favorite things to eat in town is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

There’s also a lot to be said for the physical aspects of the job. At the end of the day, you’re tired. Tired, hot, sweaty, and probably in possession of a much different overall odor, than you started the day with. But you can also look at your stack of tickets, and say, “Well, godamn. No wonder I’m tired. I made 130 sandwiches (or tacos, or burgers, or whatever) in two hours.” It’s a tangible, real thing, that for me, feels much better than any minor accomplishments I may have had pushing pixels around on a glowing computer screen.

By nature, I’m a bit of an introvert. Not attending functions and ignoring invitations from friends are some of my favorite things to do. However, I’ve found that I LOVE talking to my customers, finding out what they like and dislike, sharing tips about other places to eat, learning about where they’re from, a place from back home that they love, etc. This job has, in a lot of ways, kind of reminded me how much I really like and trust most people. Sounds hyperbolic, I know. But it’s the truth.

One of our first "Tacos in the Park" special events. This time, we served sour orange pork carnitas with pickled red onions.
One of our first “Tacos in the Park” special events. This time, we served sour orange pork carnitas with pickled red onions.

14. BUT…there are a few bad apples out there, and you have to be prepared for that.

Serving food to customers who are into what you’re trying to accomplish with your food truck is tons of fun, sure. There are, however, a few bad apples in the bunch, customers whose behavior is so bizarre and downright hateful, that you almost don’t know how to react or what to do with yourself. A few examples:

Sometimes, when gathering the garbage, I would find nearly whole sandwiches tossed away. If serving people who like your food is one of the best feelings in the world, this can be one of the worst. I was overcome with panic. What had gone wrong? Why did this customer hate a sandwich that so many other people seemed to like? Why didn’t they say something to me about it, so I could have made them something else?* It’s a terrible feeling, and incidents like these are tough (for me, at least,) to shake off.

*Not being given the chance to fix something that is wrong with your food is one of the worst feelings in the world. People, please: If you are out at a restaurant or food truck and you order something you hate, tell someone about it, so they can try to make it right.

Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing. I’ll never forget the drunk girl from Lewiston, who waited in line for the truck for a few minutes to order a taco. We were serving Mexican street-style tacos, with beautifully braised pork, an achiote and citrus marinade, with some quick-pickled red onions, habanero, and crumbled queso fresco. When I explained the options, she proclaimed to everyone else in line, “Oh, I’m all set, that ain’t no f*ckin’ taco,” before turning and storming off.

Or what about the guy that seemed normal, even chatting with my helper and I as we were cooking his sandwich, who calmly took the finished product from the window, removed the top slice of bread, and in a single motion, swept every vegetable off of his sandwich, and onto the ground in front of the truck?

Or how about when people reach into your service window to leave a crumpled wad of dollar bills on the counter, without waiting to hear the total and without handing you money like a human being, forcing you to stop and scrounge around like a grateful serf being tossed a few pity schillings in the middle of an otherwise busy service?* Or when, even worse, someone arches the entire top part of their torso into your small space to have a look around and offer unsolicited opinions on your operation?

*Seriously, don’t do this. We’re not your servants. We just want to make you a sandwich.

If you’re lucky, these people will be few and far between. But it’s good to remember that, despite your very best efforts, sometimes people are just going to be bizarre. It can be hard to have a thick skin, especially when the very act of cooking food you believe in can be so intensely personal. The same qualities that make you passionate about the product you’re serving, can make taking criticism difficult. I’m still learning not to hyper-focus on the few negative comments I may receive on a given day, and instead try to enjoy the mostly positive feedback.

15. Five pounds of chicken skins are a f*ck of a lot of chicken skins

Sometimes, there are missteps. That’s part of learning, right? On our truck, I always try to identify the part of each dish that makes it awesome and craveable, and then just amp up that one element to ridiculous levels. If the good part of a cheeseburger is the crust on the burger and the melty cheese, then do three thin patties that are each crispy and craggy on the outside, and lay nutritionally-void American cheese on each one. If people like buffalo wings because they’re spicy, make them with ghost chiles. And if we can all agree that the best part of fried chicken is the crispy skin, why not make a chicken sandwich with, I don’t know, three or four times more skin than it should have?

That was the plan, when we first added a fried chicken sandwich to our menu. I drove out to Mainely Poultry, our local poultry farmer, to make arrangements for the processor to set aside the chicken skins that they removed for the boneless/skinless breasts they shipped to the supermarket. Not knowing how much an individual chicken skin weighed (as I’m sure you can imagine, the answer is “next to nothing”), I requested five pounds.

The delivery was appalling. Gruesome, even. Two plastic supermarket-sized bags of white, wiggly chicken skins awaited me, a jaw-dropping, nauseating wad of crumpled, tangled flesh that I couldn’t begin to figure out how to deal with. We fried a few off for a snack, and scrapped the rest (as well as immediately set to work reconceptualizing our chicken sandwich).

Sitting in an empty restaurant, after a day spent prepping for one of our popular "India Nights," but before the chaos of service began. I tried to take time to reflect on how absolutely lucky I have been to get to do this.
Sitting in an empty restaurant, after a day spent prepping for one of our popular “India Nights,” but before the chaos of service began.

16. Making the leap to brick-and-mortar may not be for everybody

For me, the ‘Wich, Please truck at first felt a lot like a proof-of-concept. The path to brick-and-mortar seemed simple: Figure out if people like my food. Find out if I can scale up production to cook it for lots and lots of people. Use mad profits to open traditional restaurant, retaining concession trailer for catering jobs. Profit!

At the end of the 2015 season, I was very lucky to be approached by a local restaurant, who was using their beautiful, well-appointed restaurant space only for dinner service, leaving the restaurant empty at midday. We quickly made a deal, wherein we would pay a base rent and a percentage of profits, in order to operate our food truck out of a more traditional venue.

For us, it was a no-brainer: A chance to cook in a real kitchen after a cramped summer on the truck, have a fixed location, and a place to stay warm for the winter, without taking the risk of opening our own place.

As with the truck itself, however, there are unforeseen complications to operating out of a brick-and-mortar space, that may make the transition not make sense for everyone. For example, your overhead increases dramatically and quickly. Unlike the truck or trailer, which you probably own outright, there is suddenly rent and additional utilities to contend with. A larger space probably means you’ll need to hire a staff, or as they are more commonly known in the restaurant business, “a collection of unhinged personalities intent on destroying each other’s very souls, over such life-and-death issues as tip pooling and side-work and ‘that one time I took your brunch shift even though you NEVER take one of my shifts even when I really need the night off for one of my perpetual family emergencies, you whore.'”

The savings you may enjoy by moving away from cardboard trays and disposable cups, can be quickly eaten up by hiring a dishwasher, who will break at least one thing that you own, every day, because he’s addicted to opiates. The dishwasher, by the way, will silently loathe everyone else in the kitchen, as will the servers, who will also hate each other. And you. And no, they won’t be able to work on Tuesday.*

*These weren’t my experiences, mind you. Let me be very clear. I’m speaking in broad, sweeping generalizations for the sake of ha-ha-has.

The nice thing about a small concession trailer is that it’s all yours. It’s 100% under your control. Chances are, you can reach from one end of it to the other to get something you need, without taking more than a step or two. It is utterly, completely under your own control. You alone are responsible for the success or failure of the business, and you have none of the complications of managing an increased staff, the burden of additional, expensive equipment that is constantly breaking down, or relationships with partners to manage. A food truck, with all of its unique complications and challenges, is still much, much simpler to manage on your own, than a full-fledged restaurant.

After the restaurant I was partnered with saw a major, abrupt change in management and ultimately failed, taking our fledgling lunch service along with it, I began to rethink my goals for the business. Maybe brick-and-mortar isn’t the be-all, end-all goal of starting a food truck. Maybe it makes more sense to keep the business small, with low overhead, where you can take the time to make the food you really want to make, at a smaller scale, while you learn to really refine the business model to extract maximum profit out of every day. Maybe the goal of owning a food truck should be to learn to be really, really good at owning a food truck. And maybe that’s enough.

For me, as I enter our second year, and no doubt start to collect my 2017 list of “16 NEW Lessons I Learned,” that’s where I’m devoting my focus. I’m going to keep cooking the food that makes my customers happy, keep enjoying their smiles as I pass food out the window, the adrenaline rush of a busy service (and the crushing depression that follows a slow night), and keep refining those details of the business that may not come so naturally, in an effort to keep doing this job that I really love, for as long as possible.

BONUS! Lesson #17: Find a mentor. Exchange ideas and experience. Trust someone.

I can’t believe I almost forgot to talk about this one, because it’s huge. This lesson can be summed up thusly: “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.” Chances are, you know someone (or can meet someone) who already has tons of experience in the food industry, whether that’s a restaurant owner that you’re friendly with, someone that has a successful food truck, or even someone that’s an expert in home canning and preservation. Don’t be afraid (or too proud) to use those resources. When you have a problem or a question, there is almost ALWAYS someone that can point you in the right direction. For example, I have a friend who owns a lobster roll truck, and her advice and information has proven invaluable (and saved me from making costly mistakes) many, many times. When I have a question about local food trends, or ways to increase efficiency in the kitchen, I talk to another friend of mine, who owns a restaurant in the area. In each case, I’ve found that people who know what they are doing, and are confident in their business, are happy to share what they know with you. It’s up to you to ask, and to listen.

 


 

Whew! Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed “16 Lessons I Learned After My First Year Owning a Food Truck.” If you missed part one or part two of this post, be sure to get caught up on the first few “lessons” you may have missed. And if you ever find yourself in Rockland, Maine, stop by ‘Wich, Please and say hello!

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as the taco-centric blog “Eat More Tacos,” and the junk food-centric “Spork & Barrel.” His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, “‘Wich, Please,” was named “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

8 Comments

  1. I always assume that those folks who behave as badly as those few bizarro customers you had at ‘Wich are basically RBW. But if Raised By Wolves, perhaps unfair to conscientious wolf parents?

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  2. True, true, true! Especially seeing your food in the trash can. I once saw an uneaten ice cream cone in the trash. It was the worst feeling. I wanted to ask why and make it better but never got the chance. Can’t wait for next years truisms by Malcolm!

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  3. I heartily enjoyed reading this series–it was a frank and illuminating look into this world, and I hope you do continue this as a yearly series because I’m sure you’ll learn a whole lot more in your second year of operation.

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  4. This series was a good read. I am just finishing up my fifth year with my food trailer, and while I nodded my head in agreement many times, I was practically shouting Yes! Yes! about the food festivals. People are always telling me “oh you’d do so well at (insert favorite event). Not so- I’ve done enough to see the pattern. I have a menu of upscale? ( what does anyone call them anyway) sandwiches, and it is simply too
    much effort for festival goers to look at the menu and decide between items. I think in their minds, they’ve already made the choice between trucks; they don’t want to make another choice- they are in holiday mode. It seems to work better when customers can say – here’s the hot dog truck, here’s the BBQ, here’s the pizza, here’s the Korean. On occasion, I’ve done a one or two item menu and it has worked out better, but I’m happier staying with my daily and weekly customers and my varied menu. I hope you don’t mind me venting a bit- I sensed a fellow feeling in your writing.

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  5. This was an interesting series! I don’t have a food truck but I do vend at events and sometimes –for me– the larger events are just too big and I don’t do as well as I do at a smaller event that’s a better fit for my customer base.
    One thing regarding food trucks–and I’m glad you didn’t have to discover this– (several years ago) my brother-in-law used to work the cold end of the shoulder seasons (late into the fall and early spring). Trying to stay warm he closed off too much of his ventilation in the caravan — you can guess the rest, he ended up with mild carbon monoxide poisoning.

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