Tag Archives: social networking

Twists, Turns and Trends for the Modern Food Truck

The original incarnation of a mobile meal was usually a late night last resort or a pit stop for lunch on a busy day, not necessarily somewhere you’d think of waiting in hour-long lines.  They were home to common street fare such as your average hot dog or maybe a generic sandwich.  No longer is any of this the case.   Food carts are now the trendiest hot spot, a place with loyal followers who expect nothing less than gourmet cuisine…at a reasonable price, of course.

FoodTruckToday you can truly get just about any type of delicacy just by walking down the street (and probably waiting anywhere from 10-40 minutes).  An article on Eater.com, says that the Rib Whip truck in San Francisco boasts it’s on-board smoker, to serve up pulled-pork and beef brisket.  To add even more variety to the bunch, Coolhaus, itself peddling gourmet ice cream sandwiches, has developed a food truck…for dogs.  The Phydough Truck, launched on January 8th in Los Angeles, serves up cookies, ice cream and bake-at-home dough in such flavors as Duck Fat, PB & Bacon and Foie Gras, all of which can be eaten by man’s best friend and their human.

Why the sudden shift to mobile food (other than the fabulous fare)?  Like everything else, the economy has had its effect on the restaurant world.  In a Los Angeles Times article, former Hermosa Beach mayor and current owner of Barbie’s Q, John Bowler, said that it cost only about $40,000 to open his truck about $160,000 less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant.   That’s not to mention that while most restaurants stress about location, location, location, if your place is on wheels, you can pick and go where the customers are.

Unique advertising and good timing can also be thanked for the boost in trucks in a downturn economy.  Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites have played a huge part in the transportation food industry.  Owners and workers can simply put up a status with today’s specials or tweet their lunch location, head there with their goods and (TA-DA!) throngs of customers.  Well, there is a bit more to it, but that is the basis of many of these roaming restaurant’s marketing plans.  John Ban, of West Coast Tacos in Indianapolis, said, “Social Networking has been a great advantage for our business because we have not spent any money on marketing.”  He went on to touch on just why this new tech tool is so invaluable.  “We have a more personal relationship with our customers through social media.  It allows us to interact with our fans around the city very easily,” said Ban.  However, like any business, especially a new one, timing is always the easiest in with an audience.  Ban’s West Coast Tacos, saw the food truck boom in other cities, like L.A., and felt the time was right to jump on the chance to be the first to start up the trend in Indy.

If low costs and cheap marketing are making you want to jump in your van and serve up some grub of your own, you may want to first know that there are some significant downsides the non-traditional restaurant scene as well.

The major bump in the road for so many vendors has been getting permits for serving in a vehicle.  Many cities have strict rules about what can and cannot be done inside a vehicle, which can put a damper on serving items that aren’t pre-packaged in a kitchen before the day begins.   In recent weeks, several articles have come up on crack downs on food trucks in Chicago.  One such article, on food.change.org, said that “Chicago officials claim that these anti-food truck ordinances (no altering food and parking up to 200 feet from a restaurant) exist in order to protect consumers’ health and safety.”  However, in Chicago and many other cities, a majority of the squabble has been that restaurant owners worry about having food trucks competition, park right outside their business and taking away customers.

Another obstacle the vehicles face is also due to that wonderful upside mentioned earlier: location.  While it’s beneficial to be able to cruise around to customers, being relatively unsheltered from the elements can pose a few problems.  Going out in the frigid, frosty mess for lunch can be a little less than inviting which cuts down on customers.  In an article in The Washington Post when asked how the cold has affected business, “Operators of four trucks say their sales have dropped by 40 to 50 percent from peak numbers.”  That isn’t even taking into account money lost on food, gas, etc. that must be spent on a daily basis to keep the business going and those inside the trucks warm enough to operate.

So far these obstacles haven’t stopped food truck operators from working on fresh and creative ways to keep on going.  In Oregon, many mobile businesses are attempting to get licensing to sell alcohol, according to OregonLive.com.   The article states that selling brews would give owners of food trucks the chance to “make a living in the increasingly crowded Portland food-cart industry while also attracting customers to neighboring mobile restaurants.”   And while not a possibility at the moment, there may even come a day when a restaurant may not only sport wheels, but also wings.  Recently an article on Curbed Los Angeles even reported that an architecture class at USC, taught by Jennifer Siegal, challenged students to create the future of the business.  Submissions included everything from wings that caught rain water for future use to a donut delivery system that will drive over a car and drop in pastries and coffee.

Until wings can be made small enough to prevent trucks from hitting passersby, before a new super social media site is created and pending any delicious new delicacies, the success of food trucks today and in the future can be summed up with this advice, courtesy of John Ban:  “Make sure your product is of very high quality, because the number one reason why our business grew was because our Tacos were made from the best ingredients and meats. This created numerous return customers for us and they spread the word about our Taco Truck. Word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing. People always listen to recommendations from another person, but people don’t always pay attention to commercials or advertisements.”

2000 blog views + a crash course in online networking

We hit 2000 page views today, so I thought it would be a good time to thank all you readers for your support, and to talk a little bit about social networking and the restaurant industry.

As an “evangelist” of social networking, one of the ways I try to encourage those around me to participate is by telling them, “as long as people are talking about you online, you might as well join the conversation.”

Granted, there are a lot of fantastic ways to waste time on the Internet, and for restaurant owners and other foodservice operators, every minute counts. Along with the desire to join the online revolution, I think there is also a fear of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of networks, applications, widgets, blogs and tweets. (Say what?!)

Here are a few guidelines that I have used in order to stay focused and not drown in the online soup while still taking part in social networking:

First of all, social networking can improve your business, but it needs to be lightweight and easy to digest, and it needs to be sincere. For instance, if we post blogs that are just thinly disguised advertisements, visitors will see through us and they won’t take us seriously. We really just want to give people the tools they need to participate and share information. Its not about a trend or a look, it’s about functionality.

Second, there are many restaurant and foodservice industry websites that are utilizing blogs and social networking, or even just posting menus online, but they are getting a lot of play out there in cyberspace because a) their content is fresh and updated often, and so it is recognized and picked up by the search engines b) it is relevant to its readers and c) because it is easy to use and easy to share.

Here are some of the broad benefits of social networking:

  • Reputation monitoring. When was the last time you Googled the name of your establishment? You might be surprised what you find.
  • “Joining the conversation.” Networks provide unbiased feedback on what we’re doing well and where we could improve – they can also be a channel for business owners to communicate with customers as well as have a voice and personality online.
  • Being an industry resource for expert solutions.
  • Your competitors are doing it. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I looked for a restaurant in a phone book. If I can only find one sushi restaurant online that’s in my zip code, that’s the one I’m going to.
  • Word of mouth. Social networking can facilitate two-way dialog in a way that replicates word of mouth on a grander scale.
  • A web-based dialog for customers to interact with the brand while providing a large-scale, low-cost online focus group.
  • Leveraging technology to generate user feedback.
  • Driving traffic. The more activity and links that point back to your website, the easier it will be for customers (and potential champions of your brand) to find you.
  • Creating brand awareness.
  • Influencing purchasing decisions.

Last, here are some broad guidelines to help stay focused:

  • Only participate where it is truly relevant to your product or service. You don’t have to join every network out there, but find out where your competitors and neighboring restaurants are participating, and get involved.
  • Be open, honest and transparent. You want visitors to see your face, not a silhouette. Every establishment has a unique flavor and personality. Help people recognize that when the see you online.
  • Accept the good with the bad. Don’t panic if you see a negative comment about your establishment online. Use it as an opportunity to respond. If someone complains that they waited 45 minutes for their food to arrive, come up with a new strategy to cut down on wait times and tell your visitors about the solution. But – also know that there is a different between malicious comments and constructive criticism, and you’re under no obligation to “suffer fools.”
  • Be consistent. You don’t have to spend all of your time online to make a difference, but you do have to provide your visitors with a regular resource. If you post one blog and then disappear for months at a time, you readers will not find you reliable. However, if on the first of every month, you post just one blog, update your specials, or add some new photos, visitors will realize that you are committed, and you’ll stay at the top of their minds – as well as their search results.

Economy to drive foodservice trends of 2009

In 2009, the (lousy) economy will be the driving force behind trends we saw emerging in 2008, including energy conservation and sustainability, health and nutrition, and new technologies like online ordering, mobile applications and social networking.

Tough times inspire change

According to a poll conducted by the National Restaurant Association, the issue that had the greatest effect on companies in 2008 was –surprise!- the economy, followed closely by rising food costs, food safety, and nutrition and calorie legislation. So, although these are not new concepts, I think they’ll be back with a vengeance in 2009.

Not just about saving the planet anymore

Foodservice operators are scrambling to improve efficiency and productivity in light of the economic downturn (can we finally just call it a recession?), so I think sustainability and energy conservation will continue to be at the forefront of foodservice trends in 2009; now, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because our livelihood may depend on it.

According to the Associated Press, restaurants, colleges and other institutions are coming up with new, innovative ways to cut waste. We’re beginning to realize that these practices are good for more than just saving the planet—they’ve also helped improve the reputation and bottom line of many dining establishments.

I think it’s kind of a shame that it took some –but not all!- of us an economic crisis to become interested in “green” business and conservation. But, regardless of the reason, it can only help keep the industry afloat during these tough times.

Healthy eating trend sparks conversation and controversy

In the same way that we’re learning about the importance of conserving energy, we’re realizing that promoting health and nutrition will be crucial to staying prosperous in the foodservice business.

The controversy surrounding menu labeling, and the efforts of restaurants to introduce more healthful menu items, are just two examples of America’s new interest in healthy eating. And a 2008 investigation that found some restaurants had published inaccurate nutrition information, shows just how seriously consumers and federal regulators are taking it.

Niche Web communities maturing

It also shows just how much the Internet, and the developing trend of social networking has affected the industry. Whereas once, an obscure report in a trade journal would be overlooked by just about everyone, most consumers now have the tools to research and share just about any piece of information that’s out there.

And whereas, in 2008, we dabbled in social media, and restaurants began publishing menus online and a few even created the capability for online ordering, in 2009, this is a trend that the lagging economy will force everyone to embrace.

Not only will businesses have a web address, but they will become more conscious of their online presence; they will be more saavy when it comes to search engine optimization and PPC marketing. They will use the Internet to promote special events, catering, promotions and merchandise. They will offer applications for customers to download to their mobile phones. They won’t do it because it’s trendy; they’ll do it because they have to.

According to Food-Management.com, “Web community is important to more than just the ‘geeks’ among us. It also matters in personal and professional group life, and the food service industry — where networking is such a critical activity — is no exception.”

In closing, I think there are tough times ahead, but I think we as an industry are innovative –and perhaps, desperate!- enough to continue to develop new ways to prosper.

The economy is forcing us to save money by eliminating waste and conserving energy; the obesity epidemic is helping us realize that we can serve healthy food and that our customers will appreciate it; and the Internet is allowing us to do it together, using our growing network of online customers, colleagues and friends.

I think 2009 is going to be a great year for foodservice.

The question of social networking for restaurants

Recent trends reflect the foodservice industry’s hesitancy to jump onto the social media bandwagon. It could be a tremendous source of revenue for your business, or it could be a public relations nightmare, if not properly managed and monitored. According to Fast Casual Magazine, most restaurants are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Many restaurants have implemented some form of social network, whether it be an online profile or a blog, but have found it difficult to engage their audience.

Some of the advantages of social networking include taking a one-on-one approach with customers, being able to answer questions and respond to comments, and to squash criticism before it becomes viral.

However, it is important to have a clearly communicated policy regarding comments about your establishment. Tell your visitors that you will respond to legitimate complaints and criticism via your profile or blog, but that you will not allow comments that are offensive, irrelevant or just plain rude. You can respond to these users in a private message, and let them know you’d like to help resolve their issue, but it’s important to control any chatter about you that occurs on your site—after all, that’s the whole idea behind social networking: it’s a means of communicating with others about a common theme.

Take a look at this blog’s comment policy here.

Social networking can also be a way for members of the foodservice industry to communicate with one another.

The most popular social network for the restaurant industry is FOHBOH, which boasts nearly 10,000 members from 100 countries. It is the self-proclaimed “water cooler” of the foodservice industry. It can also be a great way to share ideas, get feedback, make friends and new business connections and to learn and do business.

What kind of ways are you using the internet? Does your establishment belong to a social network? Do you have a blog? As always, your feedback is much appreciated.